Two years ago the South African palaeoanthropologist, Dr. Lee Berger, announced that possible ancient hominin remains had been discovered in an isolated chamber deep in a South African cave system. He assembled a group of scholars and cavers to enter the chamber and retrieve what he hoped would be a new set of ancient hominin remains. The entire expedition was undertaken with cameras rolling and live-tweeted around the world. To everyone’s surprise, the remote chamber contained not just the remains of one unfortunate individual but thousands of bones.
To date, over 1550 bones and bone fragments have been recovered and brought out of the cave in what has been described as just a fraction of the total number of bones in the cave. One year later a team of anthropologists reported their first set of findings in two highly publicized papers open to the world to see. What they concluded is that the bones represent at least 15 individuals from children to adults. Because only hominin bones were found and in such a remote location they concluded that these bodies were deposited there on purpose. The bones themselves exhibit a mixture of characteristics that similar and very different to humans and they considered the bones to be members of a new species, Homo naledi, indicative of a distant cousin of modern humans.
In addition to the descriptions of this new species, National Geographic published an article and NOVA produced a two-hour special on the findings. All of this press brought human origins again to the forefront of the public consciousness. Intense interest in these enigmatic fossils and their remote location raised many questions, many of which remain unanswered.
Soon after the revelation of these new fossils, I wrote several articles (Bone of Contention series) in which I speculated how Christians might respond to these fossils and then I examined the responses that three different young earth creationist’ organizations eventually did make to these fossils.
Those responses were fascinating and reflective of the truly unusual features of the fossils and the geological context in which they are found. Below is the “scorecard” I produced comparing the responses.
As you can see there was rampant disagreement about how to interpret these fossils. Each of the three YEC organizations presented very different views to their followers creating some confusion. After all, all three believe that there is no ancestral connection between humans and other primates and so the fossils must represent either human beings or some ape. If the physical differences between humans and apes are clear, why then have YEC had so much difficultly assigning fossils to one or the other?
A fourth significant YEC voice has now chimed in on the Homo naledi humanity question.
From the moment the fossils were discovered I knew there was one young earth creationist who would be fascinated by them and would keen on taking a closer look. That is Dr. Todd Wood. I described Dr. Wood in a previous post but we could call him a maverick or freelance young earth creationist for our purposes here. As I expected, Dr. Wood expressed – on his blog – his intense interest in these fossils soon after Berger’s publications brought them to the public’s attention.
Like other YECs, Dr. Wood recognizes a separate ancestry of humans and other primates and thus has no expectation that intermediate forms should be found. But unlike other YECS, he didn’t immediately pronounce judgement on these fossils claiming them to be Ape or Human but rather made an appeal for patience and close study of the fossils. He said he would examine the fossils, write-up his findings and have them reviewed by his peers before publishing his conclusions about the nature of these fossils.
True to his word, he followed through on the process and this past week he finally made his finding public. As it turns out several other independent-minded YECs had also took up the task of examining the published data on Homo naledi and they also wrote papers about these fossils. The three papers were collected and published together in the same issue of a small journal called the Journal of Creation Theology and Science.
What did these authors conclude?
All three authors come to same conclusion: the 15 individuals, referred to as Homo naledi, discovered deep in a South African cave complex were descendants of Adam and Eve and lived after the Noahic human bottleneck. They are the remains of members of a populations that underwent a long-range dispersal event following the separation of peoples at the Tower of Babel. Bottleneck and found effects resulted in some divergence of bone characters from most other humans but they are human nonetheless.
So with these three new YEC articles I can expand my Homo naledi creationist’ scorecard.
Ape, Human or Fraud: Interpretive discord abounds
I could dwell on the fascinating discord among young earth creationists with respect to the origins and spiritual status of the bodies found in this cave. What do these differences tell us about how difficult it is to tell species apart and how it can be so difficult if there is a clear break between humans and animals? But I don’t think that is a useful direction to explore here because the difficulties that YECs have had in identifying fossils can be explained more simply than problems with understanding speciation. I think this is mostly a case of poor scholarship rather than the data themselves.
