Rosemary Joyce Ph.D.

What Makes Us Human

Family Reunion

The ancestral human family expands, putting a spotlight on treatment of the dead

Posted Sep 10, 2015

Homo naledi appeared on the scene with a splash surpassing anything that had been seen in research on fossils of human ancestors for years. Popular science website IFLScience exclaimed, "Brace yourself: this discovery is huge. So huge that its profound implications will shake up our very own family tree."

NPR emphasized the "strange bones" and the "mystery surrounding this newfound species."

National Geographic reproduced an artist's reconstruction with the headline: This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?

A very good question.

Published in an open access journal (read the original papers here and here), the scholarly reports argue for new understanding of the way the genus Homo, to which modern humans and their closest ancestors belong, emerged between 3 and 2 million years ago.

This is already a period crowded with identified fossils and species. Lee Berger, the lead scientist on the project, said, “I do believe that the field of paleoanthropology had convinced itself, as much as 15 years ago, that we had found everything—that we were not going to make major discoveries and had this story of our origins figured out.”

The new project has documented over 1500 individual bones—a small population, enough to begin talking about social life, with 15 distinct individuals represented. John Hawkes of the University of Wisconsin remarks, "We have every age group represented...We have newborns; we have children of almost every age; we have adults and old adults."

This group has an intriguing set of physical features:

"[T]he mosaic of contrasting anatomical features, including more modern-looking jaws and teeth and feet... warrant the hominin’s placement as a species in the genus Homo, not Australopithecus, the genus that includes the famous Lucy species that lived 3.2 million years ago. The hands of the newly discovered specimens reminded some scientists of the earliest previously identified specimens of Homo habilis... the feet of the new species [are] “virtually indistinguishable from those of modern humans.”

This is all exciting to specialists. But what seems to have drawn hyperboles from the press are the implications for the behavior, and possibly, the beliefs, of these ancestral members of our extended family.

The Rising Star cave is difficult to enter, with a narrow access, the bones found far away from the outside world. The entry was so narrow that a special crew of scientists had to be recruited—six women able to squeeze through the 7.5-inch gap.

The product of the work of these intrepid researchers, and the other members of the more than 60 person team, is documentation of a group of ancient hominins promising new understanding of the life of early social groups.

As the New York Times explains, "[T]he discovery suggests that some early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber, a behavior previously considered limited to modern humans."

How did the fossil bones get deep into the cave?

The researchers ruled out water washing remains into the cave based on the cave sediments; and found no marks of animal teeth that would suggest they were brought there by a predator. Details show that the skeletons were deposited in a series of events, not all at once, although a series of accidents trapping Homo naledi venturing into a deep cave cannot yet be ruled out.

The team concludes that a more likely explanation is deliberate placement of dead bodies by these early hominins. 

Some experts have suggested other ways to account for the accumulation. Science quotes Curtis Marean of Arizona State University speculating that the fossils could be much more recent than the research team suggests: "If they date to the last 300,000 years, then it is plausible that early modern humans killed them and stashed them in the cave as part of a ritual.”

In either scenario, what the researchers accept is that deliberate placement of a set of dead bodies is likely meaningful. National Geographic agrees and makes a further inference: "Disposal of the dead brings closure for the living, confers respect on the departed, or abets their transition to the next life. Such sentiments are a hallmark of humanity."

And this is where caution starts being expressed. The New York Times distinguishes placing bodies in a particular place from fully modern burial rites: "Some of the scientists referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead, but by 'ritual' they said they meant a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite."

Lead scientist Berger seems more ready to acknowledge that the "repeated practice" seen at the cave cannot be so arbitrarily separated from later practices accepted to have meaning, saying:

"We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human. Have we been wrong all along about this kind of behaviour that we thought was unique to modern humans? Did we inherit that behaviour from deep time and is it something that (the earliest humans) have always been able to do?"

What is tripping us up is our equation of awareness of mortality and how contemporay religions deal with this awareness. Rather than start with ritual, we might consider the awareness of loss that fuels mourning. We needn't imagine that the entire complexity of a modern religion existed to accept that ancient hominins shared a human capacity for mourning the dead.

That kind of sensibility of loss arguably is shown by non-human animals, like chimpanzees, today. Is it such a radical step from carrying the body of a deceased loved one around while mourning the loss, to placing that body somewhere specific when the loss is finally acknowledged and accepted? If chimpanzees have such impulses, why should we deny the possibility in early members of our own genus?

In some ways, the possible ritualized treatment of the dead distracts attention from the main promise of having a population of early hominins to study. The BBC quotes Berger:

"We are going to know when its children were weaned, when they were born, how they developed, the speed at which they developed, the difference between males and females at every developmental stage from infancy, to childhood to teens to how they aged and how they died."

That will be the real payoff. Not a mystery to solve, but a history to resolve. But that history will need to take into account many things we struggle to maintain as distinctively human.

Giving up our tenacious desire to be very different will be a necessary first step to understanding our species as emergent from our past, not transcendent over it.

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