By Jeffrey Kluger
September 17, 2015

You’d have to Shimmy through a narrow crack in a wall in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system to meet the latest addition to the human family. Two years ago, a team led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger did just that, and on Sept. 10 he announced the results.

What Berger found were more than 1,500 bones representing 15 members of the newly named species Homo naledi (from a local word for star). The early prehumans were barely 5 ft. (1.5 m) tall and had brains the size of an orange. Some features, like the hands and feet, place H. naledi closer to humans; others, like the small brain, make them apelike. The cave may have been a burial chamber, which would show a very human respect for the dead.

The rub is that tests have not yet determined H. naledi’s age, with estimates putting it from 2.5 million to 3 million years. A better answer is forthcoming. Until then, think of H. naledi as relatives; whether they’re close enough to invite to Thanksgiving is yet to be known.


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This appears in the September 28, 2015 issue of TIME.

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