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Murder in the Cave

published January 2016
Did Homo naledi behave more like Homo homicidensis?
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“Fossil First: Ancient Human Relative May Have Buried Its Dead” (Reuters). “Why Did Homo naledi Bury Its Dead?” (PBS). These are just two of the many hyped headlines that appeared last September in response to a paper purporting the discovery, in a cave in South Africa, of a new species by paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger of the University of the. There were reasons for skepticism from the get-go.

The age of the fossils is undetermined, and it is not yet known where in the hominin lineage the fossils fit. Their hands, wrists and feet are similar to small modern humans, and their brain volume is closer to that of the small-brained australopithecines, like Lucy. Researchers are debating whether these and other traits constitute a new species or a variation on an existing species. Instead of publishing in Science or Nature, the prestigious journals in which major new fossil human finds are typically announced, the authors unveiled their discovery in eLIFE, an open-access online journal that fast-tracks the peer-review process. And instead of meticulously sorting through the 1,550 fossils (belonging to at least 15 individuals) for many years, as is common in paleoanthropology, the analysis was published a mere year and a half after their discovery in November 2013 and March 2014.*

What triggered my skepticism, however, was the scientists’ conjecture that the site represents the earliest example of “deliberate body disposal,” which, as the media read between the lines, implies an intentional burial procedure. This, they concluded was the likeliest explanation compared with four other hypotheses.

Occupation. There is no debris in the chamber, which is so dark that habitation would have required artificial light, for which there is no evidence, and the cave is nearly inaccessible and appears never to have had easy access. Water transport. Caves that have been inundated show sedimentological layers of coarse-grained material, which is lacking in the Dinaledi Chamber where the specimens were uncovered. Predators. There are no signs of predation on the skeletal remains and no fossils from predators. Death trap. The sedimentary remains indicate that the fossils were deposited over a span of time, so that rules out a single calamitous event, and the near unreachability of the chamber makes attritional individual entry and death unlikely.

Finally, the ages of the 13 individuals so identified— three infants, three young juveniles, one old juvenile, one subadult, four young adults and one old adult—are unlike those of other cave deposits for which cause of death and deposition have been determined. It’s a riddle, wrapped in sediment, inside a grotto.

While the authors had given it consideration, I believe they are downplaying an all too common cause of death in our ancestors—homicide in the form of war, murder or sacrifice. Lawrence H. Keeley, in War Before Civilization (1996), and Steven A. LeBlanc, in Constant Battles (2003), review hundreds of archaeological studies showing that significant percentages of ancestral people died violently. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker aggregates a data set of 21 archaeological sites to show a violent death rate of about 15 percent. In a 2013 paper in the journal Science, Douglas P. Fry and Patrik Söderberg dispute the theory that war was prevalent in ancient humans by claiming that of the 148 episodes of violence in 21 mobile foraging bands, more than half “were perpetrated by lone individuals, and almost two-thirds resulted from accidents, interfamilial disputes, within-group executions, or interpersonal motives such as competition over a particular woman.”*

Whatever you call it—war or murder—it is violent death nonetheless, and further examination of the Homo naledi fossils should again consider violence (war or murder for the adults, sacrifice for the juveniles) as a plausible cause of death and deposition in the cave. Recall that after 5,000-year-old Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in a melting glacier in the Ötztal Alps in the Tyrol in 1991, it took a decade before archaeologists determined that he died violently, after he killed at least two other people in what appears to have been a clash between hunting parties. It’s a side of our nature we are reluctant to admit, but consider it we must when confronted with dead bodies in dark places.*

*EDITOR’S NOTE (1/11/16): The asterisked paragraphs from the print article were edited after posting. The originals incorrectly stated that because the age of the recently reported Homo naledi fossils have not yet been determined, it is impossible to conclude where they fit in the hominin lineage. But only morphological features are necessary to determine a fossil’s taxonomic group. Additionally, the original wording suggested that further examination of the fossils should consider violence as a potential cause of death but failed to note that signs of violence had been considered in the initial study.

