Tricksy Hominin Fossils: Hobbitses are Human but Homo naledi is not

Previously we saw that Young-earth creationists (YECs) are at odds with each other about whether a large collection of  fossils found deep in a South African cave should be categorized as humans or apes.  But what about other hominin fossils that the scientific community have generally considered the remains of distant relatives of humans?  

What about the “hobbits” of Flores?

“Hobbits” is the popular term for fossils assigned by anthropologists to a species known as Homo floresiensis from the Indonesian island of Flores. They are known as the hobbits because of their very small stature (less than four feet, similar to the eponymous race in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) and tiny head about the size of a modern chimpanzee. The bones retrieved from this location are described as exhibiting a mosaic of archaic and derived  characters with some being more human-like, yet still not like modern humans, and others being more like Australopithecines.  In many ways the questions confronting the young-earth creationists who believe there is no historical connection between humans and primates are similar to those raised by Homo naledi.  And yet, all of the major YEC organizations are in agreement (but please see footnote) that the hobbits are not primates but are recent descendants (less than 4500 years) of Noah’s family.  Why?

A limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores where the “hobbit” fossils were found several meters below the surface (pits to the right). Credit: Smithsonian Digitization Program Office / Liang Bua Team
Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2016-03-indonesian-hobbits-died-sooner-thought.html

An important characteristic that all YECs seem to using in this case is the presence of stone tools in the same cave in which the bones were found.  They generally associate tools and fire-making with creatures that have the Image of God.  The tools are the smoking gun and no matter how strange the bones might be, they must be human.  Answers in Genesis provides the general position that YECs tend to take regarding the strange shapes of hominin fossils: “The hobbits of Flores are one more reminder of the amazing diversity possible among the descendants of Adam.” to explain the bizarre features of the Flores bones, YECs have variously suggested they were cretins, had Down’s syndrome or some other form of genetic disease that caused them to be malformed.

We observed in our last post that Ken Ham says that when you look at skulls “it’s obvious” which ones are human and which ones are apes.  I wonder if he has ever been shown H. naledi and H. floresiensis skulls along with H. sapiens (or H. Neanderthalensis or H. erectus, for that matter, both of which are considered “fully human” by most YECs) without labels and been asked which two of the three are human? It is very unlikely he would choose the H. floresiensis skull which is the smallest of the three.  And yet, AiG believes this one to be fully human while H. naledi were “just apes.”

Human skull compared to fossil hominin skulls.  YECs widely consider the two on the left and H. floresiensis to be humans but there is considerable disagreement about status of the others.  Figure by Lars Cade and made from common domain images (see references for links to individual images)

I think we can confidently surmise that had there been no stone tools or fire pits in the Flores cave AiG would be claiming that H. floresiensis is just an ape and if there were tools in the cave in South Africa, they would be claiming that H. naledi is fully human.  CMI is at least consistent in their approach to the fossils themselves. Peter Line has used the same explanation for the strange mosaic of features of both H. naledi and H. floresiensis fossils to conclude they are both cretinous human beings. Why doesn’t AiG simply adopt that view? I am not sure, but I have some ideas.  

How do you really feel about historical science?

There is great irony in the YEC approach.  Interpretation of hominin fossils and their geological and cultural context is very much in the purview of what we call historical science.  Creationists are usually first-in-line to talk about how the conclusions of historical science can’t be trusted (LINKS)  but here we see them utterly trusting the conclusions of historical science.  Just ask yourself, how does the YEC, or any of us for that matter, know that the stone tools found in the cave in Flores were used by the individuals whose bones they were found with? Were they there to see them in use?  No.  So how do they know?  They have inferred that the bones that were found belong to the maker of the tools.  However, there is an alternative hypothesis.  Some stone-tool using humans could have occupied the cave, then soon after they left an ape could have wandered into the cave and died there while scavenging the leftovers next to the fire pit. Thousands of years later what would we find?  We would find bones in close proximity to tools in sediments around a hearth and conclude that the two are intimately related.

An example of stone artifacts found in association with the Homo floresiensis fossils in the Flores cave.  From: Moore, Mark W., Thomas Sutikna, M. J. Morwood, and Adam Brumm. “Continuities in stone flaking technology at Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia.” Journal of Human Evolution 57, no. 5 (2009): 503-526.

