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Fossils of new human relative found at Maropeng

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Social media played a significant role in the discovery announced this week of a new species of human relative at Maropeng near Johannesburg.

The discovery of a new species of human relative has been announced by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), the National Geographic Society, the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF).

Besides shedding light on the origins and diversity of our genus, the new species, Homo naledi, appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans.

Consisting of more than 1 550 numbered fossil elements, the discovery is the single largest fossil hominin find yet made on the continent of Africa.

Social media played a significant role in finding key participants in the project, and continued to play a role in creating awareness of the expedition.

About H. naledi

The initial discovery was made in 2013 in a cave known as Rising Star in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, 50 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, by Wits University scientists and volunteer cavers.

The fossils, which have yet to be dated, lay in a chamber about 90 meters from the cave entrance, accessible only through a chute so narrow that a special team of very slender individuals was needed to retrieve them.

So far, the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals of the same species, a small fraction of the fossils believed to remain in the chamber.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” said Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who led the two expeditions that discovered and recovered the fossils.

“The South African Strategy for the Paleosciences provides an explicit roadmap that includes government’s vision to protect, preserve and generate knowledge in this critical scientific area.  Central to the strategy is the mandate of the National Research Foundation (NRF) of SA, namely, the development of excellent human capital, and contributing to the knowledge economy through new knowledge generation. Therefore, it was natural for the NRF to be involved in this project and we are excited about its findings and we congratulate the team,” said Dr Gansen Pillay, Deputy CEO of the NRF.

A blend of primitive and human

H. naledi was named after the Rising Star cave — “naledi” means “star” in Sesotho, a South African language.

“Overall, Homo naledi looks like one of the most primitive members of our genus, but it also has some surprisingly human-like features, enough to warrant placing it in the genus Homo,” said John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, a senior author on the paper describing the new species. “H. naledi had a tiny brain, about the size of an average orange (about 500 cubic centimeters), perched atop a very slender body.”

The research shows that on average H. naledi stood approximately 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) tall and weighed about 45 kilograms (almost 100 pounds).

H. naledi’s teeth are described as similar to those of the earliest-known members of our genus, such as Homo habilis, as are most features of the skull. The shoulders, however, are more similar to those of apes.

“The hands suggest tool-using capabilities,” said Dr Tracy Kivell of the University of Kent, UK, who was part of the team that studied this aspect of H. naledi’s anatomy. “Surprisingly, H. naledi has extremely curved fingers, more curved than almost any other species of early hominin, which clearly demonstrates climbing capabilities.”

This contrasts with the feet of H. naledi, which are “virtually indistinguishable from those of modern humans,” said Dr William Harcourt-Smith of Lehman College, City University of New York, and the American Museum of Natural History, who led the study of H. naledi’s feet. Its feet, combined with its long legs, suggest that the species was well-suited for long-distance walking.

“The combination of anatomical features in H. naledi distinguishes it from any previously known species,” added Berger.

Appearance of ritualised behaviour

Perhaps most remarkably, the context of the find has led the researchers to conclude that this primitive-looking hominin may have practiced a form of behaviour previously thought to be unique to humans. The fossils — which consist of infants, children, adults and elderly individuals — were found in a room deep underground that the team named the Dinaledi Chamber, or “Chamber of Stars”.

That room has “always been isolated from other chambers and never been open directly to the surface,” said Dr Paul Dirks of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, lead author of the eLife paper on the context of the find. “What’s important for people to understand is that the remains were found practically alone in this remote chamber in the absence of any other major fossil animals.”

So remote was the space that out of more than 1,550 fossil elements recovered, only about a dozen are not hominin, and these few pieces are isolated mouse and bird remains, meaning that the chamber attracted few accidental visitors. “Such a situation is unprecedented in the fossil hominin record,” Hawks said.

The team notes that the bones bear no marks of scavengers or carnivores or any other signs that non-hominin agents or natural processes, such as moving water, carried these individuals into the chamber.

“We explored every alternative scenario, including mass death, an unknown carnivore, water transport from another location, or accidental death in a death trap, among others,” said Berger. “In examining every other option, we were left with intentional body disposal by Homo naledi as the most plausible scenario.”

This suggests the possibility of a form of ritualised behaviour previously thought to be unique to humans. (In this context, “ritualised” refers to repeated behaviour.)

‘Underground astronauts’

The fossil material was recovered in two expeditions conducted in November 2013 and March 2014, dubbed the Rising Star Expeditions. In the initial expedition, over a period of 21 days, more than 60 cavers and scientists worked together in what Marina Elliott, one of the excavating scientists, described as “some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions ever encountered in the search for human origins”.

