Thousands of bone fragments have now been reported from chambers deep in the same cave system in South Africa. They belong to what has been described as a new hominid species; Homo naledi. When the first set of bones and the context in which they were recovered were revealed, young-earth creationists (YECs) scrambled to set the bones into a young-earth context for their followers. You can read more about this fascinating fossil discovery and the initial young-earth responses to them in my previous posts here:
In that first article, written days after the Homo naledi fossils were revealed to the world, I predicted the following:
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.
I correctly predicted that Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis would proclaim these fossils to be “nothing but one of the variations that developed among apes,” but I was wrong in my assumption that other YEC organizations would fall in line behind the Answers in Genesis proclamation.
Below is a chart that summarizes the positions that YEC organizations and individuals took in the days and months after the initial discovery was revealed to the public.
The most important take-away from this chart can be summed up as follows:
Answers in Genesis: Just apes
Institute for Creation Research: Imaginary creatures resulting from a mixture of human and ape bones.
Creation Ministries International: Probably fully human but with pathological features
Todd Wood/Kurt Wise: Fully human
Each of these groups has exactly the same information available to them and yet their interpretations are in direct opposition to each other. How might we account for these differences?
All of these YEC groups or individuals approach the fossils with one unfailing assumption: that the fossils must represent either fully ape or fully human individuals. Their task then is to simply assign the bones either being a descendant of Adam and Eve or just another type of animal. For some hominid fossils this task may be challenging because only a few bones may exist but the Homo naledi fossils include over 2000 bone fragments representing nearly every bone of the human body and dozens of individuals including children, young adults and adults. The bones are also found in a very unusual position which also provides data which can be used to draw conclusions about the origin of the bones. Given their assumption that common ancestry of humans with any other animals is possible, we should expect that given such a large data the status of the fossils should be readily identified as human or not.
The conclusions that YECs draw about the human status of hominid fossils partly reflect their diverse understanding of how science works and how trustworthy the scientists are who collected the data. For example, when ICR suggests that the bones are a mixture of human and ape bones, they are asking us to believe that the scientists have either purposely or incompetently misidentified bones from two sources and ascribed them to a single skeleton.
It also reflects their own ability – or lack of ability – to assess complicated data sets and certainly involves their own, apparently differing, views of what physical features make a human a human. Each organization has ended up emphasizing different characteristics. Furthermore, they have interpretations with respect to the context in which the bones were found which lead them to different conclusions about the physical and spiritual status of these individuals. For example, for Answers in Genesis, cultural symbols weigh heavily in their decision making process. They always point out the lack of artifacts found with the bones as evidence they are apes because the lack “human-like” behavior.
CMI appears to have taken what I initially predicted would be a safer route. That safer route includes claiming they are human because it is far more likely that new discoveries, such as artifacts in the cave, will humanize these fossils overtime. As a result, CMI will be able to accommodate nearly any future findings into their interpretive framework, whereas AiG is going to find new data much more difficult to accommodate with their approach toward these fossils.
How do YEC organizations view Homo naledi now? Short answer: Nothing has changed.
Two years after Homo naledi was introduced to the world and YECs made their first assessments, we can now look back and see how young-earth creationists have responded and continue to respond to new revelations about H. naledi. A whole batch of new data was recently published which has prompted scientists to re-evaluate the fossils in light of the new data. The most important new finding is that multiple individuals, including a relatively complete young child, have been found in a second chamber. The bones of these individuals are so similar to those from the first chamber it is almost certain that they represent individuals of the same species and probably the same population. With more bones from the same group, the mystery of who these individuals were and how they came to be stashed in remote portions of a large cave system becomes even more fascinating.
Let’s look at the recent responses by YECs to these new discoveries.
Answer in Genesis: The response from Answers in Genesis to the most recent revelations about Homo naledi has been to literally laugh off the new reports as if nothing new was learned. You can see some of their responses in their Answers Newscast on FB live HERE (around the 7 minute mark). In that video we learn that in the fossil record “we find apes or we find humans,” and if you look at the skulls of these fossils “it’s so obvious” which are human. Dr. Purdom mentions a few characteristics of the fossils that are ape-like and she mentions the lack of artifacts found with the bones. The bottom line is that members of AiG sound very confident these bones are nothing but some poor apes that lost their way in a cave. But as we have seen, the other creationist organizations don’t find it so obvious that these are just apes.
