A human-like ape might have decorated the graves of its dead 330,000 years ago.

Science News reports on a controversy over Homo naledi, a human-like ape from 160,000 years before the first Homo sapiens, who might have been burying its dead and decorating their gravesites hundreds of millennia before the first unmistakably human graves:

H. naledi, which lived in southern Africa between roughly 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, also engraved marks on the side of a corridor and entryway that connects the adjacent cave chambers, contends an international team led by National Geographic Explorer in Residence Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“These are remarkable discoveries of a [Homo] species that had brains one-third the size of ours yet buried their dead and carved meaning-making symbols on cave walls,” Berger, said at a press conference on June 1. He and colleagues report the new H. naledi findings in three bioRxiv.org papers accepted for publication in eLife.

H. naledi must have used a tool capable of chiseling through extremely hard rock to engrave lines and designs found on the sides of a corridor and entryway into the Hill Antechamber, Berger said at the news conference. Later Stone Age cave art of Neandertals and H. sapiens includes similar geometric drawings. There is no evidence that present-day cavers have created comparable engravings anywhere in the Rising Star Cave System, he said.

But the underground cave engravings remain undated. There is no way to know whether people reached the cave chambers within the past few thousand years and carved those wall patterns, [Durham University archaeologist Paul] Pettitt says.

You can read Berger’s research here and here and here, in bioRxiv.