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Scientists discover new human-like species in South Africa cave

Video report by John Ray, Africa Correspondent for ITV News

Remains discovered in a deep cave in South Africa belong to a new species of ancient human ancestor, some scientists claim.

Over 1500 fossils from about 15 individuals found in the cave are Homo Naledi, a new branch of hominids that could be very closely related to modern humans.

Credit: NOVA/National Geographic

The findings, reported in two papers published in the online journal eLife, describe the creature.

The remains show several human-like characteristics. Credit: National Geographic

Measurements of the bones show that the creature has a curious blend of ancient ape and modern human-like features. Its brain is tiny, the size of a gorilla’s. Its teeth are small and simple and has a primitive and ape-like thorax.

But its hands are more modern, their shape well-suited to making basic tools.

The feet and ankles are built for walking upright, but its fingers are curved, a feature seen in apes that spend much of their time in the trees.

It is thought the bones could be at least 20,000 years old but as their precise age is not yet known, they could be millions of years old.

Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum says that If the remains are three million years old, this would put them at the very start of the homo genus and make them a direct ancestor of homo sapiens - modern human.

The name Naledi means “star” in Sesotho, a local South African language.

Explorers discovered the bones in the Rising Star cave network near Johannesburg - where researchers had squeeze through a passage eight inches (20cm) wide.

How the bodies got to be in such a remote location remains a mystery. Credit: National Geographic

Scientists are baffled as to exactly how the bodies ended up in such a remote part of the caves, but they could have been deposited by relatives as part of an ancient burial rite.

Some are skeptical of the find, however.

A partially reconstructed skull. Credit: National Geographic

Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the discovery, told The Associated Press that without an age, "there's no way we can judge the evolutionary significance of this find."