Is Homo naledi a New Species of Human Ancestor?

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Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger says Homo naledi makes us question what makes us human.

Homo naledi—a South African fossil assemblage classified as a new Homo species by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger—is stirring up controversy as evolutionists debate its identity and significance. The cache of 1,550 bones was recovered from loose dirt in the nearly inaccessible Dinaledi chamber of South Africa’s Rising Star cave system. The fossils were harvested by a team of slender scientists and spelunkers who had to belly crawl 80 meters through a narrow tunnel, climb a rock wall, and then drop down a chute into the chamber where other spelunkers had reported finding bones. The bones seem to belong to at least 15 infants, juveniles, and adults of the same species—whatever it is.

Homo-skepticism

Berger’s team believes the bones paint a mosaic picture of a species mixing human-like “Homo” and australopithecine ape features. Composites constructed from four partial skulls in the assemblage have small brain capacities—560 cc and 465 cc—that overlap the usual brain capacities of australopithecines. Such braincases are much smaller than those seen in most archaic humans1 and less than half the average for modern humans. Nevertheless, despite a sloped lower face and—based on the published photographs—no visible evidence of the protruding nasal bones typical of all humans, Berger has identified the fossils as a new species of human ancestor, Homo naledi.

Homo naledi skull
Modern human skull

If these skulls were shown to scale (and they are not), the composite skull of this Homo naledi (left), with a braincase of only 560 cc, would be lost beside the modern human skull shown on the right. With its small size, sloped face, and lack of protruding nasal bones, however, it could easily accommodate an australopithecine ape’s brain. Homo naledi skulls (560 cc and 465 cc) are less than half the size of modern humans’ (1,000-1,500 cc) and substantially smaller than typical archaic human skulls. Image of Homo naledi reproduced from Wikimedia; modern human skull reproduced from User9637786_380/iStock/Thinkstock.

Homo naledi’s shoulder joints and curved finger bones are typical of tree-swinging apes. Its flared hips are typical of australopithecine apes. The lower ribcage widens just like the ribcage of australopithecine apes. And while Homo naledi reportedly has a “generally humanlike ankle and foot” in that the shapes of some of the foot bones could be consistent with an arched foot, this is described in the study as a lower arch with a different orientation than typical of the modern human foot.2

The study describing Homo naledi, published in the journal eLife, indicates the wrist, hands, and thumbs were proportioned in such a way to be able to manipulate tools. (As we noted recently, another team of scientists surveying australopithecine hands confirmed that although australopithecines have longer thumbs than living apes, their finger-thumb proportions resemble neither human nor chimpanzee hands. See “Are Human Hands More Primitive Than Chimps’?” to explore this point further.) Likewise, while Homo naledi’s thumb is a little longer than that of Australopithecus afarensis, the authors make no claim that it matches that of humans, indicating instead that it differs from all known hominins.3 Australopithecine finger-thumb proportions reveal diversity among apes, not evolutionary progress in grip engineering. Nothing about Homo naledi’s hand indicates it belonged to a human. With its curved finger bones and other ape-like features, Homo naledi is more likely to have used its hands to swing through trees than to wield a stone axe. Incidentally, no tools or other items associated with human culture were found in the cave.

The teeth found in the Dinaledi chamber are smaller than usually seen in australopithecine apes, though variation in ape tooth size is not a defining concern. The tooth morphology does not match that of humans. Moreover the mental foramen—an opening on its chinless jutting jaw bone for a major nerve and blood vessel—is positioned and oriented in a way that differs substantially from that seen in archaic humans like Homo habilis and Homo erectus.4

Who’s Who in Dinaledi?

Berger does not think these fossils match those of any known hominin and therefore assigned them their own species name. He believes they are Homo but not human, bridging a gap between australopithecines and humans. He says this is “an animal right on the cusp of the transition from Australopithecus to Homo. Everything that is touching the world in a critical way is like us. The other parts retain bits of their primitive past.”5

Berger does not think these fossils match those of any known hominin and therefore assigned them their own species name.

Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum goes so far as to say Homo naledi is an early human species most similar to the eclectic mixture of bones and small skulls found at Dmanisi and identified by some anthropologists as Homo erectus.6 (See “Does the Dmanisi Discovery Demonstrate We Are All One Family?” to learn more about that controversial collection of fossils.)

