Soon after the revelation that the remains of at least 15 individuals had been found in the deep recesses of a cave and that these bones looked as if they had been deposited there purposely, I asked the question: How Will Creationist’s Respond to a Huge New Hominid Fossil Find? The first responses came within the following 48 hours and I wrote about them just a few day later (Bones of Contention II: Ape, Human or Fraud? Young Earth Creationist’s Respond to the Dinaledi Chamber Fossil Discover). The most notable response coming from the young earth creationists’ organization Answers in Genesis who took a very strong stance that the bones were just the remains of an unusual ape: “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.
A month has now passed since those initial reactions were made and I have come across a smattering of additional YEC comments most of which are supportive of the Answers in Genesis position or lean toward some degree of fraud. However, over the past three days, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) has released a series of articles by Dr. Tim Clarey which more directly address a number of aspects of the hominid fossils. These articles appear to be laying the groundwork for the establishment of the ICR position on what they believe these fossils represent. I don’t have time for a full commentary but their articles offered such a different response and are so full of misinformation that I couldn’t let them pass without a few comments:
So, what sort of creatures do these bones belong to according ICR?
These creatures were apes and humans. Yes, you read that right. But they don’t mean they were a mixture of ape and human. Rather they are proposing that the 1500 bones found in the cave are a mixture of apes and humans that were both washed into the cave either at the same time or separately. They are effectively claiming that dozens of top anatomists from around the world have mistakenly assembled a Homo naledi skeleton by mixing bones from multiple individuals that belong to different species: some them fully ape and some fully human. This, in their minds, is why the skeleton of Homo naledi that has been described in National Geographic and the original research articles has portrayed the creature with a mixture of human and ape traits. From the third ICR article in their series published today: The claimed new species appears to be a mosaic of different species put together based on evolutionary biases, not scientific evidence. The scientists built an imaginary creature from bones that likely come from both humans and non-humans.
I have to admit I am a bit shocked. I had predicted what the YEC responses might be. I had suggested, for many reasons, the safest response for them would be to claim they are fully human but I hadn’t anticipated that anyone would claim that these creatures were, in fact, an accidental or, more likely, purposeful mixing of BOTH fully human and fully ape bones. They make this claim by going mostly with my third, and what I thought was least likely option: they claim fraud:
The geology, anatomy, lack of dating, and evidence of recent water action reveal that the media blitz and excitement over Homo naledi is essentially based on a falsehood. It appears the secular scientific community continues their predecessors’ search to find a “missing link” and establish what they have already decided to believe: that our human race came from apes, not Adam.
As I read their three responses I felt like Dr. Clarey, the author, had not even read the original research articles. Yes he does refer to them but he proposes explanations for features of the fossils and their geological context as if no one else has thought of them. But the original research articles clearly address those very same questions and go to extraordinary lengths to test them. For example here is Clarey’s suggestion for how the bones got into the very remote part of the cave:
It is possible that flash-flooding of the larger chamber drowned the humans and animals taking refuge in the cave and transported their remains to the back of the cave system. Whether or not the ape-like bones were transported at the same time as the humans is unclear since subsequent flooding may have mixed them around. The bones are not laid out in any organized manner, but are well dispersed.
First, notice the suggestion that the bones there are not from a single species but a mixture of two different species. Second, he makes a very natural suggestion that the bones could have been washed into the back of the cave. This might explain the most perplexing observation about these fossils, their very remote location in a highly inaccessible portion of this cave system.
But don’t you think that the researchers thought of this possibility already? Of course they did. Much of the original paper on the geological context of this cave system spent time discussion this very possibility. And what did they find? They found no evidence that these bones has been brought there by flowing water. They examined many pieces of evidence none of which supported a flood origin of the bones. There conclusion was no mere speculation and their evidence against water transport must be accounted for. Dr. Clarey makes no mention of their many reasonable tests of this hypothesis. Instead he leaves his readers with the impression that this simple explanation had not been considered.
An “imaginary creature?”
Dr. Clarey makes the claim that the bones in the cave are a mixture of bones from two different species. Did he read the original paper? I don’t think he did. The authors address this possibility and say why they don’t believe this is the case. What about the second set of papers that came out two weeks ago about the foot and hand of Homo naledi? Did he consider those? Once again, it seems clear he did not and he does not reference it. An articulated (eg. bones found together not spread around) hand of an adult was found. That hand has some bones described as homo-like and other bones that are more like Australopithecines. To read Clarey’s article one would get the strong impression that the reason some bones are human and some are ape is that these were mixed bones of two species. But this hand was found all together! (see image to right) How much more obvious could it be that we are talking about one species and not two. The bones are found practically stuck together. Dr. Clarey does not inform his readers about these facts. This hand is not imaginary but is very real.
Added note: I’m adding a quote from the original article to further illustrate that Clarey is just wrong. First, Clarey stated: “The bones are not laid out in any organized manner, but are well dispersed” and refers to the paper as support. But here is the quote from the paper:
“… the deposit contains articulated or near-articulated examples such as the maxilla and mandible of single individuals and the bones of the hands and feet, which normally disarticulate very early in the decomposition sequence (Figure 9). These elements are found in anatomical position and in spatial articulation with elements (e.g., vertebral components) that normally disarticulate later.”
Bones of Contention: Discrepancies between the primary YEC organizations
Having taken this stance that the bones are a mixture of species and that most of the aspects of this research are tainted by bad science if not fraud, ICR has taken a very different position than that of Answers in Genesis. The latter seem to accept the reality that the bones represent a population of one species. They don’t accept that there were any humans in this cave but rather argue that these bones represent nothing more than a group of unfortunate apes. Clearly these are different interpretations of the evidence that has come to light thus far. In the coming months we are sure to learn much more about these fossils. It will be interesting to see how ICR and AiG respond to this new data and each other. Will they form a consensus about who these bones belonged to, or will YEC continue to be divided on the origin and status of the creatures who ended up in this cave?
Stay tuned for the rest of the story…
Dirks et al. 2015. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife 4:e09561.