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The Skeleton of Homo Naledi: The Combination of Primitive and Progressive Traits

The Skeleton of Homo Naledi: The Combination of Primitive and Progressive Traits

Introduction

In the recent past, Li Berger described a new species of hominids – Homo naledi (Berger et al., 2015). Bones of H. naledi were firstly found in 2013 in the Dinaledi Chamber of Raising Star cave system, South Africa. In general, 1550 fragments of human bones, which belonged to 15 individuals, were excavated. According to Dirks et al. (2017), H. naledi lived in a period between 236 and 335 thousand years ago. The bones created a few skeletons. In general, the skeleton of H. naledi is the unique combination of primitive and progressive traits. Primitive traits of the H. naledi skeleton (skull size and fingers shape) are similar to those of australopithecines and the early human species, while progressive traits (cranial and facial shape, hand, and feet) look more like those of modern humans and Neanderthals (Stringer, 2015). Thus, it is important to investigate the skeleton of hand, foot, and skull of this species in order to understand the lifestyle and evolution of H. naledi.

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The Hand of Homo Naledi

The hand is a part of the human skeleton, which has evolved rapidly due to the use of tools. The skeleton of the hand may provide valuable information regarding the labor activity of a species. Its structure can also help determine whether a hominid species used climbing for locomotion, which was typical of early hominids, or not (Almécija, Smaers, & Jungers, 2015). The structure of the hand of species of Homo genus is characterized by traits adopted for the manipulation of tools, while peculiarities needed for climbing have already disappeared (Stephens et al., 2016).

The description of H. naledi hand was provided by Kivell et al. (2015). This hand of H. naledi has a unique combination of progressive and primitive traits. The pollical metacarpals are robust and have crests of muscles, which makes the thumb oppose other fingers. It is essential for manipulations. Second, the shape and articulations structure of the wrist of H. naledi is similar to those in Neanderthals and H. sapiens. At the same time, the non-pollical metacarpals of H. naledi are robust. They have crests for muscle, which opposes the little finger (opponens digiti minimi). This morphology is similar to the one of Australopithecus. However, the mildly saddle-shaped Mc5-hamate articulation, which allows rotating the fifth digit toward the thumb, is similar to the human joint. All these traits can be considered progressive. However, H. naledi had relatively long and curved fingers. Phalanges curvature is an adaptive trait for the locomotion of arboreal apes. This trait is primitive. In general, the H. naledi hand was adapted to holding and manipulating things. Therefore, it is obvious that the morphology of the species is similar to the ones of both humans and Neanderthals. The majority of hand traits are progressive, except for the phalanges morphology.

The Foot of H. Naledi

The foot of modern humans is adapted to bipedalism. The evolution of foot is well-known due to the number of specimens of different Australopithecus and Homo species. The description of H. naledi foot was provided by Harcourt-Smith et al. (2015). Studying the morphology of foot allowed understanding the way of locomotion of these hominids. The morphology of H. naledi foot is similar to the one of late hominids and Neanderthals. In particular, the talar trochlea of H. naledi is relatively proximodistally flat. This issue is similar to Australopithecus afarensis and later homo species. The wedging of the trochlea is also human-like. It means that the ankle mobility was limited, and the configuration of the foot was similar to the human one. The configuration of talonavicular joint indicates that its rotation was also limited. All these traits are progressive. They were the adaptations for bipedalism. However, the foot of H. naledi has some primitive features. In particular, the flared lateral and medial malleolar facets, rather small talar declination angle (10-18°), the low sustentaculum tali orientation, and gracile calcaneal tuber are distant from the human variation and close to early homo and apes traits. Moreover, the foot fingers of H. naledi were relatively curved with reduced medial longitudinal arch; it was similar to early hominids’ feet. In general, the morphology of H. naledi foot is adapted to the bipedalism. However, primitive ape-like traits of the foot in combination with primitive traits of the hand allow suggesting than H. naledi could also use climbing for locomotion (Harcourt-Smith et al., 2015).

