The ancient human relative Homo Naledi was discovered in 2013 by archeologists working in a South African cave, where exceptionally preserved fossilized bones of 15 men and women were unearthed. Analyses of these bones have now provided insights on how the species lived.
Researchers took a closer look at the foot and hand bones of the Homo Naledi and found that its foot is like that of the modern human. The characteristics of the creature's ankle joint, big toe and heel bone suggest that the species efficiently walked upright on two legs. The lower arch and curved toe bones, however, are more ape-like, which indicate that it could easily climb trees.
The wrist and thumb were also found to be similar to those of humans and Neanderthals suggesting that the species would have had the capability to make and use tools. The creature also had longer finger bones compared with other hominins and this is ideal for grasping limbs when climbing and being suspended from trees.
The findings that the creature can walk upright, climb trees and had the capability to wield tool is crucial in that it could shed light on human evolution.
Researchers suspect that the Homo Habilis, an extinct species of human, may have retained climbing abilities about two million years ago albeit the idea is based on few fragmentary fossils.
The bone of the hand of the newly discovered Homo Naledi, however, suggest that despite the creature's modern foot and striding gait, it was able to retain the ability to climb trees like ape.
Anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva, from Dartmouth College, said that Homo Naledi strengthened what scientists have long known about upright walking on two legs preceding brain enlargement.
"Our science has known for decades that upright walking, bipedalism, preceded brain enlargement over the course of human evolution. But never before has it been so obvious. Homo Naledi possessed a strikingly modern human-like foot, even though its brain was only about one-third the size of our brains today," DeSilva said.
Scientists likewise said that the tool-friendly anatomy of the creature along with its small brain prompts them to rethink the cognitive requirements needed for using tools.
The bones still need to be dated so it isn't yet clear where the species would fit in the human evolution. It nonetheless appears to be around 2 or 2.5 million years, which means that the feature for tool use emerged earlier than scientists believed.