Creation Ministries International: This group issued a response by the same person, Dr. Peter Line (PhD in Neuroscience), who submitted their original response two years ago. Here is the most relevant portion of his detailed response:
As argued in the preceding sections of this article, one reason why Homo naledi lacks several so-called “derived traits of the shoulder, trunk, and hip shared by H. erectus and H. sapiens” may be because there were individuals in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers of the Rising Star cave system who had suffered from development pathology, most likely cretinism…
If individuals assigned to Homo naledi are cretins, then it makes more sense that they come from robust human populations, such as Homo erectus, because of their greater similarity in skeletal features to the latter than to modern humans. One explanation why robust humans (such as Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals) were more robust (heavily built) and/or different in morphology to modern humans is that this could reflect differences in development of these pre-Flood and early post-Flood humans, linked to longevity.
So CMI is doubling down on their assessment that Homo naledi are descendants of Adam and Eve, and even more recently descendants of Noah, and thus fully human. To support this conclusion they propose that some of the bones look so much like apes because this population of humans suffered from a number of pathological conditions. So why does CMI not agree with AiG? What they observe is that there are many bones that are more human-like than ape-like and they weigh the similarities more heavily than the differences whereas AiG emphasizes the differences. In addition, they are also swayed by the context in which the bones were found. That context suggests the bones could have been placed there as part of a burial ritual. Burial would be a very human activity, and thus they conclude the bones must be the remains of a descendant of Adam and Eve. If the bones belong to recent humans, then all the ape-like parts of their skeletons need to be resolved and cretinism or other pathologies become the tool to provide that resolution.
Institute for Creation Research: Remember that their initial response was that the fossil find was a mixture of human and ape bones. They came to that conclusion because, in their estimation, the bones themselves included some that were too human-like to deny their humanness but there were other bones that were too ape-like to deny ape ancestry. So they chose to ignore the context in which the fossils were found and didn’t trust the reconstruction of the skeletons presented in the papers.
So far there has been no formal response from this organization; however, I have tracked their Facebook feed and comments, and the passing comments would suggest that they are not inclined to change their opinion.
I should note here that Todd Wood has been critical of the hyper-skeptical stance taken by ICR. He rightly points out (Homo naledi is not a mix of two species) that the latest discovery of a second chamber with bones that are nearly indistinguishable to the first set and the fact that many of the bones are found together means that there really is no chance that the researchers have accidentally combined human and ape bones in their reconstructions. I wonder if ICR will reconsider their position or simply never respond to these latest findings.
Dr. Kurt Wise (Professor of Natural History at Truett McConnell University): Dr. Wise was quoted regarding the newest finding, and he continues to hold the same position he did before:
Wise, who believes that the universe was created by God approximately 6,000 years ago, argued that Homo naledi were humans “because humans are the only organisms known to cache or bury the bodies of their dead.” He contended that it is highly unlikely for humans to make the effort to bury non humans in a cave, which he says are “almost certainly burial chambers.”
He surmised that the fossils must date from after the dispersion of the people from Babel because the remains were found in South Africa, which he says is a very long way from wherever Babel was located.
Wise suggested that the human population during the time of Babel and afterward was more diverse than the human population today because the skeletal structure of Homo naledi is “markedly different from modern humans.”
Summary: For now, each YEC group seems to be holding to their initial opinions about the human status of Homo naledi. This continued disagreement is nothing new with respect to human fossils. The status of hominid bones has long been contentious among creationists. This is surprising given their insistence in talks that there is a wide genetic and morphological gulf between humans and apes.
Oddly enough there is one strange set of fossils from a small Indonesian island that all YECs agree were human despite being as much a mosaic as Homo naledi. Those are the fossils referred to as the “hobbit” or Homo florensiensis. We will compare the response of YECs to the hobbit and the H. naledi fossils in the near future.
Update 6/8/17: That second article is now available: Tricksy Hominin Fossils: Hobbitses are Human but Homo naledi is not
Editing provided by NW