Homo naledi: Ape, Man, or Ape-man?

“Everybody knows fossils are fickle; bones will sing any song you want to hear” So opined Discover magazine back in 1990. This statement accurately describes the discovery of the fossils of Homo naledi.  The bones, which the finders presented as human, have been fought over in both the creationist and evolutionist community in an attempt to determine what, exactly, they are.  While all the nuances of that battle are beyond the scope of what we can talk about in this article, we are going to talk about what was found and how it should be viewed.

The fossils that comprise Homo naledi were discovered in 2015 by Lee Berger, a well known evolutionary paleontologist who has done extensive work with human fossils. Berger, a former student, and some amateur cavers, made multiple trips into the Rising Star cave system in South Africa.  After crawling through a very narrow, difficult to access, passageway, they reached what is known as the Dinaledi chamber, where they found the fossils. The path to the chamber was so small that Berger had to hire a team of small, thin women to excavate for him, as he and his fellow explorers could not reach it. The Dinaledi chamber was fruitful: over 1500 bones came out of it, mostly disarticulated and including obvious non-human bones, such as rodents and birds.  Other chambers in the cave also held fossils, which had obviously been placed there via flooding, a fact which Berger mostly concealed from the public.

When Berger published his paper, he reported approximately fifteen separate individuals according to his reconstruction.  He claimed, despite not seeing the fossils in the Dinaledi chamber personally, that it looked as though they had been intentionally buried.  This led him to conclude that the fossils, which were badly damaged and piecemeal, were likely human, or pre-human,  hence their position in the genus Homo. The premier science journal in the world, Nature, refused to publish Berger’s paper. This is not necessarily indicative of a bad paper, but it is revealing that they did so, given how important the discovery would have been if it was accurate.  Berger eventually published it in a much less prestigious journal.

There are significant issues with the story Berger tells in his papers. One is that Berger assumes that all the bones are of the same organism.  Other evolutionists have commented that the bones are too disparate to have come from the same organism. This would weigh heavily against these fossils being human. When humans bury their dead, they do not tend to mix them with other organisms. Human burials tend to be clustered on their own, apart from other organisms. In the rare times they are found together, the animal bones are not mixed with human bones.

However, the mixture of bones is hardly the only issue. The evolutionists also have a radiometric dating problem. While Berger speculated that the fossils could be as much as 2 million years old, radiometric dating done on the site revealed that the bones were only a few hundred thousand years old.  This puts it far too late to be a human ancestor. From a creationist perspective, this is irrelevant as we do not accept radiometric dates as accurate in general, but it is a pickle for the evolutionists.

A bigger problem for those creationists and there are a few, who make Homo naledi into a human fossil group is the problem of burial. It is very difficult to access the chamber where these bones were found. Most people adult-sized simply could not reach it. Therefore viewing it as a burial chamber is a massive reach, especially given other bones were found in another chamber of the cave which were also classified as Homo naledi bones.

Some creationists have appealed explicitly to statistical baraminological methods to claim Homo naledi is human. While the issues with statistical baraminology are myriad, the issue here are the characters that were used.  Statistical baraminology is meant to be performed holistically. However, the original studies done by O’Micks and Wood in 2016 used craniodental data only to present Homo naledi as human. O’Micks then used postcranial data and craniodental data to come to the conclusion that it was actually not human. This led Wood to accuse O’Micks of data manipulation in a series of papers published to refute O’Micks. To his credit, O’Micks stuck to his guns and did a second study using ribs and other skeletal data which confirmed that, according to statistical baraminology, Homo naledi was not human.

While some evolutionists and some creationists seem convinced of Homo naledi’s importance as either a human ancestor or explicitly human, they are not supported by the weight of evidence, either baraminological or anatomical.  Homo naledi should be consigned to the overflowing bin of failed ape to man transitions. It is not human, nor is it a human ancestor. Most likely it is an australopithecine like Lucy, an extinct ape.

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