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Newly Identified Human Ancestor Homo Naledi Was Handy With Tools

by Reuters /

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Homo naledi, the ancient human ancestor whose fossils have been retrieved from a South African cave, may have been handy with tools and walked much like a person, according to scientists who examined its well-preserved foot and hand bones. Its foot and hand anatomy shared many characteristics with our species but possessed some primitive traits useful for tree climbing, the researchers said on Tuesday.

Scientists last month announced the discovery of this previously unknown species in the human linage in a cave northwest of Johannesburg. The new research offers fresh insight into a creature that is providing valuable clues about human evolution. Paleoanthropologist Tracy Kivell of Britain's University of Kent said it boasted a hand "specialized for fine, powerful manipulation."

Image: Fossils of hand and foot of ancient human ancestor Homo naledi
Fossils of the hand and foot of the ancient human ancestor called Homo naledi, discovered in a cave in South Africa, are shown in this handout photo provided by Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 6, 2015.Reuters

Its wrist bones and thumb showed features shared with modern people and Neanderthals and indicated powerful grasping and the ability to employ stone tools. Its strongly curved fingers, rather than the straight ones of people and Neanderthals, suggested it also regularly used its hands for climbing. Its foot was largely like ours, particularly in the ankle joint anatomy, the presence of a non-grasping big toe and the proportions of the region from the ankle to toes.

Dartmouth College anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva said it was well-adapted for long distance walking and perhaps running. "The legs are long, the knees are like ours, the feet are human-like. Homo naledi walked a lot like us," DeSilva said.

Related: Critics Question Homo Naledi Fossil Find in South Africa

It possessed some primitive foot features: a flatter arch, curved toes and a heel less robust than ours.

Related: Scientists Reveal Homo Naledi, Our 'Unprecedented' Newest Cousin

Similarly, its tool-friendly hand anatomy in combination with its small brain "causes us to perhaps rethink the cognitive requirements for tool use," Kivell said. The scientists who discovered it call Homo naledi one of the most primitive members of the genus Homo, which includes modern humans. The fossils' age has not been determined. The research appears in the journal Nature Communications.

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