Homo naledi and Human Nature

On January 7, 2016, Michael Shermer responded to critics of this month’s column (originally published on Scientific American’s website).

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9 Comments to “Murder in the Cave”

  1. Lumen222 Says:

    So you’re basically saying that burial is unlikely, but what is more likely is murder/sacrifice followed by burial?

    No matter how the individuals died, the big mystery remains as to why they are all in the cave. The theory of war doesn’t really help unless you are suggesting the cave was a battlefield, an amusing idea, but unlikely given the evidence so far. The theory of sacrifice does not refute burial either, and ultimately seems to be an even bigger leap in symbolic thought than burial of the dead.

    Nothing I have read rules out violent death, only states there is no evidence as to cause of death, violent or otherwise. Very different.

  2. Thys Human Says:

    While I support the view that violence and homocide has been a major factor in human evolution, I believe that this opinion above does not take into account other possibilities as to how those bones landed in that cave.

    Dr Francois Durand, a paleontologist and zoologist at the University of Johannesburg (right next door to the Univ of the Witwatersrand where Berger resides) is publicly on record that there is a 20 meter almost vertical and very narrow shaft down to the cave. On the basis of previous cave-forming in the dolomitic strata of this region, he concluded that Naledi occupied a cave (at ground level) which then collapsed because of water seepage. He also has doubts about Naledi being a new species – placing it in Homo ergaster (or H erectus).

    Not being part of Berger’s team, dr Durand’s views are not widely known outside the Paleontological Association of SA. I am trying to get an internet link to his views. Will inform you soonest.

    (Note: Maybe you should read Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis (circa 1961) in which he sets out Raymond Dart’s views about our ancestors’ homocide and genocide. Fascinating!)


  3. Christina Peterson Says:

    I agree completely with Lumen 222. At this point, Berger makes no claims that the deaths of the individuals found were violent and no claims that they weren’t. What really irritates me, however, is the way you misapply the work of other scholars to bolster your argument that they were.

    First, you ought to be very careful when making inferences about the behavior of one species based on observations of another. If Homo naledi is something new, we’re a long, long way from being able to infer from analogy that they practiced human sacrifice or engaged in warfare.

    Second, even if we accept that the analogy with more modern groups is sound and that, like other “ancestral males,” 20-30% of Homo naledi males died violent deaths, these remains haven’t been sexed. Still, even assuming they’re all male, the 20-30% estimate leaves us with an estimated 70-80% (of the male population only) who did not die violently.

    So, accepting all of your assumptions, the work of the scholars you cited suggests that you’re wrong; i.e., it’s more likely that the deaths of Berger’s fifteen were not violent.

    You should be more careful.

  4. LarryW Says:

    Shermer seems quite off base, IMHO.

    First, the conclusion of deliberate body disposal does not negate the possibility of murder. But there is no evidence from the bones thus far extracted that there was trauma to the individuals. It’s not clear that Shermer understands the need to let the evidence determine the hypotheses.

    Second, the decision to publish online was deliberate and not some attempt to sidestep appropriate scientific procedures. The primary purpose was to make raw information available to other scientists so they could participate along with those in the field. A second reason was to involve the public in the excitement and very human endeavor of scientific discovery. If there ever was a need to overcome the idiocracy in which live, it is now. Third, this kind of publication of information follows in the footsteps of CERN, which has been making their data available worldwide (remember, the Internet as we know it, was developed just so CERN could make the research available).

    Third, Shermer’s statement that the analysis was completed in a mere year and a half is wholly false. Nothing has been completed. These reports are preliminary and the scientists involved are quite clear about that. First, is only a very small portion of the cave has been excavated — a square meter only, and I believe only to a depth of about 20cm. There is much to learn yet. Second, the established scientists involved are leaving much work yet to be done with the explicit purpose of giving young scientists the opportunity to do the work and get the credit.