Homo erectus fossils have been found in many locations, including South Africa. Some evolutionary paleoanthropologists are convinced the Dinaledi cave just held some of those. Tim White of University of California, Berkeley, for instance, comments, “From what is presented here, they belong to a primitive Homo erectus, a species named in the 1800s.”7 William Jungers of Stony Brook School of Medicine agrees, saying, “If they are as old as two million years, then they might be early South African versions of Homo erectus, a species already known from that region. If much more recent, they could be a relic species that persisted in isolation. In other words, they are more curiosities than game-changers for now.”8

Identity Crisis

Many evolutionists believe the identity of the Dinaledi assemblage depends on its age, for they have presuppositions about what species should be found at any given time in history. Nevertheless, Lee Berger has of yet made no attempt to have the fossils dated. Based on his own presuppositions about what kind of hominins9 should exist at any given time in human evolutionary history, he believes the bones look like a good fit for 2 to 2.5 million years ago, even though he believes them to be unique. If that age is accurate, he believes Homo naledi would change the way we look at human history by revealing that several variations of Homo were evolving 2 to 3 million years ago in Africa and that he had, as National Geographic, which funded the project, explains, “quite possibly found the root of the Homo family tree.”10

On the other hand, if they are only tens of thousands of years old, then that would change the way we look at humans, National Geographic points out, by showing that even while we were supposedly evolving bigger brains “a separate, small-brained, more primitive-looking Homo was loose on the landscape.” Carbon dating, if it demonstrated the presence of carbon-14 in these fossils, would rule out a millions-of-years age.11

In assessing the significance of the variations in what he sees as primitive humans, Stringer says, “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa. Only one line eventually survived to give rise to us.”12

Nature Experimented or God Created?

Whatever species these bones represent, we know that they cannot be any sort of intermediate between apes and humans.

Nature experimented? Such a comment reflects a worldview that imbues personified random natural processes with god-like power while rejecting nature’s God, the Creator God of the Bible. We know from God’s Word that “nature” did not experiment “with how to evolve humans.” God told us He created two humans as well as land animals—and that includes apes—on the same day. That means that there could be no evolution involved. Scientific observation also confirms that living things only vary and reproduce within their created kinds. Therefore, whatever species these bones represent, we know that they cannot be any sort of intermediate between apes and humans. The only way to find an ape-man—or a “bridge” between apes and humans—is to misinterpret fossils of either an ape or a human as something in between.

Naledi Nailed Down as a Human-Like Species?

The question then is what is Homo naledi? Even the evolutionary anthropologists are not in agreement on that point, though most seem to have jumped on the Homo bandwagon. Yet while the fossil record contains many legitimate examples of extinct varieties of humans, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, after assessing the published reports, we beg to differ with Berger’s assessment of Homo naledi. We do not believe Homo naledi deserves its Homo designation.

Despite all the media articles and Berger’s implication that Homo naledi is a glorious mosaic of incipient humanity superimposed on an australopithecine base, the data presented in the study reveals what is most likely an ape. Perhaps a glorious example of ape diversity in the world God created, but not an ape stepping up the evolutionary ladder reaching for human-ness. The fragmentary nature of most fossils, including these, can make definitive identification difficult, but the extremely small braincase—assuming the composite reconstruction is accurate—and the sloped ape-like face, the jaw, the shoulder, the curved fingers and toes, the rib cage, and flared pelvis all are consistent with an australopithecine variant.

Neither are these australopithecines simply at an earlier spot on the tree of life. As we have discussed many times in connection with Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) and Karabo (Australopithecus sediba) in particular, claims that extinct apes like the australopithecines evolved into humans are based on worldview-based interpretation superimposed on the fossils.

Answers in Genesis biologist Dr. David Menton, the scientist responsible for the Creation Museum’s Lucy exhibit, after reviewing Berger’s study, agrees that evidence presented in the study does not support a Homo designation:

I am not convinced that H. naledi is human, and I don’t recognize the status of “near human.” From what I can see from the fossils and skull reconstruction, H. naledi had a sloped lower face and a very robust mandible that bears little resemblance to humans. It also has a small cranium. The proximal and medial phalanges of the hand are even more curved than Au. afarensis, suggesting an ape-like creature.

Changing How We See Ourselves?

