Where no animal except a lost owl and rodent has ever found themselves, through skinny passages that I could not fit through, laying on or just under fine sediments, the partially fossilized bones of at least 15 individuals have been found deep in a cave in South Africa.
UPDATE: I have written a follow-up to this article that examines in more detail the responses of young earth creationists to these bones: Bones of Contention II: Human, Ape or Fraud? Young Earth Creationists Respond to Deniladi Chamber Fossil Find
How did these bones get there? Whose bones were they? When did these individuals live?
Almost two years ago I wrote about the Rising Star Expedition which was an expedition into a deep dark cave to recover newly discovered remains of what was a possible new human relative. (See: Science in Progress: The Rising Star Expedition in South Africa) While openly inviting experts and students to be involved in the expedition and subsequent research to describe the findings, the answers to some of these these questions have been understandably kept under wraps until this morning. A press conference, two research articles and a 2-hour PBS-Nova presentation next week are the first fruits of nearly two years of intensive research.
I have skimmed through the two research papers (see links below) and plan to write an article about the cave that they were found in as part of my “Geological context of human fossils” series.
For now let me just say the results published so far are stunning in their detail and complexity and are raising many new and fascinating questions. Over 1500 bones collected so far (there are many more waiting further collection) representing at least 15 individuals which themselves represent babies to old adults. The bones all point to a group of small-brained, upright walking but also tree-climbing individuals. Clearly this represents a complex and curious combination of features that has never been seen before in a single individual much less a group of individuals.
This collection of bones is huge and will certainly grow. This isn’t just a finger bone or a piece of jaw from which much speculation must be added. These are large sets of bones from multiple individuals of different ages and sexes. Such a large collection will allow for many detailed comparative analyses which will we will hearing about for many years to come.
You should take a look at the two original research papers (see links below) to appreciate the detailed studies that have already been done on these bones. While the interpretation of the origin of these bones as the result of intentional burial is a hypothesis that still needs more testing, there is strong support for these individuals being a unique lineage of hominids never seen before.
Bones of contention among creationists
Even as anthropologists debate the significance of these bones with respect to other hominid bones these bones will certainly evoke a response from creationists of all types. I don’t have time to delve into all the details or outline all the possible responses they may have to these bones but here are some early observations and predictions:
The Young Earth Creationists (YECs – Answers in Genesis/Ken Ham and the Institute for Creation Research): YECs strongly deny common ancestry of apes and modern humans and so when confronted with fossils hominids they are compelled to call them either ape or human. However, they have struggled to come to consensus on which hominid fossils are apes and which are humans. Typically they are most likely to lump what are conventionally called the genus “Homo” as being human which means they interpret as descendants of Adam and Eve. And they would place what are called the Australopithecines, like Lucy, as being related to apes. These new fossils are being labeled a new species of Homo. Some YE creationists will probably simply declare them to be human not much different than you or me. However, others will probably recognize the obvious ape-like features of these skeletons and the lack of any cultural artifacts and declare that these fossils were misnamed and are just a type of ape. I am going to predict that there will be some initial disagreement among YECs but that when Ken Ham declares these to be just another type of ape that most will come around to claiming that the “Homo” distinction is just a case of wishful thinking and they will dismiss the traits of these individuals that are more human than ape. On the other hand he may claim that these are just a strange pygmy race of modern humans. Either way he will state that there is a clear distinction as either human or ape.
When I explore the geological context of where these bones were I will show that regardless of whom the bones belong to, the location of the bones should cause the young earth creationists to have nightmares if they allow themselves to try to explain their origin.
Old Earth Creationists (Hugh Ross, Fazale Rana, Reasons to Believe): Drs Ross and Rana have just published an update of their book “Who was Adam” where the continue to promote the view that only anatomically modern humans, even to the exclusion of Neanderthals, with evidence of certain types of cultural capacities are “human” and therefore descendants of Adam and Eve. As such this fossil find will be met with little resistance though they will downplay the possibility that this was a ritual burial site. In fact, Dr. Rana has already expressed his lack of interest in this find on Facebook this morning. See image to the right.
