Homo Naledi—Kind of Shady?
On September 10th the media began highlighting the latest fossil find which is argued, once again, to be representative of an ancient ancestor of humans—Homo naledi. We are wary about how we respond to brand new discoveries, since always the “jury is still out” when these stories are first splashed in the media and portrayed as conclusive proof of various claims. We have documented their rashness time and again (e.g., Miller, 2015a; Miller, 2015b; Miller, 2015c), and this story is no exception. Fox News highlighted South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement that “history books will have to be rewritten” based on this discovery (Tilsley, 2015), a statement very reminiscent of how the media viewed the Homo floresiensis fossils when they were discovered in 2004. In 2014 a new study suggested that the fossils were merely modern humans with Down Syndrome (Miller, 2015b). In keeping with previous trends among naturalists and the media, it seems likely that this newest discovery will again, in the long run, prove not to be what the media is currently claiming it to be, once further study has been done on the fossils—as was the case with Homo floresiensis,Australopithecus sediba (Miller, 2015c), and the Big Bang inflation debacle last year (Miller, 2015a). With these facts in mind, here are some of the details we can gather at this initial stage.
Lee Berger is the evolutionary paleoanthropologist of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa who has been in the media a lot the past few years due to the discovery of the Australopithecus sediba fossils (Miller, 2012a; Miller, 2012b; Miller, 2015c). Once again, his team has been at the heart of the newest discovery. Though the find is only now being broadcast, the discovery took place in 2013 and was kept secret for two years. They discovered ancient bones and teeth in a cave system in Africa that now number over 1,500 in specimens—an unheard of cache of “human-like” fossils from a single site (Callaway, 2015). The bones are thought to be representative of some 15 individuals.
|Credit: Lee Roger Berger research team (http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons|
The first thing you will likely notice in many of the articles splashing the find is the paleoartist depiction of what Homo naledi is thought to have looked like (e.g., Shreeve, 2015; Barras, 2015; Watson, 2015). This portrait should immediately cause skepticism, since mere bones do not tell you what a person’s facial expressions, eye color, skin color, facial wrinkles, hair color, or lips would have looked like, even if a complete skull had been found. Yet all of these features are brazenly depicted in the naledi reconstruction (and even emphasized in the case of National Geographic’s home Web page the day after running the story, which featured a close-up of nadeli’s eye region, complete with freckles around the eyes and red blood vessels in the whites of its eyes). When such liberties are taken and brazenly broadcast to the media’s audience as solid science, the effect is powerful. As we reported earlier this year regarding the sediba fossils (Miller, 2015c), paleoartists have been extremely influential in shaping the minds of the masses in whether they view evolution as true or false, in spite of the fact that their artistic depictions are typically created based on meager evidence—what New Scientist calls “part of a face here” or “a jawbone fragment there” (Barras). USA Today described the nadeli discovery as “1,550-plus bits of fossil” (Watson, emp. added). New Scientist highlighted Berger’s contention that the naledi discovery “has implications for how we interpret the other early human fossil finds…. These fossils generally amount to just a few fragments rather than complete skeletons” (Barras, emp. added). As he pointed out after discovering the sediba fossils, Berger now adds, “Both sediba and naledi say you can’t take a mandible [lower jaw], a maxilla [upper jaw] or a collection of teeth and try to predict what the rest of the body looks like” (as quoted in Barras). Based on what happened in the case of the sediba fossils, having more than said evidence still does not guarantee correct depictions (Miller, 2015c). Apparently the paleoartists are still not getting the message from leading paleoanthropologists.
There are other curiosities already being highlighted at this early stage of the discovery: the age of the fossils is unclear—anywhere between 200,000 and 2,800,000 years (Tilsley), based on evolutionary dating schemes, and where the fossils fall in that range is significant from an evolutionary perspective. [NOTE: Creationists would argue that those dates correlate to the post-Flood period a few thousand years ago.] USA Today quoted Berger’s thoughts regarding the fossils:
[T]he bodies may have been deliberately placed in the cave, suggesting that long-ago, human relatives were engaged in ritual disposals of their dead. “It’s enormously surprising to see a very primitive member of the genus, something with this small a brain,” engaged in activity that was thought to be unique to modern humans (as quoted in Watson).
