Lee Berger, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, holds a reconstruction of the skull of Homo naledi at Magaliesburg, South Africa. Scientists on Thursday announced that they had discovered a new member of the human family tree, revealed by a huge trove of bones in a barely accessible, pitch-dark chamber of a cave in South Africa, showing a surprising mix of human-like and more primitive characteristics. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

After Thursday's stunning announcement about a new species of human relative found in South Africa, some readers wanted to know: Who owns those bones? Two amateur South African spelunkers found them; an American who lives and works in South Africa led the excavation; and the expedition was underwritten in part by the South African government and the National Geographic Society, headquarters of which are in Washington.

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The short answer is: The people of South Africa own the bones, according to the scientists from the expedition into the Rising Star Cave, 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg. The University of the Witwatersrand curates the fossils on behalf of the people of South Africa.


A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)

The Cradle of Humankind, the nickname given to the area of South Africa that yielded many hominin fossils during the 20th century, is also a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site and as such is governed by its rules. The South African Heritage Resources Association, or SAHRA, works with UNESCO and the South African government to protect the entire site.

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In July 1998, at a meeting of the Permanent Council of the UNESCO-affiliated International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology in Sun City, South Africa, the issue of taking hominid fossils from their country of origin was discussed. Afterward, a resolution was passed, unanimously approved  by the Permanent Council and adopted by the Assembly of the Association.  

Video shows female scientists and experienced cavers recovering fossil remnants of new species of human relative in November 2013 at the Cradle of Humankind Heritage Site in South Africa. The women were chosen via social media because they were slender enough to move through the cave's narrow passageways to get to the fossil chamber, 100 yards from the cave entrance. (NOVA/National Geographic)

The resolution included two parts, one supporting the use of replicas of hominid fossils for public display and at museums to promote awareness about human evolution, and a second strongly recommending that original hominid fossils not be transported beyond the boundaries of the country of origin, "unless there are compelling scientific reasons which must include the demonstration that the proposed investigations cannot proceed in the forseeable future in the country of origin." Representatives from 20 countries, including both South Africa and the United States, signed the resolution.

For the analysis of Homo naledi, Lee Berger's team invited dozens of experts to come to the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa to examine the fossils up close.

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