I don’t think think that the consensus view that the bones and tools are the product of the same individuals is an unreasonable interpretation of the evidence but it is an interpretation reliant upon using present processes to infer the past: it is historical science.  The point is that YECs simply accept the straightforward conclusions of historical science when and if they don’t conflict with their larger narrative of earth’s history.  However, if they perceive historical science to be directing them to conclusions they a priori believe are false they suddenly pivot and claim that historical science is a faulty enterprise and can never, or at least rarely, be trusted.

Let’s push our skepticism of the hobbit fossils to absurd levels to illustrate how YECs truly do accept the conclusions of the majority of historical scientific studies.  Consider the stone tools found near the hobbit bones.   Look at the stones in the figure above.  When I said there were stone tools found in this cave many of you probably had an elaborate hand-axe or arrow-head in mind.  No, these are quite clearly much simpler stone tools.   But ask yourself, how do we know these were tools? After all, aren’t they just rocks that have a shape that causes us to imagine they had a use or that they were intentionally shaped for a purpose? Without eye-witness or video-tape testimony of their actual production how can we know that humans made these presumed tools?  In the case of H. floresiensis, YECs have never questioned the origin of the “tools” that are found in the cave. They accept that the scientists have correctly inferred the history of these rocks and they accept these results because they don’t perceive that these conclusions of historical science are a challenge to  their alternative history of the Earth.

But what happens if the same scientists who studied the stone tools in the hobbit cave and reasonably inferred that those rocks there were the product of intentional stone tool production also infer a model of earth history that contradicts the YEC chronology of the Earth? YECs may then feel compelled to question those inference and claim that they are the product of “historical science” which can’t be trusted because no one was there as an eye-witness of those events.  Now the reasonable conclusions of historical science are discarded and the scientists’ motives and practices disparaged.

My scenario above was not hypothetical, it is exactly what has happened.  Stone tools, such as those found with H. floresiensis, are readily accepted as real products of human design, but when confronted with enormous numbers of stone artifacts strewn across the surface in many places in Africa, and the implication for how long it would take to produce all those artifacts, suddenly the human design of those stone artifacts is questioned.  This happened when I wrote about stone artifacts in Africa (Trillions of Stone Artifacts: A young earth anthropology paradox). Dr. Mortenson from Answers in Genesis responded by questioning if these stones really were products of stone tool production. He suggested that some rocks that look like tools might be simply be random products of rocks hitting each other to produce sharp edges and that they would be “better explained by the work of catastrophic natural processes in a very short time.” Why would he deny the evidence of design in these rocks?  He does this because if these rocks in Africa which are thought to be products of stone tool production really all exist as described then it would be very difficult to imagine how humans could have produced so many tools in just a few hundred years after a global flood. Believing that he must accommodate all the evidence in a short time-frame, he chooses to question the origins of these stone artifacts and he uses distrust that AiG has fostered in “illegitimate” historical science to do so.  (See my follow-up posts:  A Creationist Rejects Intelligent design and Appeals to Natural Processes to Explain Stone Artifacts,  Billions of Stone Artifacts: Witness to the Ancient Occupation of the Saharan Desert, Stone Artifacts from the Deep Sahara: Creating Problems for the Young-Earth Creationist)

Do radiometric dates sway creationists’ judgement about fossils even though they reject the dates as flawed?

Ostensibly, YECs reject any dating methods that yield ages beyond ~4,500 years (post Flood). However, when formulating responses to scientific claims, they often seem to accept at least some aspect of the ages assigned to various fossils. Case in point: when H. floresiensis fossils were first discovered and tentatively dated to as recently as 12,000 years ago, the age (being on the order of thousands, rather than millions of years) was “rounded down” and the verdict of “fully human” was rendered. On the other hand, since initial estimates of H. naledi’s age were as old as 2,000,000 years, they were much more reticent to assign a “fully human” status to it. This suggests that, on some (subconscious) level, YECs recognize the validity of using physical processes to assign ages to fossils, and conveniently accept (if only partially) or reject them to suit their needs.  Interestingly, paleontologists have collected better data and revised the age of H. floresiensis, finding that it is far older than previously thought (over 50,000 years) and the H. naledi fossils have been dated for the first time and found to be only 250,000 to 350,000 years old, which puts them in nearly the same range as some bones in Africa that are described as anatomically modern humans.  Had AiG known about this “young” age when they first considered them, I expect they would have been tempted to call them human and then appealed to cretinism just as they have done for the H. floresiensis fossils.

