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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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How we use phones to avoid human contact

A recent study by Kaspersky Lab has found that 75% of people pick up their connected device to avoid conversing with another human being.

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Connected devices are becoming essential to keeping people in contact with each other, but for many they are also a much-needed comfort blanket in a variety of social situations when they do not want to interact with others. A recent survey from Kaspersky Lab has confirmed this trend in behaviour after three-quarters of people (75%) admitted they use a device to pretend to be busy when they don’t want to talk to someone else, showing the importance of keeping connected devices protected under all circumstances. 

Imagine you’ve arrived at a bar and you’re waiting for your date. The bar is busy, and people are chatting all around you. What do you do now? Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know? Grab your phone from your pocket or handbag until your date arrives to keep yourself busy? Why talk to humans or even make eye-contact with someone else when you can stare at your connected device instead?

The truth is, our use of devices is making it much easier to avoid small talk or even be polite to those around us, and new Kaspersky Lab research has found that 72% of people use one when they do not know what to do in a social situation. They are also the ‘go-to’ distraction for people even when they aren’t trying to look busy or avoid someone’s eye. 46% of people admit to using a device just to kill time every day and 44% use it as a daily distraction.

In addition to just being a distraction, devices are also a lifeline to those who would rather not talk directly to another person in day-to-day situations, to complete essential tasks. In fact, nearly a third (31%) of people would prefer to carry out tasks such as ordering a taxi or finding directions to where they need to go via a website and an app, because they find it an easier experience than speaking with another person.

Whether they are helping us avoid direct contact or filling a void in our daily lives, our constant reliance on devices has become a cause for panic when they become unusable. A third (34%) of people worry that they will not be able to entertain themselves if they cannot access a connected device. 12% are even concerned that they won’t be able to pretend to be busy if their device is out of action.

Dmitry Aleshin, VP for Product Marketing, Kaspersky Lab said, “The reliance on connected devices is impacting us in more ways than we could have ever expected. There is no doubt that being connected gives us the freedom to make modern life easier, but devices are also vital to help people get through different and difficult social situations. No matter what your ‘connection crutch’ is, it is essential to make sure your device is online and available when you need it most.”

To ensure your device lifeline is always there and in top health – no matter what the reason or situation – Kaspersky Security Cloud keeps your connection safe and secure:

·         I want to use my device while waiting for a friend – is it secure to access the bar’s Wi-Fi?

With Kaspersky Security Cloud, devices are protected against network threats, even if the user needs to use insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is done through transferring data via an encrypted channel to ensure personal data safety, so users’ devices are protected on any connection.

·         Oh no! I’m bored but my phone’s battery is getting low – what am I going to do?

Users can track their battery level thanks to a countdown of how many minutes are left until their device shuts down in the Kaspersky Security Cloud interface. There is also a wide-range of portable power supplies available to keep device batteries charged while on-the-go.

·         I’ve lost my phone! How will I keep myself entertained now?

Should the unthinkable happen and you lose or have your phone stolen, Kaspersky Security Cloud can track and protect your device from data breaches, for complete peace of mind. Remote lock and locate features ensure your device remains secure until you are reunited.

 

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Five key biometric facts

Due to their uniqueness, fingerprints are being used more and more to quickly identify and ensure the security of customers. CLAUDE LANGLEY, Regional Sales Manager, for Africa at HID Global Biometrics, outlines five facts about the technology.

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How many times in a day are you expected to identify yourself? From when you arrive at work you are required to sign in, visiting your bank, receiving healthcare services… The list is endless. When a system knows who you are, you are able to do any number common, everyday activities. Your identity is unique and precious. It is also easily stolen and the target of many hackers across the globe. Technology is constantly evolving alongside the criminal element, always looking for ways to protect data and identity. One such solution happens to be biometrics and it is rapidly gaining traction in our increasingly complex modern world.

Reliable, secure and fundamentally YOU, unique biometric traits such as fingerprints are being used by banks, enterprises and consumers to verify identity. Biometric solutions offer significant identity protection because they use unique biological details to ensure an account is only accessed by the account holder, a door only opened by the owner. Here are five things that are little known about this technology…

  • The uncut identity. Your fingerprint is unique to you. Nobody can use a copy of it to impersonate you. Good technology is capable of scanning down into the layers of the fingertip to differentiate unique elements of a person’s fingerprint, this data is then encrypted and used as a key to unlocking whichever physical or virtual door that the biometric system protects.
  • The living proof. No, there is nothing to the stories of fingerprints being used without their owner’s knowledge or permission. Biometric solutions can use specific variables to determine if the finger used to access the system is that of a present, living person.  A copy or a fake cannot be used to access a cutting-edge biometric solution.
  • Easy and convenient. Queues and documents and paperwork may well be a thing of the past should biometrics take a firmer grip of government and banking systems. The process of registering is easy, and access to identity documents and records is yours alone.
  • Security blanket. A thousand passwords and a hundred post-it notes stuck on walls and drawers.  An excel file with a list of sites and applications and their corresponding passwords, all a thing of the past.  Nobody needs to remember their password with biometrics, they only need to show up.
  • Anywhere is cool. Schools, airports, networks, offices, homes, toilets, banks, libraries, governments, border controls, immigration services, call centres, hospitals and even clubs and pubs – knowing “who” matters and biometrics can quickly and conveniently confirm your identity where needed.

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