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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘burial’ Category

Homo naledi – an enigma shrouded in mystery

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remains of at least 18 individuals found

Jacinta: So, having watched the much-discussed Netflix film, Cave of bones, describing and indeed taking us into the depths of the Rising Star underground cave system, frequented by the very enigmatic and so controversial Homo naledi species of hominin, and knowing that there is ‘blowback’ (presumably an Americanism) about the claims made re burial practices and lithic tool-making dating back a possible 300,000 years by this small-brained creature, remains of which have never been found above-ground, as far as I’m aware, we’ve decided to do one of our shallow dives into the claims and counter-claims…

Canto: So the researchers featured in the film include Lee Berger and John Hawkes, both names to reckon with in paleoanthropology, and they present a claim that they found evidence of burial practice in the Dinaledi Chamber at the barely accessible base of the complex Rising Star system. The film, I have to say, is edge-of-the-seat absorbing, though its intense focus on this one possible child-burial site, and the possible stone tool buried with the child, means you’d be forgiven for not having a clue about the broader perspective. That’s to say, that –

the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave has yielded 1550 identifiable fossil elements – representing the largest single collection of fossil hominin material found on the African continent to date.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s from University College London, but are they all from H naledi, I wonder? Apparently so, according to the Australian Museum:

The remains of at least 15 individuals were found in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa and announced as a new human species in 2015. The remains are the largest assemblage of a single hominin species yet discovered in Africa. Homo naledi combines primitive with modern features and is not a direct ancestor of modern humans.

They’ve been dated to between 335,000 and 236,000 years, but that presumably only indicates the dates in which the cave system was used. In another underground cave nearby (Lesedi cave), remains of at least two adults and a juvenile were found – also H naledi. Attempts to extract DNA have so far failed. And the fact that no fossils of these species have been found elsewhere isn’t perhaps surprising, caves being the place for such finds. But there’s hope for the future, according to the museum:

As only small parts of both caves were excavated, many more bones remain for future expeditions to recover.

Canto: So, in the film, Berger, Hawkes and their team reflect at large on ancient burial practices and religion and how far back they can be traced in hominin ancestry, but a very recent article in Nature throws something of a wet blanket over all this conjecture.

Jacinta: Yes, the film, which I have to say is very engaging, and even quite emotional for me, for some reason, came out at about the same time as peer reviews of an article by the researchers in an apparently controversial journal, eLife. These reviews were all pretty negative, as reported in Nature. Here’s one response:

“I want to understand how the H. naledi fossils got there. They are very important fossils, and critical to understanding human evolution,” says Jamie Hodgkins, a palaeoarchaeologist at the University of Colorado Denver, who was one of the study’s four reviewers for eLife. However, “there just wasn’t any science in the paper ultimately”.

And being still under the sway of the film, I feel a bit defensive for Berger and co. I know that Berger has a bit of a rep for being a rebel in the field, but I was interested in the possibilities raised by the film, which are somewhat similar to the conjectures being raised by Rebecca Wragg Sykes in her Neanderthal book, Kindred, especially in the chapter entitled ‘Many Ways to Die’, which explores possibilities re Neanderthal burial practices, as well as other ways of treating the dead, such as a kind of devotional cannibalism…

Canto: Mmmm, tasty.

Jacinta: Sykes cites many cases of Neanderthal cannibalism, and speculates as to the purpose. She considers that it was rarely out of hunger, and makes this interesting observation re our favourite rellies:

Bonobos once again provide an intriguing counterpoint. There are no recorded infanticides, yet several cases of mother-infant cannibalism exist, which also featured meat-sharing. In one situation, following a baby’s natural death the group spent an entire morning eating much of the body, before the mother carried away the remnants on her back.

Kindred, p 309

Canto Yes, well, I don’t think we’ve reached that stage of advancement.

