The discovery of a new human-like species raises questions about our originsby Prospect Team / September 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
This week, scientists announced the discovery of a human-like species, whose remains were found deep in a cave in South Africa. Named naledi, the researchers believe the species could date back three million years and be the first of the genus to which we belong—Homo—and thus might teach us something important about humanity’s evolution and ancestry.
Such discoveries always generate huge attention, in part because they lead us to ask fundamental questions about what it is that defines us. With that in mind, we asked our panel to tell us what they think a human is.
A unique species
Matthew Skinner—senior lecturer in biological anthropology at Kent University
From a palaeoanthropological perspective, a human is an individual who displays the biological and behavioural characteristics that define our species, Homo sapiens. Biologically, this means having a large and sophisticated brain, small teeth and jaws (since we cook much of our food or process it outside of our mouths), long legs that make us efficient at walking, and dexterous hands that allow us to manipulate objects in our environment. Behaviourally, this means we have complex culture, symbolic and abstract thought, and the ability to conceive and produce complex tools to assist us in our daily lives. We are a unique species on the planet today, but like all animals we have an evolutionary history. The goal of palaeoanthropology is to reconstruct that history, through the study of fossils and archaeological remains, and determine when, where and why the biological and behavioural characteristics that define us as humans emerged.
Caspar Henderson—author of “The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary”
Definitions abound: a political animal (Aristotle); a laughing animal (Thomas Willis); a tool-making animal (Benjamin Franklin); a religious animal (Edmund Burke); a cooking animal (James Boswell); monkeys with guns and money (Tom Waits). I’ll go for an animal with remarkable feet. Combined with adaptations to the legs, hips and back, they give us remarkable stability, agility and endurance on the ground, which in turn allowed for the evolution of ways to manipulate, carry and throw in ways no other animal can. Like other species in…