The largest collection of hominin bones ever found in Africa is causing massive waves in the anthropological world and beyond. When it was first announced, I wrote about how I thought some creationist organizations might respond to questions posed by hominin fossils and their geological setting (see: Bones of Contention: How Will Creationists Respond to a Huge New Hominid Fossil Find?).
Within 72 hours of the announcement, we now have the first responses from young earth creationists (YECs), and they are surprising and predictable.
Before we look at the responses, let me review just a few of the facts and interpretations that YECs have to grapple with as they seek to provide answers about the fossil discovery.
More than 1500 bone fragments have been retrieved from the floor and sediments of a small, difficult-to-access cavern more than 300 feet from the nearest exit. There are many more bones awaiting further excavation, but here is what we already know and can reasonably infer:
- The 1500 bones and bone fragments represent at least 15 individuals.
- The 15 individuals include infants, children, and adults.
- The brains of the adults are small (460 and 550 cc). Compare this to modern man (1350 cc average), Homo erectus (865 cc) and chimpanzees (350 cc average).
- The adults were about 5 feet tall with bones that have a mosaic of features of human (Homo) and australopithecines.
- The cavern in which the fossils were found has only fine sediment and no evidence of water transport of material from any outside source.
- The presence of only hominin bones, the lack of any marks on the bones from predators or cannibalism, and restricted access to the cavern have all been interpreted as the result of intentional deposition of bodies.
- The bones/bodies appear to have been deposited over “some period of time,” rather than at one time.
- So far, artifacts such as stone tools, clothing, or charcoal have not been reported as present in this chamber.
Providing a hypothesis that accounts for the data above is no easy task. We can be sure these bones represent real living beings that lived in a real place in the past, but they certainly looked different from anything alive today.
Beyond that, many questions immediately come to mind. Who did these bones belong to? How did they come to be preserved in such an isolated cavern? What relationship do these individuals have to organisms that are alive today? How long ago did they live?
For many Christians, the revelation of yet another set of strange bones raises additional questions. These bones have come to light at a time in which the evangelical Christian church has a heightened interest in origins, especially the origins of human beings. The historicity of Adam and Eve is a hotly debated topic today, and these fossils will certainly become part of any future discussions.
Where do the owners of these bones fit into the chronology of creation? Did they have the “image of God,” as Adam did? If they purposely disposed of their dead, is that a sign that they were religious, self-conscious, or even “human”? Do these bones challenge the special creation narrative of YECs?
Christians who maintain a particular reading of Genesis that requires the Earth and Universe to be physically young will have a special interest in these questions. These fossils and their location and arrangement bring new challenges to their particular view of cosmic history.
Let us look at how the YECs have responded thus far and explore the future challenges they can expect to encounter from these findings.
The Young Earth Response
Answers in Genesis (Ken Ham, Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell): As the lead voice of the fundamentalist young earth creationist movement, Ken Ham is under enormous pressure to provide answers on everything to all his followers. Ostensibly, he will find those answers in his reading of the book of Genesis, just as his first reaction to the hominin fossil find suggests. In what is essentially a form letter that he uses for every new discovery, he once again uses his popular “were you there?” line of reasoning:
Whatever species these bones represent—and we will be publishing a more complete report on the discovery and the claims being made about it soon—we know that they cannot be any sort of intermediate between apes and humans. The only way to find an ape-man—or a “bridge” between apes and humans—is to misinterpret fossils of either an ape or a human as something in between. But all humans—even varieties of humans that we no longer have with us—were all descended from the first two people God made.
… 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.
This is the type of response we should expect given the commitments that YEC have to their interpretation of scripture. Ken Ham is confident that any fossil find must belong either to the human species (which means that they have to be descendants of Adam and Eve) or to primates. All hominins are either fully human or fully ape. There is no in between.
But which is it?
That’s a question that Ken Ham can’t answer himself since he has little education in the science, especially anthropology, and the Bible doesn’t tell him about these specific set of bones in South Africa. So he must rely on his network of trusted “experts” to decide if these bones are animal or human. In this case, that expert is Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, MD, and she was tasked with writing the response to this discovery. That response only took one day to complete—a very fast analysis indeed—and much to my surprise she has decided the bones are of animal origin.