An atypical creationist response
Dr. Todd Wood, an atypical young earth creationist, has already commented on this new batch of fossils. I always appreciate Dr. Woods enthusiasm for science and this morning he expressed his amazement at this fossil find and rightly acknowledges the challenges that these bones represent. I am going to quote the last paragraph of his post here because he also speculates about what the response, which is very similar to mine, will be from the creationist’ community:
As for other creationist organizations, I’m not entirely sure how they will react. Given that Hugh Ross only accepts Homo sapiens sapiens as human, Reasons to Believe will certainly judge these remains as nonhuman and probably will dispute the burial hypothesis. As for the young-age creationist organizations, there will probably be some that side with RTB and dispute the idea that H. naledi was human. I suspect others (I don’t know which) will be impressed with the burial evidence like I am. I doubt that any will be hesitant in their judgments, though.
The last sentence I found to be especially true and is what separates Wood from many other creationists. Numerous creationists are likely to pick sides quickly and then declare rather definitively how this new find confirms their views. Contradictory data will be swept under the rug and memes will be constructed to entrench viewpoints in their followers minds. This is unfortunate and dangerous because it discourages real discussion. A discussion that deserved to be had because this won’t be the last time that Christians are confronted by new and strange data that don’t easily fit into neat and tidy interpretative frameworks.
UPDATE (5 hours later): Ken Ham has made his first comment already. Its basically a form letter which he uses to dismiss anything. He has pulled out the “were you there” argument.
But we can say with confidence that this discovery changes nothing about our understanding of human history. You see, the only eyewitness account of human origins is the one provided by God our Creator in the Bible’s book of Genesis. No scientist witnessed the origin of man, and evolutionary scientists only believe there were intermediate evolutionary links between an ape-like ancestor and man because they have disregarded God’s Word and substituted their own fallible opinions in its place.
UPDATE II: In the evening the Institute for Creation Research posted their first impressions. They were similar to Ham’s, dismissing the find as just another story that doesn’t add anything new:
We predict, on the basis of the creation model, Homo naledi too will become just one more dead end in the questionable human evolution parade. In fact, the story itself is rife with caution, unanswered questions, and speculation.
They didn’t comment on what they think the bones actually represent. I suspect they will wait until Ken Ham makes a pronouncement about whether this is a group of malformed pygmy humans stunted by inbreeding following their journey from Babel or they are an equally malformed type of chimpanzee that got lost in this came and fell to their death in this chamber.
UPDATE III: At least one young earth creationist has now taken a strong stance in favor of these bones being “fully human.” Kurt Wise is quoted in a World Magazine article as stating:
“I think the case is very strong that these fossils are not just of the genus Homo, but are actually fully human (meaning they are descendants of Adam and Eve),” said Kurt Wise, director of the Center for Creation Research at Truett-McConnell College. Wise noted that early humans dispersed after the biblical Tower of Babel incident would have lived in isolated populations and developed highly distinct traits.
It will be interesting to see if Answers in Genesis takes the same position and how they try to explain away the other odd features of both the bones and the site. According to their own timeline, The Tower of Babel incident was 4250 years ago and so if these are human bones from Babel descendants they must be very young. Will Ken Ham predict they have lots of C14 left in their bones? Stay tuned.
UPDATE IV (Sept 12): Wow, Ken Ham has called his shot and I guessed right. His organization has proclaimed these bones nothing more than apes. Here is the primary quote: “the preponderance of the evidence suggests they were animals, one of the variations that developed among apes.” More on this in a new post soon.
For further reading:
A BBC story with additional images: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34192447
Below are the two original research articles. These are open access so everyone can view the results and discussion.
Berger et al. 2015. Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife 4:e09560. and direct link to PDF: http://elifesciences.org/content/elife/4/e09560.full.pdf
Dirks et al. 2015. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife 4:e09561.
Dr. Berger has made some of the fossils more accessible for other researchers around the world to study. Here is a link to a sight where 3D models of some of the bones have been uploaded. You should check them out just to see how good the preservation of these bones can be. Morpho Source: http://morphosource.org/index.php/Search/Index?search=Homo+naledi
Cover photo: This photo provided by National Geographic from their October 2015 issue shows a composite skeleton of Homo naledi surrounded by some of the hundreds of other fossil elements recovered from the Rising Star cave in South Africa, photographed at the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. In an announcement made Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, scientists say the fossils revealed the new member of the human family tree. The expedition team was led by Lee Berger of the university. (Robert Clark/National Geographic, Lee Berger/University of the Witwatersrand via AP) IMAGE MUST INCLUDE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC LOGO; CROPPING NOT PERMITTED; MANDATORY CREDIT: “ROBERT CLARK/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, LEE BERGER/UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND” Photo: Robert Clark, AP