Tulane professor contributes to discovery of new human relative

Emery Henschel, Contributing Reporter

Tulane anthropology professor Trenton Holliday made major contributions to the discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative that was found in the Rising Star cave of South Africa.

Holliday has been working on the project lead by Lee Berger, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa since the spring of 2014.He had previously worked with Berger on the Australopithecus sediba project, another ancient human ancestor also found in South Africa.

“To have somebody that students here can have access to that is part of such a monumental undertaking is… fantastic,” said Freshman Nic Bonin

When Berger contacted Holliday in the spring of 2014 for this new project, Holliday thought that it was just going to be more research about the sediba.  

“I just figured it was more sediba,” Holliday said. “But it was something radically different that anything we had ever seen and ultimately it became this new species of the genus Homo: Homo naledi.” 

Holliday lead the body size proportion team and was also a member in the lower limb team. 

“We have 1,500 pieces of bone of at least 15 individuals,” Holliday said. “It is imperative really if you want to get it published in a timely fashion that we split the body up into different parts and each of us take a section of the anatomy and work on it.” 

The fossils were found in the dark zone of Rising Star cave. This area of the cave is completely dark and practically inaccessible, leaving researchers wondering how the Homo naledi ended up down there.

Holliday describes the shape of these caves as similar to chimneys, able to trap animals that fall into them. If it was normal for large animals common in size with the Homo naledi to fall into the chimneys, there should have been more large animals there Holliday said.

The new species have a mix of ancestral and more evolved traits, according to Holliday. They have features similar to older species like the Australopithecus sediba and traits common to modern humans.

Homo nadeli’s brain was half the size of a current human’s brain, but they were still practicing what the researchers believe to be burial rituals. 

Holliday did most of his work in what he said Berger calls ‘The Vault,’ — a long rectangular room, with a bank vault door that held all of the fossils. Berger had the idea to hold a workshop and invite young scientists to work on the fossils in teams. Holliday said that the workshop worked really well and that everybody got along, making it a great experience. 

“I like to joke that I was middle management because I was not one of the big people and I was not the young scientists, but I was leader of a team and worked on another team,” Holliday said. 

Holliday’s colleague, professor John Verano, said that though he did not know exactly what Holliday was working on while he was away in South Africa, he understands the importance of the work now. 

“I do not think [the Homo naledi findings will] be bested by anyone else in the near future,” Verano said.

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