Yet while the fossil record contains many legitimate examples of extinct varieties of humans, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, after assessing the published reports, we beg to differ with Berger’s assessment of Homo naledi. We do not believe Homo naledi deserves its Homo designation.
We know that God created man and land animals the same day without evolution. We seriously doubt the original owners of the Dinaledi bones were among the descendants of Adam and Eve, as the preponderance of the evidence suggests they were animals, one of the variations that developed among apes.
She also quotes another YEC scientist, Dr. Menton, who concurs with her opinion, though he reserves for himself the right to examine the data more thoroughly. He states:
I am not convinced that H. naledi is human, and I don’t recognize the status of “near human.” From what I can see from the fossils and skull reconstruction, H. naledi had a sloped lower face and a very robust mandible that bears little resemblance to humans. It also has a small cranium. The proximal and medial phalanges of the hand are even more curved than Au. afarensis, suggesting an ape-like creature.
So with little reservation, Dr. Mitchell has proclaimed these bones to be nothing more than the remains of a group of unfortunate animals.
Before we look closer at her reasons for this opinion, let’s see if other young earth creationist agree that it is clear that they are just animal bones.
Institute for Creation Research: ICR posted a short response to the South African fossil discovery within 24 hours of its announcement. That response was by Frank Sherwin (M.S. in biology). Mr. Sherwin’s response was similar to Ken Ham’s initial response which could be paraphrased as– “just move on, nothing here to see.” Nonetheless, he provides his initial impressions of the find:
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.
The 15 partial skeletons were found buried in a difficult-to-access South African cave. Their human feet and skulls, plus ritualistic burial, show that Homo naledi—if this name stands the test of time—was likely just another human variety.
We wait to see what becomes of Homo naledi with further research by secular scientists. I think I know the answer!
This is a relatively safe response, given the more human-like aspects of the bones such as the head shape, features that allow for bipedal locomotion, human-like feet, possible purposeful deposition of bodies, and tool-using hand shape. Also, though his response allows for further exploration and study, his initial reaction is that these are human beings and that scientists are just trying to make it seem like this is an intermediate link between humans and apes by accentuating the ape-like features.
Sherwin refers to “dead ends.” What he means by this is that these hominins are just a lost human lineage, perhaps, which dispersed from the Tower of Babel; or they are apes that dispersed from Noah’s ark, leaving no living descendants today. The former is what Sherwin believes the bones of Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis (the hobbit) and Homo neadethalensis all represent. It follows then that these bones in South Africa also might just be another divergent lineage of Noah’s descendants.
UPDATE 9/17/15: Mr.Sherwin has just updated his article and moved to the position of Ken Ham: “Upon closer examination, the skeletal remains given the name Homo naledi show a host of primate characteristics, and evolutionists have pointed out shortcomings with the ritualistic burial interpretation.” With this change, I expect now that most other major YEC organizations will produce similar statements.
Other responses: At least one young earth creationist has now taken a much stronger 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.
So here we have one YEC, Dr. Mitchell, saying that the bones belong to animals, while at least two others are saying they are “likely just another human variety” or are “fully human.”
They can’t both be right, especially since they believe that intermediates are impossible.
The comments on Ken Ham’s Facebook page are mostly uninformed about the original findings, many of them amounting to knee-jerk reactions to headlines. Looking through hundreds of those comments creates the impression of great confusion. Some commenters are sure these bones are just another variety of humans while others are sure they are just apes.
I have yet to see any supporter of Ken Ham advocate for a “wait and see” approach to the data. So Ham’s push to produce a quick judgment would seem to be justified from a marketing perspective.
What shocks me is the numerous Facebook comments that deny the very existence of the bones themselves. The following comment best sums up this sort of thinking:
The problem here is that these “remains” are clearly fraudulent. Monkeys who burry their dead and make fire? What utter nonsense. This fits right in with the long line of fakes and frauds, planted by the devil or atheist so-called-“scientists” to confuse the weak of faith or intellect. I will pray that God and AiG continue to point out the betrayals of science and satan, and bring the truth and the light to the ignorant and the deceived.
Maybe this comment is hyperbole or sarcasm but there are many that express similar thoughts to some extent. Some level of fraud is not an uncommon reaction to evidence of an old Earth or common ancestry among many adherents to young earth creationism even if this is not the position that any of the leaders of that movement take. But, the extreme skepticism or outright dismissal of all findings of historical science that Ken Ham and other has promoted over the years has created a subculture within their community in which even the basic facts are greatly distrust and thus conversation is made very difficult.