Elliott was one of six women selected as “underground astronauts” from a global pool of candidates after Berger issued a call on social media for experienced scientist/cavers who could fit through the 18-centimeter(7-inch)-wide cave opening. Social media continued to play a role in the project, as the team shared expedition progress with a large public audience, schoolchildren and scientists.

“This was a first in the history of the field,” said Hawks, who worked with Berger to design the media outreach.

The fossils were analysed in a unique workshop in May 2014 funded by the South African DST/NRF, Wits University and National Geographic. More than 50 experienced scientists and early-career researchers came together to study and analyze the treasure trove of fossils and to compose scientific papers.

Much remains to be discovered in the Rising Star cave. “This chamber has not given up all of its secrets,” Berger said. “There are potentially hundreds if not thousands of remains of H. naledi still down there.”

The finds are described in two papers published in the scientific journal eLife and reported in the cover story of the October issue of National Geographic magazine and a NOVA/National Geographic Special.

Reference:

The papers “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa” and “Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa” can be freely accessed online at http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09560 and http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.09561. These articles are distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.

Funding:

The research was supported by Wits University, the National Geographic Society and South African DST/NRF. Ongoing exploration and conservation of the Rising Star site is supported by the Lyda Hill Foundation.

* Image courtesy of National Geographic.

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AppDate: Shedding light in our times of darkness

SEAN BACHER’S app roundup highlights two load-shedding apps, along with South AfriCAM, NBA 2K Mobile, Virgin Mobile’s Spot 3.0 and SwiftKey.

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Load Shedding Notifier

With all the uncertainty about when South Africans will next be plunged into darkness by Eskom, the Load Shedding Notifier tries its best to keep up with Eskom’s schedule. The app is very simple to use. Download it, type an area in and click the save button. The app automatically tells you what load shedding stage Eskom is on, the times you can expect to start lighting candles and for how long to burn them.

Multiple areas can be added and one can switch between the different stages to see how each one will affect a certain area.

A grid status is also displayed, showing how strained the country’s electrical network is.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

EskomSePush Load Shedding App

EskomSePush does much the same as the Load Shedding Notifier, but allows multiple cities to be tracked. However, they may just want to rethink the name of the app if they want wider respectability.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

South AfriCAM

South AfriCAM enables users to add branded stickers and frames from popular lifestyle magazine titles to their posts, including Huisgenoot, YOU, Drum, Move!, TRUE LOVE, Women’s Health and Men’s Health. 

In the process, they can earn JETPoints for their social influence: through the app’s built-in JET8 social currency, users are rewarded for their engagement. For every in-app like, comment, and share, users earn JETPoints, which can be used to redeem products online or over the counter across more than 2 500 retail stores in South Africa. Users are additionally awarded JETPoints for cross-posting onto external social media networks.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

Click here to read about console quality graphics on a mobile phone, Virgin Money payments made easier, and an app that redesigns the keyboard.

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Drones to drive
Western Cape agritech

Aerobotics is set to change how farmers treat their crops by using drones and machine learning, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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The Western Cape is poised to be a hotbed of innovation in the agritech sector, with drone piloting set to playing a major role in in the tech start-up scene.

This is the view of Tim Willis, chief operating officer of pioneering drone company Aerobotics, a Cape Town drone company recognised as a world leader in agritech.

“Drone piloting is a key skill that feeds into the value chain of the budding 4th Industrial Revolution,” said Willis. “Cape Town and the Western Cape is uniquely positioned to be the melting pot for innovation in the agritech sector, as a leading agricultural exporter and a hub for creative tech start-ups.”

He was speaking at AeroCon, a drone expo organised by Aerobotics and held in Johannesburg this week aimed at providing opportunities for drone pilots to apply their skills in South Africa, and to show how drones are being used to collect data on crops. 

The event was supported by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), Wesgro, PROMMAC, MicaSense, and Rectron, among other

“We’re starting to sign up farmers across the country,” said Willis. “It’s exciting because farmers are starting to use drone technology on their farms. When a farmer wants a drone flown, they want it flown [now] so it’s important for us to capture that data as quickly as possible to show that drones are fast and effective.”

According to aerobotics, drone technology can help farmers reduce pesticide use on their crops by up to 30%. The result is environmentally friendly farming, reducing stressed crops and a healthier harvest. 

“We use aerial imagery from drones to recreate a 3D model of every single tree on a farmer’s orchard,” said Willis. “We’ve done this for millions of trees and it starts to give the farmers metrics of what they’re doing. We provide them with the health of the trees, the height, the volume, the canopy area, which enable the farms to make decisions on what to do next.”

Click here to read more about AeroCon and what it offers to those wanting to get into the drone industry.

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