Biggest exhibit of human-like fossils goes on display in South Africa

THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND, South Africa (Reuters) - An exhibit of the largest collection of fossils of close human relatives ever to go on public display opened on Thursday in South Africa, not far from the caves where they were unearthed.

Launched on “Africa Day” in an area named “The Cradle of Humankind,” the exhibit coincides with the publication of a controversial paper that questions the widely-held view that humanity’s evolutionary roots lay in Africa.

The displays contain more than 1,000 original fragments of Homo naledi, named in 2015 after a cache of its fossils was discovered in caves near the Sterkfontein and Swartkrans dig sites about 40 km (25 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

Initially believed to be about 2.5 million years old, subsequent dating showed Homo naledi was roaming the African bush between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, around the time that modern humans were emerging.

“Today going on display is a significant portion of all the Homo naledi fossils. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the public,” Lee Berger, a professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand who has lead excavations of the fossils, told Reuters.

Called “Almost Human,” the exhibit is housed in the Maropeng Center, about 15 km from the dig sites that yielded the fossils. Visitors will only be allowed to spend 10 minutes with the fossils, which are encased in glass.

The scientific consensus for decades has held that humanity’s ape-like ancestors evolved in Africa, a view first raised by the 19th century English naturalist Charles Darwin.

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That view was challenged this week with the publication of a paper detailing fossils from Greece and Bulgaria of an ape-like creature that lived 7.2 million years ago.

The authors said the creature, known as Graecopithecus freybergi and known only from a lower jawbone and an isolated tooth, may the oldest-known member of the human lineage that began after an evolutionary split from the line that led to chimpanzees, our closest living cousins.

They found dental root development that possessed telltale human characteristics not seen in chimps and their ancestors, placing Graecopithecus within the human lineage, known as hominins. Until now, the oldest-known hominin was Sahelanthropus, which lived 6 million-7 million years ago in Chad.

The findings in no way call into question that our species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago and later migrated to other parts of the world, the researchers said.

But Berger said their assertions about our more distant evolutionary past could not be made based on such a scant body of evidence.

“That is not enough evidence to make such an extraordinary claim. The headlines overstated the facts,” Berger said.

“I think on Africa Day, it’s still safe to say that humanity owes its origins to this continent,” he said.

Editing by Angus MacSwan