Taking time to let the scientific process play out?
I mentioned in my last post that Dr. Todd Wood, a rather independent-thinking young earth creationist, commented in reference to other creationists: “I doubt that any will be hesitant in their judgments, though.”
He was exactly right. It was unlikely that Ham could afford to be ambiguous about the bones. Creationists are bound to pick sides quickly and then declare rather definitively how a new find confirms their pre-existing views. Contradictory data and observations 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.
Make no mistake, this is 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 doesn’t easily fit into neat and tidy interpretative frameworks.
In a follow-up post Dr. Wood states:
I’m currently writing up my results, but unfortunately for you, I won’t be spoiling them here. I’m a firm believer in peer review to make sure I’ve done my due diligence. I will be submitting my manuscript for formal publication in a journal, and until then, I’m going to keep a lid on things. In the mean time, though, I wanted to offer a few additional thoughts.
I think this is a very wise approach and is to be commended. There is much to consider and a deliberate approach is needed in which all hypotheses are explored, tested, then tested and sifted by the peer review process.
But I understand why creationist’ organizations such as Answers in Genesis feel the need to immediately “answer” every question that their constituents have. Telling their readers and donors that they don’t know if these bones are animals or humans will rarely look good, at least in the short-term. After all, these organizations argue all the time for the great gulf between man and animals both in behavior, culture and biology. Given the huge collection of hominin bones found in the South African cave, the condition that they are in, and the public awareness of them it would be very difficult for creationist organizations to convince their audiences that they can’t tell if the bones are humans or animals and that they should wait for a few years for a thorough analysis.
A Risky Strategy in the Face of Many Unknowns
Boldly labeling a fossil find as animal or human is a risky move for creationists, and so the decision to go one way or the other I am sure has not been taken lightly.
Personally, I thought that Dr. Mitchell and the Answers in Genesis team would choose the animal option, although it would be better for them to choose the “fully human” option.
Why? Not solely because of the similarities with other hominid species or, if you prefer, “races.” No, I thought they should go with “fully human” because it would have been a safer position to take and there was precedent for making the claim that these were bones of individuals who “lived in isolated populations and developed highly distinct traits,” as Dr. Wise has said.
Why do I say that “human” was the safer choice? Because there is so much more yet to learn about this cave and its inhabitants! There is little we could discover that would add weight to the view that these were only apes, but there are so many things that could be found that could swing the evidence in favor of the “fully human” for the creationist position, as AiG understands human origins.
For example, what if charcoal is found in the cave, which would provide further evidence for the use of fire? What if stone artifacts or evidence of clothing are found? What if additional chambers are found with more bones in positions that suggest purposeful disposal? This would strengthen the case for the site as a burying ground, which Mitchell has downplayed. With so much of the cave yet to explore, it seems risky to claim that the bones must be apes.
A close reading of the description of the cave environment reveals that more hominin bones have been identified in other places in the cave, but these have yet to be described. When these are excavated, I will not be shocked if tools are found in association with them, given what have been found in nearby caves. What if additional chambers are found with similar bones?
Is there a creationist precedent for calling these bones “human”? Yes! Dr. Mitchell’s response to the South African bones clearly shows a large portion of her decision is based on the size of the skulls. The volume of the two crania recovered were estimated to be 465 and 560 cc which is very small compared to modern humans which average about 1330 cc (Berger et al. 2015) and Homo erectus with crania of volumes between 900 to 1100 and Homo habilis (610 cc). Australopithecines on the other hand have crania ranging from 410 to 493 (Berger et al. 2015) and modern chimpanzees average 370 cc. So these new crania are closer to chimpanzees than modern humans.
However, Dr. Mitchell had a precedent for identifying these South African bones as human in origin, and that precedent was her own writing! She previously wrote that the hobbit specimen from Indonesia (Homo floresiensis), which has a cranial volume of just 400 cc, is fully human albeit a mutant: The occupants of Flores island, memorialized by a few unfossilized remains in Liang Bua Cave, were clearly human, as we have always maintained.
