What sets humans apart from other species was that people had certain customs unique to them. Scientists, however, have discovered that an ancient species also exhibited a tradition that previously thought of to be unique to humans: burying their dead.

According to scientists, the species Homo naledi, named after the "Rising Star" cave close to the famous sites Sterkfontein and Swartkrans they were found in (Naledi translates to "star" in the Sesotho language in South Africa), buried its dead, a tradition previously thought to be exclusively human.

Piecing together over 1,500 fragments, the scientists were able to come up with the largest single collection of human and human-related fossils made up of infants to the elderly totaling 15 individuals. There were no other remains from other species discovered in the site and there were no tooth or claw marks on the bones so it was ruled out that the area was ruled over by a predator.

"It does appear after eliminating all other possibilities that Homo naledi was deliberately disposing of its body in a repeated fashion," said Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

He added the this finding indicates that the species saw themselves as not only separate from other animals but from the natural world as well. Berger also said that the Homo naledi were not hiding their dead underground just to keep them away from scavengers such as the long-legged hyena. Had this been the case, the remains would have included all other things that would be attractive to predators and scavengers.

At the same time, the remains appeared to have been deliberately taken to the cave, as there were no sediments or rocks overlaying them. Not only does this hint at burial but it also obscures evidence that could help scientists estimate the age of the Homo naledi, which was first discovered in 2013. Based on appearance or physical morphology, however, scientists estimate that the species comes from a time more than 2.5 million years ago.

This isn't the first time, however, that a study of human relatives showed that people don't have monopoly over certain behaviors. In 1960, for instance, Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees and reported seeing them use grass stems to "fish" for termites. This was the first record of a crude tool being used by non-humans.

Photo: Ryan Somma | Flickr

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