Returning to the subject of our previous post, how have YECs responded to the Homo naledi fossils?  We have division among YEC advocates about the H. naledi fossils because each group has latched onto different pieces of data that they interpret—historical science—as having a particular relationship to modern man.  There isn’t a perceived smoking gun—cultural artifacts—that would force them to assign the fossils into descendants of Noah and his family, leaving them to argue over the bones which are not easily assigned to any one genus no matter how simple Ken Ham might think it is to look at a skull and know if it is an ape or a human.

Footnote: 

The primary message that each of the three main organizations have made prominent statements reflecting their view that Homo floresiensis is fully human (ie. descendants of Adam and Noah).  However, there have been individual YECs that have expressed the opinion that H. floresiensis is nothing but an ape.

In addition, as best I can tell, Ken Ham and other AIG speakers today consider H. habilis, H. erectus, and H. floresiensis as fully human.  However, this hasn’t always been the case.  For example, in 1987 AiG’s Creation Magazine ran a story about a Homo habilis fossils in which they conclude:  The features described are so apelike we could safely conclude that the creature was a type of ape – not human at all.

Now it appears that AiG has accepted H. habilis as human.  For example, in 2012 Elizabeth Mitchell wrote about another H. habilis fossil:  In fact, nothing about these findings indicates anything other than the confirmation that another variety of human being was among the people descended from those dispersed from the tower of Babel.

However, their research journal recently ran an article in which the author, Jean O’Micks, concluded that both H. habilis and H. floresiensis are no humans but are Australopithecines.  

The diversity and changes of opinion about the status of several fossil hominins flies in the face of Ken Ham’s statement that it is easy to tell looking at skulls what a human is and isn’t.   For a more complete history of the diversity of YEC assessments of hominin fossils I would suggest this article by Todd Wood:   Baraminological Analysis Places Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Australopithecus sediba in the Human Holobaramin. by Todd Charles Wood on May 5, 2010

I think it is interesting to note here that Old Earth Creationists (eg. Reasons to Believe) have always had the same answer for all of these hominin fossils. None of them, including even Homo neanderthalesis, have the Image of God and therefore are not humans and they are not related by common ancestry to humans.   Ironically, this group is more anti-evolution (no common ancestry, no speciation) than are the YECs who believe that many species share common ancestors.

References:

The most up-to-date analysis of the H. floresiensis fossils can be found in this recent article: Argue, Debbie, Colin P. Groves, Michael SY Lee, and William L. Jungers. “The affinities of Homo floresiensis based on phylogenetic analyses of cranial, dental, and postcranial characters.” Journal of Human Evolution (2017).http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248417300866

Moore, Mark W., Thomas Sutikna, M. J. Morwood, and Adam Brumm. “Continuities in stone flaking technology at Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia.” Journal of Human Evolution 57, no. 5 (2009): 503-526.

Common Domain sources for the images in the hominid skull figure:

Homo sapiens:http://wallpaper-gallery.net/single/skull/skull-13.html
Homo erectus: http://www.dlt.ncssm.edu/tiger/360views/Hominid_Skull-Homo_erectus_PekingMan_800x600/index.html
Homo naledi: https://elifesciences.org/articles/24232
Homo habilis: http://www.dlt.ncssm.edu/tiger/360views/Hominid_Skull-Homo_habilis_OH_24_Twiggy(DukeB)_1200x900/index.html
Homo floresiensis: http://donsmaps.com/hobbitsflores.html

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Editing provided by LC

 

Comments

  1. datadroid says:

    Anti-evolution creationists (YEC or OEC) often attack a caricature of evolution in which they claim that it predicts a “half ape/half human” should exist, and since none of the hominins found are exactly “half ape/half human,” they insist that they must be one or the other. Of course, what evolutionary theory actually predicts (and what is actually found) are species that do not conveniently fit into either category. The fact that even those who insist on clean separation between “ape” and “human” lineages are unable to agree with each other (or even within their own organizations) on where many of these species fall on that “divide” shows both the great accuracy of evolutionary theory and utter vacuity of anti-evolution claims.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tb29607 says:

    People affected by Down’s syndrome and cretinism are severely disabled, dependent on public support, and the majority require assistance with the activities of daily living. The vast majority of other genetic disorders are similarly disabling and the vast majority more so. How would a population of such people survive? And assuming the diseased humans theory is correct, wouldn’t the morphologic features of the diseases be apparent in the fossils (short, broad thumbs and great toes in Down’s syndrome, disproportionately short limbs in cretenism for example)?

    Liked by 1 person

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