That set of fossils has many other unusual features and has been frequently compared to species similar to Homo erectus. Interestingly, some scholars are suggesting that these new fossils from South Africa are also most similar to Homo erectus. Given the height, bipedal locomotion, head morphology, and hands more human-like than ape-like, Mitchell didn’t have to consider the small brain a deal-breaker given her acceptance of other individuals with small brains as being made in the image of God.
One difference between the hobbit bones and these found in South Africa that I think has played a significant role in Dr. Mitchell’s decision making process is the presence or absence of cultural artifacts. The hobbit was tiny and although there was only a single skull found, there were part of several additional specimens that suggest there were many small hominids at this location. But the presence of stone tools, fire pits and butchered bones eliminated the “just an animal” option for the creationists.
Here in this cave in South Africa no cultural artifacts have been reported. By dismissing the circumstantial evidence of the need for fire to get to this location and the disposal of bodies, there was no cultural evidence to tie these bones to individuals that would have the image of God and thus be fully human. As a result there wasn’t a smoking gun piece of evidence that forced her to define these bones as human.
What does the future hold for Young Earth Creationists?
As YECs navigate the minefield that is the dynamic nature of scientific discovery, there are several scenarios that could play out in the coming months and years:
Fast consolidation and fence building: Answers in Genesis has already taken a rather firm stance on these bones but ICR and others have given themselves some wiggle room. The latter could very quickly take the AiG position and quickly produce analyses that support that decision. Ken Ham has already written again in support of the position and offered some defense for why other YECs might disagree (see below). I expect that many other individual YECs and YEC organizations will take.
UPDATE: see section above about ICRs more recent update. With ICR now taking the position that these are just animal bones I think this will be growing consensus in YEC community.
Short term disagreement (months): Differences between viewpoints may be short-lived if Ken Ham’s viewpoint is seen as winning the popularity race, and other creationists either don’t want to risk offending the ten-ton gorilla and/or they wish to maintain the peace and purity of the YEC community they will gradually move toward the position articulated by AiG this past weekend. They will do this by offering a series of more detailed analyses that conclude that their initial gut reactions were wrong and that these bones are in fact just a group of cowering apes seeking protection from predators.
Long-term disagreement (years): YECs could propose and maintain conflicting viewpoints on whether Homo naledi was fully human or just an ape. Those differences may be difficult to resolve if individual organizations have made strong claims for their views and don’t want to admit that they were wrong. Dueling articles could be published in their so-called peer-reviewed journals. Such a debate would not be unprecedented as there was a decade long struggle amongst creationists about whether plate tectonics was real or not and there is an ongoing divisive debate about where the Noahic flood rock boundaries are found in the geological column.
All three approaches are fraught with danger but for different reasons. A quick strong consensus risks being proven wrong in light of new evidence. Even if that consensus takes months to come about, future discoveries and more thorough analyses even by some YECs like Dr. Wood could cause future conflict. YECs frequently play the diverse opinions of secular scientists off each other to foster the idea that a lack of scientific consensus means that none of the interpretations can be trusted. However, because they believe strongly that there are “no in-betweens” they will not be able to resist placing the bones on one category or the others lest they risk making the bones appear to represent something that does fall on a continuum.
Some final observations
Ken Ham has just written a follow-up article and there he provides an additional safety net for creationists stating:
Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence and the fact that the only data we have to go on are the published descriptions written by those who believe there must be in-betweens, some creationists, as the article mentions, will have different opinions about this.
That “article” he refers to is my first post on this topic. I would note that data will always be fragmentary so this will always be a factually accurate statement but as I said this before, this isn’t some partial jaw and a piece of toe bone. This is thousands of bones that are exceptionally well-preserved. There are a lot of details that have already been shared and the YEC scientists can look at many of those bones right now. The future will bring dozens of detailed descriptions of each set of bones from each part of the body.
Ham also gives aid to the doubters in his audience by reminding them that these results can’t be trusted because of the assumptions of the scientists that made them. I am sure that Ham believes the bones are real but many of his followers will extrapolate from this that we can’t trust even the most basic facts that are being reported. I have shown there are plenty of Christians who are apt to just liken the whole thing to being a fraud and are comparing these bones to Piltdown man. Ham would like nothing more than to diffuse this story and having even the “facts” questioned distracts his audience from thinking through the implications of their very existence.
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