    I hope I’m not misrepresenting the scientists involved. I have the fortune of being associated with the University of Wisconsin, where the other lead scientist of this project John Hawks works. I’ve had the good fortune to attend several lectures on Naledi by Hawks, and a couple of post-docs from UW, one who did the excavations within the cave, another who is an expert in the pelvis and discussed in detail how gender is determined by the characteristics of the pelvis (and the likelihood that gender identification mistakes have been made in other previously discovered fossils). Finally, through my discussion with Hawks, I was able to learn of the contributions of another scientist, a specialist in the foot, to this project who I knew while he was pursuing his PhD here at UW.

    I’m afraid Shermer does a substantial disservice to the scientists and the science involved here. Shermer is not so much a skeptic as a denialist. Shermer has no business having an opinion on this matter.

  5. Jerrold M Says:

    Whoa! What vindictive! Of course Shermer has “business having an opinion on this matter”. That’s what drives real science, skepticality. Those opinions need to be answered within the larger science community. As does the possibility of the finders / researchers doing a bit of grandstanding. As we all know, introducing these ideas into the public, early, creates a “reality” that becomes quote of the day for possibly years, whether or not a different reality is determined in the long run. Unfortunately the truth may never really “out”, as the hype has died and gone.

  6. Joscha Says:

    The “sacrifice” hypothesis strikes me as utterly unlikely, much more so than the “burial” one. For sacrifice, you need some sort of religion with all its trappings. If it’s not to please the gods, why on earth should you sacrifice?

    Meanwhile, “burial” isn’t necessarily the same as “ritual burial”. Once a group of a social species has a continuously-inhabited abode or den, the question of what to do with the bodies of those who die there becomes relevant. At the most basic level, they attract scavengers and tend to end up smelling really bad. Dumping them somewhere where that doesn’t matter is one of two obvious things to do -the other one would be eating them up. A safe place where they can rot in peace, without the notion that they will be resting, would tend to be used over and again for as long as the group is in the area, wouldn’t it? Additionally, such a type of behaviour seems to me to have the makings of a possible origin for our overwhelming urge to give our dead a decent burial -waste disposal behaviour being passed on and slowly transforming into ritual.

    As for the idea of murder and disposal of evidence, it appears to me that carrying a victim’s body to a disposal site when there are lots of large carnivores around that would be quite happy to do the job for free and incidentally could be blamed quite convincingly does seem a bit weird.

  7. Mario Canarin Says:

    Lee Berger has provided a treasure trove of information including the ability to print 3d models of the material found. The beauty of this is that instead of not releasing information as is the norm, he has. And not many years later. Collaboration is likely – again not the norm. Not published in the normal way – yes, but will be one day. A reasoned theory will be developed using all the information, with many inputs.
    The conjecture about why the individuals were found there, is exactly that, conjecture, albeit based on the absence of contradictory evidence. One should be skeptical but providing alternatives without examining the available information, is not adding value.
    Berger should be congratulated for this break from the norm, a real breath of fresh air.

  8. Thys Human Says:

    Mario, the influential magazine NATURE turned down Berger’s paper announcing the find – apparently on the basis that the approximate age of the find has not been determined, the hypothesis of “burial” seemed far-fetched, and there is no back-up or any kind of support for the classification of a new species. I fear Berger has jumped the gun on this one – and could pay a heavy price for it!

  9. kennwrite Says:

    I found this to be one of the more interesting publications by Michael Shermer. The brilliance of this article is that he merely offers an alternative to confound the claim that this discovery is evidence of a new species.

    The article fits neatly into what a skeptic does when confronted with a radically new claim, that a new species has been entered into the nomenclature of archaeology.

    The article is not intended, at least I don’t believe this is the primary objective, to discredit the scientists who made the discovery. Shermer, rather, indicates that when making a new boast, we have to be careful not to let quick and errant thinking enter into our haste to become the harbingers of new discovery.

    Careful science must always be practiced.

    On another note, this article is profound in its skeptical approach because it fosters discussion and riles up those who read and track new discoveries in science. What more can we skeptics ask for but a good shakeup?

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