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Child’s skull fossil found in the Cradle of Humankind

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A reconstruction of the skull of Leti (Homo naledi) in the hand of Professor Lee Berger.Credit: University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

An international team of researchers has revealed the first partial skull of a Homo naledi child, found in the depths of the Rising Star cave system, located in the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in South Africa’s Gauteng province.

Almost 2000 individual fragments of more than two dozen individuals at all life stages of Homo naledi have been recovered since the Rising Star cave system was discovered in 2013, outside Johannesburg.

The team, led by Lee Berger, from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), South Africa, described the child’s skull and its context in two separate papers published in PaleoAnthropology.

The first paper, led by Juliet Brophy, of Wits, and Louisiana State University, reports that the child was an estimated four to six years old when he or she died about 250,000 years ago. The skull was found about 80 metres from the cave entrance in a cramped space.

Experts had to crawl through a tight passage to reach the skull, sitting on a ledge. The researchers have named the child “Leti” (pronounced Let-e) after the Setswana word ‘letimela’ meaning ‘the lost one’. Leti’s skull consists of 28 skull fragments and six teeth and when reconstructed shows the frontal orbits, and top of the skull with some dentition. “This is the first partial skull of a Homo naledi child recovered and begins to give us insight into all stages of life of this remarkable species,” says Brophy. No other bones of the child have been found.

The second paper, led by Marina Elliott, of Wits, describes the context of the area and circumstances in which the skull was discovered. The team examined the circumstances that led to Leti’s skull being in such a remote and inaccessible part of the system, similarly to the other fossils found since 2013 in the cave system. The team theorizes that Homo naledi practiced some form of ritual by taking their dead deep into the caves. A behaviour previously thought to be unique to humans.

“The discovery of a single skull of a child, in such a remote location within the cave system adds mystery as to how these many remains came to be in these remote, dark spaces of the Rising Star Cave system,” says Berger.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d44148-021-00109-x

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