‘Unknown: Cave Of Bones’ Explained: What Did Lee Berger Find About Homo Naledi?


Directed by Mark Mannucci, Unknown: Cave of Bones is a documentary that makes us privy to what happened during the expedition undertaken in the Rising Star Mines Malmani Dolomites in South Africa. After the discovery of fossils in the innermost chamber of the caves, Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist and a National Geographic explorer in residence, was called to lead an expedition to find out what other secrets lay hidden in that intricate network of caves. The discoveries made by Berger and his team were pathbreaking, and they found more than a thousand specimens of a species known as Homo Naledi. So, let’s find out in this recap what challenges Lee Berger and his team had to face and what they came to know about this species that dates back approximately two hundred and fifty thousand years.

Spoilers Alert

What Happens In ‘Cave Of Bones’ Documentary?

In the year 2013, Lee Berger took charge of excavation in the Rising Star Cave System located in South Africa, and what they found changed the outlook of paleoanthropologists from all over the world. We are told in the documentary that generally, when excavators find a couple of bones from a paleoanthropological site, it is considered a huge discovery, but here the experts were able to find more than 1500 bone fragments, all belonging to one species. This species was given the name Homo Naledi, and Berger and his entire team got excited as they knew that they were standing on the threshold of a revelation that had the potential to completely revolutionaries our understanding of our origin and impart knowledge that we had no idea about earlier. 

Augustin Fuentes, an evolutionary anthropologist, was also called to be a part of the team, as Lee Berger knew that he needed as many experts on board as he could get, because they were about to make a major discovery. Even when they had recovered the bone fragments, they never realized the kind of secrets that were hidden in the case system. These bones were almost 250 thousand years old, and the excavators went inside the cave to get more details that would help them imagine the shape and size of Homo Naledi and get more information about the kind of life they lived. 

The cave was divided into three parts: there was a chamber at the very beginning, which was called the dragon’s back, and it led to a vertical chute that was approximately 12 meters long. This chute was extremely narrow, such that passing through it would make even the thinnest of men feel claustrophobic. That chute led to the innermost chamber called the Dinaledi, and Berger and his team of experts believed that it was there where the real secrets were hidden. Lee Berger had declared to the world that he was not going to go down the chute as he didn’t think he would be able to pass through it, but at the end of Unknown: Cave of Bones, approximately 8 years after they had started excavating, we saw that he was not able to resist the temptation, and he did end up going there because he wanted to see for himself what the other geologists had told him about.

Did The Homo Naledi Bury Their Dead?

Neither Berger nor Augustin had ever imagined that the species whose fossils they had discovered was capable of showcasing extremely complex behavior, similar to that of human beings. While excavating, they found that the soil in a particular area was a bit uneven, and after carefully examining that part, they found a cluster of bones buried there. The experts knew that they had found evidence that proved that homo Naledi used to bury their dead, but it was too early for them to accept that fact, and they wanted to be sure about it before making it known to the world. They didn’t want their claims to be put down by the paleoanthropologists’ societies. The evidence of the oldest modern human burial outside Africa came from two cave sites in Israel, and it was shocking for excavators to find out that Homo Naledi were doing it from much before. 

In Israel, Berger and his team were talking about a time period much earlier. Berger, after consulting with his team and finding evidence to support his claims, made it public that the Naledi indulged in ritualistic practices, especially when it came to disposing of their dead, and what they had found was not merely a bed of bones but an actual grave. As soon as the findings were made public, other experts and scientists discarded the speculations of Berger’s team as superfluous, but those who were in the Rising Star cave system knew that with time, the world would have to accept what they were saying, considering that the evidence was way too compelling, and the speculations were not as baseless as the people believed them to be. Burying the dead was an activity that signified that Homo Naledi didn’t want the corpses of their own to be devoured by other animals, and it also determined their social and religious attitudes. Probably they also performed some kind of ritual during the burial, and all these things told us that they not only cared for their own but also felt a sense of loss when any member passed away.

Did The Homo Naledi Use Tools?

The excavators found a stone block inside which there was a skeleton of what looked like a child. After the plaster jacket was sent for examination in a European synchrotron radiation facility, another revelation was made that amazed Berger and his team beyond any comprehension. There was a tool carved out of a rock that was found with the skeleton, which made them realize that probably the Homo Naledi believed in the afterlife, and they made use of tools in their daily activities. The team tried to assemble all the bones they had found and speculate on what Homo Naledi would have looked like. The experts, after seeing the skeleton, could safely assume that the species had a humanoid kind of appearance. They had protruding jaws and flat noses, and they were very skinny. They looked like humans but were still very distinct in their own way. They walked on two legs and probably had a demeanor that would be quite terrifying and unsettling to us today. 

At the end of the Unknown: Cave of Bones, Lee Berger finally decided to go down the chute and try to find evidence that would corroborate their theory of the species making use of tools. Lee Berger saw carvings on the wall, and he knew that these were not some random markings but proof of the fact that Homo Naledi had the intellect to create art. The revelations stunned the entire paleoanthropologist community, and Lee Berger almost broke down in tears as he felt overjoyed and had no words to express what he felt standing in that cave. From artistic inclinations to possessing creative impulses, the findings provide evidence that the Homo Naledi did have a culture, even though it may have been a simple one. They were not oblivious to concepts like spirituality, religion, and the afterlife, and one could only imagine what else they were capable of doing.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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