Fox News quoted Berger saying, “‘This is a new species of human that deliberately disposed of bodies in this chamber.’…Up until now, Berger adds, it was thought that Homo sapiens were the first beings to choose to dispose of their dead. ‘Now, with Homo naledi, we have evidence of the world’s first burial site,’ he said” (Tilsley).
This claim is, as Berger notes, completely inconsistent with the paleoanthropology community’s previous claims about Homo sapiens. If Berger is right that the naledi buried their dead, and if the fossils are dated by evolutionists to be over a million years old (using their time scales), then paleoanthropologists have been wrong in their bold claims about Homo sapiens. Previously, the oldest evidence of human burial was dated by evolutionists as 430,000 years ago (Callaway). Since burial of dead bodies is considered a mark of intelligence that distinguishes humans from the animal kingdom, Berger’s find could provide tangible evidence that what we would call “humans” (roughly the genus “Homo”) have always been intelligent, rather than that trait evolving within humans. [NOTE: Creationists argue that there would have been a few thousand “proto-species” (called “kinds” in the Bible—cf. Genesis 7:14), on Noah’s Ark with immense genetic capability for creating the diversity we see on the planet today within those kinds, including the diversity we see within Homo sapiens. Humans, therefore, would not have necessarily looked exactly as we do today, but would have still been humans (just as caucasoid, mongoloid, and negroid physiologies today do not look exactly the same). Legitimate examples of ancient humans are likely representative of the humans flourishing in the centuries immediately following the Flood a few thousand years ago. Dating schemes that expand that time scale to hundreds of thousands or millions of years suffer from flawed assumptions—cf. Houts, 2015; Miller, 2013.]
Another inconsistency in the naledi discovery: the jumble of fossils that were found in the shaft, if they all belong to the same species, seem to represent a species with a strange hodgepodge of characteristics that do not seem plausible. The skull seems to have harbored a smaller, ape-like brain, while the lower limbs, feet, and hands that were discovered, according to paleoanthropologists, seem to be more like that of modern humans. New Scientist reported,
The species the bones belonged to had a unique mix of characteristics. Look at its pelvis or shoulders, says Berger, and you would think it was an apelike Australopithecus which appeared in Africa about 4 million years ago and is thought to be an ancestor of Homo. But look at its foot and you could think it belonged to our species…. Its skull, though, makes clear that the brain was less than half the size of ours, and more like that of some species of Homo that lived about 2 million years ago. “It doesn’t look a lot like us,” says Berger (Barras).
Quoting John Hawks, paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nature reported, “It is a very strange combination of features, some that we’ve never seen before and some that we would have never expected to find together” (Callaway, emp. added). Of course, the reason for that expectation is justified: the combination of such body components does not make sense. It is very possible that in actuality the bones might not actually belong together at all—a contention that was argued by paleoanthropologists against Berger’s sediba fossils last year (Miller, 2015c). As with sediba, they may be merely a jumble of bones from different species. After all, Hawks, who helped coordinate the dig for naledi, admitted that “the team took flak for its unorthodox approach. ‘There’s a lot of the field that really believed we’re just a couple of cowboys who don’t know how things should be done’” (as quoted in Callaway). Of course, when the strange inconsistencies of this find are added to the previously botched assertions of Berger in the sediba find, it provides evidence that the critics may have a point.
Berger argues that “the bodies appear to have been dropped from above down a chute formed by rocks which forms the entrance to the chamber” (Tilsley). Could it, instead, be the case that the bodies of several different people and animals all fell down the chute and were trapped there, rather than having been intentionally dropped down the chute? Science highlighted that possibility (Gibbons, 2015, p. 1150). Such would explain why there’s a hodgepodge of bones from apparently different species. Remains from rodents and an owl were also found (p. 1150). Since the hundreds of bones were found disarticulated (i.e., separated from one another rather than in skeletal frame position), there is no conclusive way to know which bones go with which species—and by implication, no way to know if there are or are not multiple species represented.
