Inside the cave where a nonhuman species carved mysterious symbols

Discoveries within the Cradle of Humankind’s limestone caves in South Africa are changing the way scientists understand human evolution.

The cavern system, about a half hour’s drive northwest of Johannesburg, is where the first fossils of previously unknown human relatives were uncovered.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site contains many hominid fossils and tools. But two textbook-altering finds would not have occurred without a dose of happenstance.

Nine-year-old Matthew Berger accidentally found Australopithecus sediba — considered a “missing link” in human history — in 2008 when he stopped to study a rock he tripped over while chasing his dog near the collapsed Malapa cave.

And Homo naledi was added to the family tree in 2013 after cave explorers tipped off researchers that there might be something promising within the dangerous depths of the Rising Star cave system.

Now, the ancient cave has revealed a few more secrets that could rewrite our understanding of what it means to be human.

We are family

A reconstruction of Homo naledi's head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours creating it from bone scans. - Mark Thiessen/National Geographic

A team of explorers has uncovered evidence that Homo naledi buried their dead and carved symbols on cave walls at least 100,000 years before modern humans.

The intentional burials of H. naledi adults and children were found within the sprawling depths of the Rising Star cave system.

On the walls above the burials, the team also spotted symbols deeply engraved in the hard rock, showcasing crosses, hashtag-like symbols and other geometric shapes.

It’s the first time such meaningful behaviors have been observed in a nonhuman species. H. naledi had a brain about one-third the size of a human’s, causing scientists to question whether Homo sapiens are truly exceptional for having such big brains.

Separately, researchers in Spain used drones to see hard-to-reach prehistoric cave paintings for the first time.

Fantastic creatures

Nine felines with names inspired by former US first ladies are helping scientists test a new type of cat contraception. The long-lasting injections could be used to curb the overpopulation of feral cats.

Scientists tested the injections on some of the cats, which live in a colony at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, after isolating a hormone that prevented ovulation. The six female cats that received the injections didn’t become pregnant, even after being around male cats.

But it may be years before the procedure becomes available, so don’t ask your vet just yet.

Across the universe

Astronomers using the Webb telescope discovered complex organic molecules in a galaxy located over 12 billion light-years away. - J. Spilker/S. Doyle/NASA/ESA/CSA

The James Webb Space Telescope peered into a galaxy located more than 12 billion light-years away and spied the most distant organic molecules ever detected.

The complex molecules can be found in smoke and soot on Earth, but in space, they have an entirely different significance that could help astronomers understand the universe’s earliest galaxies.

As seen above, the space observatory was able to observe the galaxy (red) because it aligned almost perfectly with a closer foreground galaxy (blue), creating an “Einstein ring.” The molecules appear in orange.

The telescope also witnessed the formation of early stars in a galaxy 20 million light-years away.

Meanwhile, the Parker Solar Probe flew close enough to the sun to spot where and how solar wind forms, and NASA’s Psyche mission is back on track to launch to an all-metal asteroid in October.


The fossils of a previously unknown cousin of duck-billed dinosaurs found in Utah are offering a rare glimpse into what life was like for creatures as the planet began to change 100 million years ago.

The herbivorous dinosaur belonged to a group called ornithopods, which were common across North America through the Jurassic Period 201.3 million to 145 million years ago. But their populations dwindled and disappeared as the planet warmed.

The dino, named Iani smithi in honor of the two-faced Janus, the Roman god of transitions, shows that some species managed to survive as air temperatures rose and sea levels shifted, and researchers are aiming to unlock the secret to its success.

Ocean secrets

Roman shipwrecks on the Italian continental shelf included handled jars called amphoras. - V.Creuze ROV Drassm/UNESCO

Multiple shipwrecks have been discovered in the Mediterranean Sea by an international team of underwater archaeologists from eight countries. The findings from the 2022 research expedition were shared at a UNESCO news conference on Thursday.

The team used underwater remotely operated vehicles, called ROVs, to explore the seafloor along Tunisia and Italy’s coastlines.

The robots descended through the treacherous waters of Tunisia’s Skerki Bank, where jagged rocks jut from the shallow sea and have caused ships to sink for over 3,000 years.

Sonar revealed three previously unknown shipwrecks, including an ancient merchant vessel. The team also captured new high-resolution images of Roman shipwrecks laden with ceramics.


Explore these fascinating new findings:

— A crocodile named Coquita living by herself for years in a Costa Rican zoo just experienced a virgin birth — and the croc isn’t the only creature in the animal kingdom capable of this survival strategy.

— Dozens of Roman tweezers have been discovered in Great Britain, revealing the ancient culture’s obsession with hairlessness and good grooming.

— A bright new supernova appeared in the Pinwheel Galaxy, and a telescope in Hawaii captured a dazzling image of the stellar explosion.

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