Fossil Remains of The Lost Child Leti

A reconstruction of the skull of Leti, the first Homo naledi child whose remains were found in the Rising Star cave in Johannesburg. Credit: Wits University
A reconstruction of the skull of Leti, the first Homo naledi child whose remains were found in the Rising Star cave in Johannesburg. Credit: Wits University
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While today, we are the only species left out of all of our ancient relatives, we lived with many of them at various times in history, such as Homo naledi  – various fossil fragments of which have been found in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system near Johannesburg, South Africa, since 2013. We know this because Homo naledi lived between 350 to 250,000 years ago, which coincides with the timeline of modern humans. The discoveries comprise almost 2,000 specimens, representing at least over 24 different individuals, who share similarities with modern Homo sapiens as well as our ancestral Australopithecus. Homo naledi lived between 335,000–236,000 years ago and almost certainly walked upright.

(Watch video on our ancient African history going back thousands of years)

Homo naledi remains one of the most enigmatic ancient human relatives ever discovered,” according to Professor Lee Berger, project leader and Director of the Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at Witswatersrand University and an Explorer at Large for the National Geographic Society. “It is clearly a primitive species, existing at a time when previously we thought only modern humans were in Africa. Its very presence at that time and in this place complexifies our understanding of who did what first concerning the invention of complex stone tool cultures and even ritual practices.”

Now, in a dark narrow passageway barely 15 cm wide, scientists have discovered the fragments of a H. naledi child, which seems to indicate evidence of intential burial practices. The discovery, made in 2017, was announced in two papers, and describes parts of the skull and teeth of the child that died almost 250,000 years ago, when it was approximately four to six years old. It is not yet clear whether it was male or female. The skull fragments were found on a limestone shelf 2.6 feet (80 cmm) above the cave floor and no other remains of the child were found. The team, led by Wits University, have named the child “Leti” after the Setswana word “letimela” meaning “the lost one”. “Leti’s skull consists of 28 skull fragments and six teeth and when reconstructed shows the frontal orbits, and top of the skull with some dentition,” said the team in a statement.

Comparing the fossil fragments to those of the Taung skull of Australopithecus africanus, the team estimates that Leti’s brain capacity would have been around 450 to 610 cubic centimetres. “Based on her developmental age, this would mean Leti’s brain would be about 90 to 95% of its adult size when she died. Her adult brain size would therefore have been similar to other members of her species had she reached adulthood”, says the statement.

“This is the first partial skull of a child of Homo naledi yet recovered and this begins to give us insight into all stages of life of this remarkable species,” says Professor Juliet Brophy, who led one of the studies.

The location where Leti was found is part of a web of cramped passages, and excavation is very difficult, since the only way to enter the system is through a 39-foot (12 meters) vertical fissure known as “The Chute”. Ever since it has been discovered the Rising Star cave system has yielded many hominin fossils. “I do not believe there is another site quite like Rising Star,” says Professor Steve Churchill, a palaeoanthropologist and co-author on both papers. “This is now the third locality we have described from this system with naledi remains, and we know through exploration that there are other localities.”

There is neither evidence of carnivore damage to the skull fragments, nor of it being washed into the narrow passage, so it is not clear how Leti’s skull got to that part of the system. The authors suggest that intentional burial by other members of the species could be a reason that the skull was able to reach such a difficult location.

“The discovery of a single skull of a child, in such a remote location within the cave system adds mystery as to how these many remains came to be in these remote, dark spaces of the Rising Star Cave system,” says Berger. “It is just another riddle among many that surround this fascinating extinct human relative.”

Watch video with other images of Leti.


Details of the skull were published in the journal PaleoAnthropology.


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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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