Monday, February 22, 2016

Catching up with Homo naledi

It's been a while since I wrote anything about Homo naledi, the amazing hominin discovered in South Africa and published last fall by Lee Berger and colleagues. I've been busy behind the scenes writing papers and recruiting other creationists to chime in on the discovery as well. More about that below.

In the mean time, Discover and Scientific American are both featuring paleoanthropology in their cover stories this month. Discover's article, Rethinking Humanity's Roots by Russ Juskalian, is a bit more general and discusses several different discoveries from the past five years or so. Australopithecus sediba appears on the front cover. Honestly, I didn't think it was as interesting as the Scientific American piece, written by senior editor Kate Wong, which is focused directly on Homo naledi and the reaction to it. Most of the article, Mystery Human, is a rehash of what we already know, including some of the negative reactions to Lee Berger and his team. To recap, there are two specific critiques that recur in comments from different scholars: (1) we don't have a conventional date for the fossils and (2) it's hard to believe H. naledi buried their dead. Some of the criticism, in my opinion, is over the top, almost cartoonishly so. One critic in particular seems to really have it out for Berger personally, and it's hard to take any of his claims seriously.

More interesting from the Scientific American piece is how Berger and company apply what they've been finding in South Africa to other questions in paleoanthropology. Their argument seems compelling to me: Given the fact that A. sediba and H. naledi both exhibit weird mosaics of traits, where parts of their bodies are like Australopithecus and others more like Homo sapiens, paleoanthropologists should not rely on individual scraps of bone to classify their discoveries. For example, if we found only the thighbone (femur) of Homo naledi, which looks more like Australopithecus, then we might be tempted to conclude that H. naledi is just that and not Homo at all. Only by seeing the complete body can we really begin to understand just what Homo naledi is. That makes a lot of sense, and to this outsider, it seems uncontroversial. But the scholarly world of academic paleoanthropology is built on a fossil record that is largely unconnected, scrap bone with very, very few skeletons. Considered in that light, Berger's argument is basically iconoclastic. He's sort of calling into question the stock and trade of his entire discipline. I don't have a problem with that myself, but what do I know? I'm just a creationist.

Speaking of which, there was one other creationist blog post about H. naledi that I forgot to mention last fall. Ronny Nalin posted a piece at the GRI blog, in which he took a pretty skeptical stance. The theme of the piece is separating data from interpretation, but Nalin doesn't actually make an identification of the remains. So if you're keeping score: ICR's Tim Clarey thinks H. naledi is a mix of two different species (quite wrong, by the way). At CMI, Peter Line says H. naledi was human but may have been deformed (even though the researchers reported no evidence of pathology in the bones, aside from a little arthritis). At AIG, the remains of H. naledi were almost immediately rejected as nonhuman. And at GRI, Ronny Nalin refrained from making any identification. The fact that there is such disagreement by itself fascinates me. Homo naledi is a strange one. I think we can all agree on that.

Now, you might be wondering how my research is going. Well, it's going very well, thank you. I have finished a brand new, rather lengthy statistical baraminology paper on hominins, focusing on H. naledi and "early" Homo. That paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Creation Theology and Science (JCTS). Just last week, another statistical baraminology paper on H. naledi written independently by a different author was also accepted to JCTS. A third paper that examines the paleontological and geological context is also in review at JCTS, along with a short paper on hominin cranial capacity and at least one book review. There are also three editorials in various stages of development that will go with this set of papers, all of which, if editing goes well, will appear next month in a special issue of JCTS devoted to human origins. In case you're curious, the three research articles that look directly at Homo naledi come to essentially the same conclusion independently, but we'll talk more about that next month when the papers are published. It's not appropriate for me to spill the beans just yet.

If you're really interested in learning more about what I'm doing with human origins, Core Academy is devoting its 2016 Smoky Mountain Creation Retreat to the subject of human origins. I will be presenting some of my work with H. naledi, and I'm sure the discussion will be stimulating. There are still a few tickets left, which you can get at our website,

One final provocative note: Wong's piece concludes with a hint of what's to come.  Lee Berger says "with a sly grin that they have located 'more than one' new site that has set his heart to racing like Rising Star did when he first saw those grainy photographs.  The show will go on."  I can't wait!

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.