Jacinta: Anyway, Sykes doesn’t go beyond speculation as to Neanderthal burial, but Berger et al really push their case hard, in their paper for eLife, titled ‘Evidence for deliberate burial of the dead by Homo naledi’. And via a very long and painstaking video analysis of the paper and its peer reviews by the intellectually and otherwise alluring ‘Gutsick Gibbon’ (aka Erica, I believe), which I’m only halfway through watching, I’ve become convinced that the evidence presented in the film isn’t convincing. As to the paper itself, I’m only getting snatches of it through the commentary. I was prepared to believe, before watching this video, that there was a bit of professional jealousy going on, due to Berger’s paleontological superstardom (given that the H naledi discovery, which Berger more or less owns, really is pretty mind-blowing), but the reviewers, being expert in such essential fields as archaeothanatology, sedimentology, micromorphology, palaeo-osteology and commonsensology, really focus on the failings, the lack of support for bold assertions, in very professional and indeed enlightening ways.

Canto: Yes, it actually made me want to read more papers on some of these subjects, and to be involved – to be young would be very heaven… The major theme of the response, to me, was ‘more research needed’, and especially from more specialised experts. And the film made me aware of how difficult – and dangerous – in situ research is for this site.

Jacinta: Yes it seems to be only the beginning with Homo naledi. But I think the criticism was more pointed, along the lines of ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. The signs of possible Neanderthal burials, which Sykes is quite carefully speculative about, at various sites (Sima de las Palomas, La Ferrassie, Shanidar), are all dated to less than 50,000 years ago, while the H naledi ‘burials’ – or is there only one? – are more than 5 times further back. Unlikely – though the brain size thing is a bit of a red herring to me. Think H floresiensis – too primitive to survive, or just island dwarfism?

Canto: Who knows, but it’s a good point. Island dwarfism occurred in the past, e.g. with elephants, but were they made less intelligent thereby? Surely not. And corvids have walnut-brains, with as many neurons as some monkey species. Size isn’t everything, check this out.

Jacinta: Please put it away. And nobody is saying that H naledi were dwarf hominins. Anyway, the major takeaway, comme on dit, is that this is just the beginning for Homo naledi. They need to be more disciplined about their claims, and maybe Berger’s enthusiasm, as evidenced in the Netflix film, is getting the better of his professional judgement. There will be further exploration of this challenging environment, and more and more incisive technology will be developed, as alway seems to happen.

Canto: So, in Gutsick Gibbon’s video we get to Berger at al’s response to the criticisms, with their main argument (about their contention that this was a deliberate burial) seeming to be that ‘there may be more types of burial on earth than are ever comprehended in your philosophy’, if I may murder Shakespeare, and that it might even be expected that a species far removed from sapiens would have such quite different burial processes. And yet they’re claiming recognition of these more or less unrecognisable processes.

Jacinta: Yeah, it’s a bit like saying ‘there are aliens among us, but people are too dumb to see them – but we can see them’. Or maybe not. As Ms Gibbon points out, why didn’t the team stick with the original null hypothesis, that this was a sort of dumping ground, albeit a sorta respectful one, for their dead? That null hypothesis, by the way, might sit somewhere in the grey zone between, or sort of combining, the cultural and the natural.

Canto: Yes, Gutsick Gibbon weighs in on the question of whether we should look at sites of early hominins such as Australopithecus with more of a cultural null hypothesis than a natural one. She thinks ‘natural’, but I’d be more agnostic, partly because I’m too ignorant of palaeontology to take a strong stand, but also, as with my interest in bonobos, I’m prepared to take the widest possible view of culture.

Jacinta: Yes, in that disturbing chapter of Kindred which presents quite extensive evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism, and explores the reasons for such behaviour, Sykes suggests something in that cultural/natural grey zone. Again, she compares observed behaviour of bonobos and chimps:

For both bonobos and chimpanzees, the bodies of the dead evoke many emotions. Even if the process often begins with trauma and confusion, typically corpses shift to a liminal status; not alive, but equally not a lump of meat. They’re more intensively manipulated than hunted animals, and carried for longer. In some – if not all – cases, the eaters must know what and who they’re consuming. Cannibalism is very probably a powerful means by which individuals and groups process the impact not only of killings carried out on emotional impulses, but other deaths too. In other words, it’s about grieving.

Kindred, pp 309-10

Canto: Yes, I’m not sure what to think of that thesis, I’m not entirely convinced, but my mind is open and my brain’s not falling out. We’re only at the beginning, with H naledi and so much more…



Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, 2020.





Written by stewart henderson

August 3, 2023 at 7:05 pm