Homo naledi’s Remarkable Hand

(Illustration by Andrew Howley)

After the excitement of Homo naledi’s discovery and extraction from deep in a narrow cave in South Africa, and the implication that these non-humans may have intentionally carried their dead deep into the earth, we are left with the bones themselves, what they tell us about these creatures, and what new questions they inspire.

These sketches and notes come from interviews and conversations during both the 2013 Rising Star Expedition and the 2014 workshop where established experts and early-career scientists came together to analyze the 1,550 fossil pieces.

The Hand

Now maybe everyone just had rock-climbing on the brain since that’s what it took to recover the bones of naledi from the cave.

But that said, during its excavation, as the various finger bones were extracted and laid out, it was clear that Homo naledi could have given Alex Honnold a run (or a climb) for his money.

The first clue to the strength of these hands was the size and shape of the thumb. The bones themselves are longer in proportion to the other fingers than ours are, and the contours of the bones show they had very large muscles attached.

Other apes have long palms and fingers, with smaller thumbs kept out of the way down by the wrist. Their hands are enormously powerful, with an average female chimp having the grip strength of an NFL linebacker, and they can obviously climb with ease and dexterity.

Human thumbs on the other hand (so to speak) are more like equal players with the other fingers. They are similar in size and range of motion, which is great for manipulating objects with precision, but the reduced size of the fingers and palms makes them weaker, and the prominent thumb is prone to painful snags if we try to swing through the trees.

Naledi seems to have the —> Read More