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New species of human lineage discovered — but did they really bury their dead?

Imagine a new board game, a combination of Clue and Monopoly where the best guess isn’t necessarily the right one, but rather the one that generates the most fame and funds. What would you call it? A cynic might suggest ‘archeology’ would be fitting, particularly when they hear the oftentimes fantastical speculations archeologists offer for sometimes pedestrian findings. But we shouldn’t be too hard on them, because after all, storytelling is their job. A series of papers just published in the journal eLife suggests that the most important skill an archeologist needs is to be really good at eliminating alternative explanations.

The story emerges from the Rising Star cave in South Africa. Deep within the Dinaledi chamber, a place accessible only to extremely skilled and skinny spelunkers, a mysterious cache of over 1,000 bones corresponding to some 15 or so ancient hominins has been found found. In the local Sotho vernacular, the root ‘naledi’ simply means star. In the archeological vernacular, we might best think of the term ‘hominin’ as a lexical evolution that has unfortunately arisen in the attempt to pen an understanding of what it means to be human. It captures the uncertainty in the fluxing hominoid taxonomy that now variously includes the superfamily Hominidae, the family Hominid, and the subfamily Homininae, among countless other very similarly suffixed terms.

The potential spin here is that the authors suggest this find represents a ‘deliberate body disposal in a single location by a hominin species other than Homo sapiens’. In other words, that they were buried. Conveniently, this new species (that both buries and gets buried) was founded by the act of naming it Homo Naledi. There may well be some good evidence for that: slightly curved fingers, weird premolar roots, and curious narrow shoulders to name a few. But in order to substantiate their bolder new hypotheses, the authors had to dispose of the other obvious explanations for the find.

If carnivores dragged the bodies in, the authors maintain the bones should have clear marks. Similarly, if water washed the bones in, then where is the other sediment or ruble that should also be deposited along with them? All good points, but without any nearby strata or other embedded clues to try date things, it’s difficult to get a good picture of how and when all the bones got there. And without some kind of geophysical model for how the entombing rock and passages evolved in the intervening several million years, it’s hard to gauge the full accessibility of the chamber.

Hominin

But why stop at presuming burial. Perhaps this is evidence of the first penal system. On the other hand, it could simply just be a natural fish trap where those accidentally venturing in too far simply don’t get out. To shed shed some light on the matter, an artist painstakingly reconstructed one of the remnant Homo Naledi skulls. After 700 hours of interpretive forensic labor, the photo above emerged. The rendering does look great, but without a double blind skill evaluation where one can actually compare multiple reconstructions with their real doppelgängers, a lot of those fleshy protuberances will invariably need to be taken on faith.

Archeology has provided wondrous knowledge to mankind, and our purpose here is not to knock it down. However, considering its previous overreach in many areas, we urge some caution. The memory of the FOXP2 archeo-genetics debacle of 2002, for example, may still be fresh in the minds of some. Here reputable institutions like Nature, purported to fix human-specific variants of the FOX2P gene to the acquisition of human speech to the last 200,000 years of our history. That later proved foolhardy. Similarly, the proportion of Asian, Caucasian, and Amerind features in facial reconstructions of ancient dignitaries like Kennewick Man have been subject to the ebb and flow of popular agenda for matters pertinent to local land and burial rights.

Undoubtedly when we start get some accurate dates, and possibly genetics, the Dinaledi picture will become much clearer. Until that time, artistic impressions and storied speculation will have to do.

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