The news would shake the fundamentals on the evolution of man: the world-renowned paleontologist Lee Berger announced Monday, June 5 the discovery in South Africa of the oldest tombs of prehistory, pushing back by at least 100,000 years the first traces of mortuary practices.
In a fetal position and curled up in alcoves buried at the end of a network of narrow galleries, some thirty meters underground, distant cousins of man in the state of fossils have been found in burials during excavations. started in 2018. The explorers found that the tombs had been filled in with the earth dug at the start to form the holes, proof according to them that the bodies of these prehumans were voluntarily buried.
“These are the oldest recorded hominid burials, predating Homo sapiens burials by at least 100,000 years”they claim in a series of preprint articles, which have yet to be peer-reviewed before publication in the scientific journal eLife.
The excavations took place on the paleontological site of ” Cradle of Mankind “, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and located northwest of Johannesburg. The oldest tombs discovered so far, notably in the Near East and Kenya, date from around 100,000 years before our era and contain the remains of Homo sapiens.
A mystery for scientists
South African burials date from – 200,000 to – 300,000 years. They contain bones ofHomo naledi (star in local language), small hominid about 1.50 m high and with a brain the size of an orange. The species, whose discovery in 2013 by the American paleoanthropologist Lee Berger had already called into question linear readings of the evolution of humanity, still remains a mystery for scientists.
Featuring both features of creatures millions of years old, such as primitive dentition and climber legs, Homo naledi also has feet similar to ours and hands capable of handling tools. “These findings show that mortuary practices were not limited to Homo sapiens or other large-brained hominids”say the scientists.
This theory, which goes against the commonly accepted idea that the consciousness of death and related practices make the human, had already been mentioned by Lee Berger when he presented Homo naledi in the world in 2015. The hypothesis had then created an uproar and many specialists had questioned the scientific rigor of the American media, supported by National Geographic.
“It was too much for the scientists at the time”, comments Lee Berger, during an interview with AFP. They stay “convinced that it is all related to our big brain and that it happened very recently, less than 100,000 years ago”he explains. “We’re about to tell the world it’s not true”triumphs the 57-year-old explorer, who goes even further.
“Considerable potential importance”
Geometric symbols, carefully traced using a pointed or cutting tool, have been found on the walls of the tombs. Squares, triangles and crosses were, according to him, intentionally left on smoothed surfaces, probably to make them more readable. “This would mean that not only are humans not the only ones who have developed symbolic practices, but that they may not even have invented such behaviors”says Lee Berger.
Carol Ward, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri, believes that “These results, if confirmed, would have considerable potential significance”. ‘I look forward to learning how the disposition of the remains rules out possible explanations other than intentional burial and to seeing the results once they have been peer reviewed’she told AFP.
Further analyzes still need to be carried out. But already, the team of Lee Berger announces that it will be necessary “rethinking a whole series of hypotheses about hominids and human evolution”. For a long time, researchers have associated the ability to master fire, engraving or painting with the cerebral power of modern man, as is typical of Cro-Magnon man. “Burial, meaning-making and even art may have a far more complicated and non-human origin than we thought”predicts Agustín Fuentes, anthropologist at Princeton University and co-author of the findings.