No wonder, even at this early stage, paleoanthropologists who are critical of Berger’s claims are not hard to find. USA Today reported reactions by two of them:
Other scientists find the new trove of fossils tantalizing but don’t necessarily agree with Berger and his team on what, exactly, has been found. The fossils are “fabulous and a bit confusing,” says New York University’s Susan Anton via email. “There are some things in this that just don’t look like early Homo,” or at least the fossils of early Homo from east Africa. “The material is spectacular,” says the University of Pittsubrgh’s [sic] Jeffrey Schwartz….” But “the interpretation of it … is doubtful.” He points out varying skull shapes, among other features, among the Naledi specimens and argues the Homo family is so poorly defined that it’s not clear Naledi fits into it (Watson, emp. added).
Apparently the find isn’t as clear as it is being portrayed. Nature quoted Schwartz as well: “However, Jeffrey Schwartz, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, thinks that the material is too varied to represent a single species. ‘I could show those images to my students and they would say that they’re not the same,’ he says. One of the skulls looks more like it comes from an australopithecine, he says, as do certain features of the femurs” (Callaway). Apparently, Schwartz agrees with my first take on the evidence: there’s more than one species represented by the fossils. Fox News admitted that “[n]ot everybody agreed that the discovery revealed a new species. Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley [who is most known for his work on the famous “Lucy” fossils—JM], told The Associated Press the claim is questionable. ‘From what is presented here, (the fossils) belong to a primitive Homo erectus, a species named in the 1800s,’ he said” (Tilsley, parenthetical statement in orig.). New Scientist included its disclaimers as well:
Inevitably, though, there are dissenting views. “To me, having studied virtually the entire human fossil record, the specimens lumped together as Homo naledi represent two cranial morphs,” says Jeffrey Schwartz at the University of Pittsburgh in Philadelphia. Ian Tattersall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York shares that view. Last month, he and Schwartz wrote an article calling for researchers to think carefully about classifying new fossils as belonging to Homo. As for the Dinaledi finds, Schwartz and Tattersall point out that although the foreheads of some of the new skulls are gently sloped, one skull has a taller forehead with a distinct brow ridge—suggesting two species are present. “Putting these fossils in the genus Homo adds to the lack of clarity in trying to sort out human evolution,” says Schwartz (Barras).
Bottom line: the evolutionary community must continue its search for conclusive evidence of its claims that we evolved from an ape-like creature. On a positive note, it is refreshing that Lee Berger, unlike the bulk of the paleoanthropological community, is insistent about not hoarding his fossil finds where few can examine them to see the evidence for themselves. Noting the change in practice that Berger is creating in the community by being so open, paleoanthropologist of the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, Tracy Kivell, said, “There’s lots of fossils out there no one has ever seen, except for a few select people. Palaeoanthropology is really rotten that way” (Callaway). Is it possible that if the paleoanthropological community was more forthcoming with their alleged evidences for evolution, more scientists would be able to assess the evidence and more quickly discover flaws in claims being made? In so doing, would they not highlight for the world, before the world forgets the previous flawed claims, how unsupported by solid evidence the theory of evolution truly is?
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Tilsley, Paul (2015), “Mass Grave of New Human Relative Discovered in South Africa, Claim Scientists,” FoxNews.com, September 10, http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/09/10/mass-grave-new-human-relative-discovered-in-south-africa-claim-scientists/?intcmp=hpbt1.
Watson, Traci (2015), “Ancient Fossils in African Cave are Tantalizing Glimpse of Early Man,” USAToday.com, September 10, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/09/10/fossils-humans-cave-ancient-bones/71966570/?hootPostID=69a85859aa6fa7ba18f77917410b6df1.
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