, a new species of ancient human discovered in South Africa’s Rising Star cave.
As I reported at the time, scientists extracted 1,550 fossil fragments from the cave, which were then assembled into at least 15 individual skeletons—one of the richest hauls of hominid fossils ever uncovered.
By measuring the amounts left in a specimen, scientists can calculate when its owner died.
But one significant problem clouded the excitement over the discovery: The team doesn’t know how old the fossils are.
And without that age, it’s hard to know how fits into the story of human evolution, or how to interpret its apparent habit of deliberately burying its own kind.
The technique people are most likely to have heard of is carbon dating.
It hinges upon the presence of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon that accumulates in the bodies of animals throughout our lives, and gradually decays after we die.
The study of ancient DNA has repeatedly revolutionized our understanding of human evolution, revealing the presence of Neanderthal DNA in all modern humans outside Africa, and the existence of an entirely new hominin species—the Denisovans.
’s DNA would reveal its evolutionary relationships to ourselves and other ancient humans.“We're investigating it, but it’s not a hopeful scenario,” says Hawks.