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The Skull of Homo Naledi

The cranial skeleton had significantly evolved during the evolution of hominids. It represents the features of hominids’ brain (Schroeder et al., 2017). The description of the H. naledi skull was provided by Laird et al. (2017). First, it is important to consider the cranial capacity of the skull, which is connected with the brain size. The capacity of the H. naledi skull was from 465 cm3 to 560 cm3. Males had a larger capacity, which explains the differences in volumes. These values are small and close to Australopithecus and Paranthropus. At the same time, the cranial shape and morphology are similar to those of homo species. The features of the mandible are also similar to the one of Homo species. It has a parabolic shape, vertical mental symphysis, weak mentum osseum, moderately wide mandibular fossa and extramolar sulcus, and a well-developed lateral prominence (Schroeder et al., 2017). The teeth of H. naledi had some primitive features related to early Homo species, in particular, the increase in the tooth raw size toward the back. In the same time, teeth are small and get in the variation range of modern humans (Stringer, 2015). Thus, the size of the brain is a primitive trait, while cranial and facial morphology and mandible are rather progressive. Based on these characteristics, the new species was characterized to the Homo genus.

Homo Naledi Style of Life and Evolution

Studying the remains of H. naledi allowed suggesting that all individuals belonged to the same population. Thus, the discovered features characterize the whole population. Furthermore, it is possible to make a suggestion regarding H. naledi ways of living based on these features. The general configuration of their hand was adapted to manipulation. It is possible to suggest that H. naledi were able to use tools. However, no tools were found in association with their fossils. Therefore, no statements can be made regarding the ability of these hominids to produce and use the labor equipment (Berger et al., 2015). The morphology of H. naledi foot suggested that these hominids were bipedal. At the same time, the configuration of hand fingers is typical of arboreal apes. Thus, it is possible to suppose that H. naledi used both types of locomotors: climbing and walking (Harcourt-Smith et al., 2015). The configuration of the cranial skeleton is characteristic of Homo species. However, the brain size of these hominids was relatively small. This combination of progressive shape and primitive size of the skull allows suggesting that the evolution of human-like traits was typical for different hominids regardless the evolutionary period (Laird et al., 2017). In general, H. naledi skeleton is a unique combination of progressive and primitive features. It is rather difficult to make suppositions regarding their behavior, lifestyle, and abilities, as well as their evolution.

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Due to the fact that H. naledi has been found only in one location, it is difficult to suppose how widely they were spread. Stringer (2015) supposed that it is crucial to re-examine other remains from South Africa, which had previously been categorized to H. erectus small variants. It was estimated that the age of fossils is between 236 and 335 thousand years. Previously, it was suggested that hominids with primitive traits similar to H. naledi did not survive in Pleistocene Africa. This exception underlined the need for the careful dating of remains with the view to understanding the hominids evolution (Dirks et al., 2017).

Regarding the evolution of H. naledi, several assumptions were made. First, it was supposed that these hominids had polyphyletic origin by crossing between more primitive and progressive species of Homo species (Berger, Hawks, Dirks, Elliott, & Roberts, 2017). Second, the mosaic features of species can be explained by the secondary degradation of hominids. Such species could appear in other branches of hominids. Another example of such a combination of primitive and progressive traits is Homo fluorescens (Stringer, 2015). Finally, Berger et al. (2017) supposed that H. naledi could possibly be H. sapiens ancestors. To solve this problem, it is important to conduct further investigations.

Conclusion

Homo naledi is a recently discovered species of hominids. A significant number of specimens were discovered and described. The skeleton of H. naledi is the unique combination of primitive and progressive traits. The hand of the species is adapted to manipulating tools. At the same time, the long fingers could be used for climbing. The H. naledi foot is typical of bipedal Homo. However, some of its features are closer to Australopithecus and early Homo. Finally, the size of the brain is similar to the australopithecine values, while mandible and cranial and facial shape are typical of Homo genus. It is possible to suppose that mosaic combination of primitive and progressive traits in H. naledi means that evolution of Homo-like features is typical of hominids. Many questions about the evolution of these hominids remain in abeyance; thus, further investigations are needed.

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