Berger, in puzzling over how the Homo naledi came to be in that hard-to-reach chamber, decided they couldn’t have been washed there by a local flood because there wasn’t much debris with them. Therefore, he decided they must have been buried there by other Homo naledi. Assuming the caves’ characteristics haven’t changed much, this would have required them to drag their dead loved ones through a dark crawl space in order to drop them down a narrow chute into the Dinaledi chamber. A number of anthropologists find this rather implausible. Jungers comments, “Intentional disposal of rotting corpses by fellow pinheads makes a nice headline, but seems like a stretch to me.”13 University of Zurich’s Christoph Zollikofer says, “The ‘new species’ and ‘dump-the-dead’ claims are clearly for the media. None of them is substantiated by the data presented in the publications.”14

So what to make of Berger’s claim that the ancient Homo naledi buried their dead? There are other options that are far more reasonable. Perhaps there was once another entrance, or perhaps the access was once more open. Perhaps a local flood did wash them into the cave.

Perhaps these creatures wandered into a cave and were trapped there. We may never know how they got in there, but to superimpose exalted concerns about mortality and the wherewithal to conduct such difficult and elaborate burial rituals on what appears to be an ape with a gorilla-sized brain is far more than a stretch.

Nevertheless, because Berger believes that, despite having a brain the size of an orange, Homo naledi went to acrobatic lengths to bury their dead, he believes Homo naledi changes the way we see ourselves. In an interview with CNN he says, “We’ve just encountered another species that perhaps thought about its own mortality, that went to great risk and effort to dispose of its dead in a deep remote chamber. . . . It absolutely questions what makes us human, and I don’t think we know anymore.”15

We do know what it means to be human, however. We know how we got here. God our Creator said that He made us in His own image. God has given us—not animals—the capacity to know Him. And from His Word we have learned the significance of death. Death is the result of human rebellion against God, and humans have had to face death ever since Adam sinned.

We seriously doubt the original owners of the Dinaledi bones were among the descendants of Adam and Eve.

These fossils, like so many others before them, may reshuffle the “family tree” that evolutionists are constantly drawing and re-drawing in their efforts to create for us a history apart from God. But they will not re-shuffle the truth about human history or what it means to be human. We know that God created man and land animals the same day without evolution. We seriously doubt the original owners of the Dinaledi bones were among the descendants of Adam and Eve, as the preponderance of the evidence suggests they were animals, one of the variations that developed among apes. They most certainly were not any sort of evolutionary intermediate.

On the other hand, we know that all varieties of humans that have ever lived have been descendants of Adam and Eve. The variations that developed in some groups of humans dispersed from the Tower of Babel have nothing to do with human evolution. Most importantly, we know not only where we came from, but we can know where we are going. Unlike apes, we really are able to be concerned about our destiny after death. We have a safe eternal destiny available to us through trust in our Creator Jesus Christ as our Savior.

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Footnotes

  1. Skull sizes in extinct varieties of humans vary widely and include some larger than most modern humans and some smaller. Other than extreme examples that are most likely examples of individuals suffering from disease or deformity—like Homo floresiensis and the skulls at Dmanisi—archaic human braincases are not generally smaller than about 700 cc. Homo habilis averages about 680 cc and Homo erectus ranges around 750–1300 cc but averages around 900 cc.
  2. Lee R. Berger et al., "Homo naledi, a New Species of the Genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa," eLife 4 (2015): e09560, doi:10.7554/eLife.09560.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jamie Shreeve, “This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?,” National Geographic, September 10, 2015, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change/.
  6. Chris Stringer, “The Many Mysteries of Homo naledi,” eLife 4 (2015): e10627, doi:10.7554/eLife.10627.
  7. Ian Sample, “Homo naledi: New Species of Ancient Human Discovered, Claim Scientists,” The Guardian, September 10, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/10/new-species-of-ancient-human-discovered-claim-scientists.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The terms hominin and hominid are both words whose definitions embody the evolutionary assumptions (1) that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor through a series of pre-human and extinct human species and (2) that humans and modern great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) share a common ancestor.
  10. Shreeve, “This Face Changes . . . ”
  11. Stringer also points this out in “The Many Mysteries of Homo naledi.”
  12. Pallab Ghosh, “New Human-Like Species Discovered in S Africa,” BBC News, September 10, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34192447.
  13. Sample, “Homo naledi . . . ”
  14. Ibid.
  15. David McKenzie and Hamilton Wende, “Homo naledi: New Species of Human Ancestor Discovered in South Africa,” CNN, September 10, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/10/africa/homo-naledi-human-relative-species/.

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