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.)
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.
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.
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.
Smart home arrives in SA
The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.
The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.
The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.
The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.
The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.
My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.
Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.
Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?
These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.
Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.
Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.
Matrics must prepare for AI
By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.
Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.
With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.
Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.
Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist.
So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?
For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.
In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.
This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.
In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.
As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.
This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.
The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.