The news would shake the fundamentals of human evolution: world-renowned paleontologist Lee Berger announced on Monday the discovery in South Africa of the oldest prehistoric tombs, pushing back the earliest traces by at least 100,000 years mortuary practices.
In a fetal position and curled up in alcoves buried at the end of a network of narrow galleries, some thirty meters underground, distant cousins of man in the state of fossils have been found in burials during excavations. started in 2018.
The explorers found that the tombs had been filled in with the earth dug at the start to form the holes, proof according to them that the bodies of these pre-humans were voluntarily buried.
“These are the oldest recorded hominid burials, predating Homo sapiens burials by at least 100,000 years,” they claim in a series of pre-print papers, yet to be published. peer-reviewed before publication in the scientific journal eLife.
The excavations took place at the paleontological site of the “Cradle of Humankind”, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and located northwest of Johannesburg.
The oldest tombs discovered so far, notably in the Near East and Kenya, date from around 100,000 years before our era and contain the remains of Homo sapiens.
South African burials date from -200,000 to -300,000 years ago. They contain the bones of Homo naledi (star in the local language), a small hominid about 1.50 m high and with a brain the size of an orange.
The species, whose discovery in 2013 by the American paleoanthropologist Lee Berger had already called into question the linear readings of the evolution of Humanity, still remains a mystery for scientists.
Combining features of creatures millions of years old, such as primitive dentition and climbing legs, Homo naledi also has feet similar to ours and hands capable of wielding tools.
“These findings show that mortuary practices were not limited to Homo sapiens or other large-brained hominids,” the scientists say.
This theory, which goes against the commonly accepted idea that death consciousness and related practices make the human, was already hinted at by Lee Berger when he introduced Homo naledi to the world in 2015.
The hypothesis had then created an outcry and many specialists had questioned the scientific rigor of the American media, supported by National Geographic.
“It was too much for the scientists at the time,” commented Lee Berger, during an interview with AFP. They remain “convinced that it’s all related to our big brain and that it happened very recently, less than 100,000 years ago,” he explains.
“We are about to tell the world that it is not true,” triumphs the 57-year-old explorer, who goes even further.
Geometric symbols, carefully traced using a pointed or cutting tool, have been found on the walls of the tombs. Squares, triangles and crosses were, according to him, intentionally left on smoothed surfaces, probably to make them more readable.
“This would mean that not only are humans not the only ones to have developed symbolic practices, but that they may not even have invented such behaviors,” suggests Lee Berger.
Carol Ward, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri, believes that “these results, if confirmed, would have considerable potential significance.”
“I look forward to learning how the disposition of the remains rules out possible explanations other than intentional burial, and to seeing the results once they have been peer reviewed,” she told the AFP.
Further analyzes still need to be carried out. But already, Berger’s team announces that we will have to “rethink a whole series of hypotheses on hominids and human evolution”.
For a long time, researchers have associated the ability to master fire, engraving or even painting, with the cerebral power of modern man, as is typical of Cro-Magnon man.
“Burial, meaning-making and even art could have a far more complicated and non-human origin than we thought,” predicts Agustín Fuentes, an anthropologist at Princeton University and co-author of the findings.