The three articles just published are far superior to any analyses undertaken by the three big creationists’ organizations (AiG, ICR and CMI). Dr. Wise assesses the geological context of the fossils and finds that the general conclusions that Dr. Berger’s team make sense except, of course, the possible age of the fossils. Furthermore, Dr. Wise believes that Dr. Burger’s team is probably right that this site was used as a disposal site for bodies, likely a form of burial.
Dr. Wood and J. O’Micks used a variety of statistical measures of the bones present in the cave to conclude that, though sometimes unusual, the bones represent individuals that are members of an ancient Homo lineage rather than an ape lineage.
These results place them in company with the initial assessment made by only one other Creationist’s organization: Creation Ministries International. It places them in direct conflict with Answers in Genesis which proclaimed these bones to be from a lineage of extinct apes with no ancestral connection with modern humans. It also rejects the conclusions of ICR which played the fraud card and claimed that the bones were a mixture of human and ape because the researchers had purposely mixed the two because of their desire to find a missing link fossil between humans and apes.
Wood, Wise and O’Micks don’t directly address their YEC colleagues but they don’t have to. They simply present a cogent argument based on the data. It is clear they have read and analyzed all the data available to them. No one has to fully agree with their conclusions to recognize that they clearly demonstrate that ICRs claims of fraud are nonsense. It is also clear that Answers in Genesis made a premature decision based on a very cursory examination of the data and must have ignored much of the data to come to the decision that these were just apes with no souls.
Dr. Woods article in particular is an exceptional read because he lays out very clearly the challenges that this set of strange fossils presents not just for young earth creationists but for all Christians. These fossils present many mysteries and we should not expect that the answers will be easy.
A bit of speculation about future directions of the YEC response to Homo naledi
If I might be permitted to speculate a bit about the reactions to the Homo naledi fossils. My gut feeling is that Answers in Genesis recognized right away that this fossil find could not be ignored and was important. They could see that there was no report of any cultural artifacts were the bones were found and some of the bones are less human than they are chimp-like. If these were humans there are so many questions about how they got there, when and why they are so different that calling them apes seemed to solve. Ken Ham is very confident and always wants AiG to have answers to every question that his audience will ask. They needed to say something quickly. After all, they always say that humans are so clearly different than any animal that it would sound awkward if they said that they needed time to decide what the fossils represent.
They took the easy way out and proclaimed them to be nothing more than apes that had become lost in a cave. I expect they hoped that by jumping on the story early that other YEC organizations would simply follow suit and – as I predicted in my first post – that it would be tempting to call these bones just apes but to do so was fraught was danger. The reason being that, there are more bones to be recovered in the cave and more bones in nearby caves. What if stone tools are found? What if it becomes even more apparent that fire was needed to find the back of this cave? What if more chambers are found that look like bones were intentionally disposed in are found? All of these findings would make it more difficult to argue that these bones represent an ancient ape. It is apparent to me that the AiG team really didn’t read or understand the original papers before they wrote their response because they ignore many indications that this is just what they will be faced with in the future as work continues at this site for decades to come.
Now we see that the Dr. Wise has carefully thought through the evidence and considers the burial hypothesis to be very possible. If this is correct, it will challenge AiG to re-evaluate because AiG would not say that apes used an artificial light source to reach the cave and bury their dead. Combined with the Dr. Wood and O’Micks articles show that most of the bones have a greater affinity to modern humans than they do any living ape lineage.
What will AiG do? Presently nothing because H. naledi is not in the news. But even more spectacular findings and revelations from this cave system are sure – by Bergers team’s admission – to come and AiG and other YEC organizations are going to pressed to respond because many Christians will come to them for answers. Will they revise their first admittedly preliminary assessment? I think they will if they take these new papers seriously – and they should! But it’s anyone’s guess. They could easily dig in their heels deny the new evidence and accuse other creationists of compromising.
Stay tuned for future developments.