Shermer, M. (2016b) Homo naledi and human nature

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Shermer, M. (2016b) Homo naledi and human nature

Shermer, M. (2016b) Homo naledi and human nature Prompt

In the always contentious field of paleoanthropology, more fossils always generates more conjectures…and refutations.

–  M. Shermer (2016b)

A couple of years ago, with the introduction and preliminary analysis of Homo naledi by Berger et al. (2015), skeptics noted exception to the speed that had been done to excavate, study, and disseminate the results in peer-reviewed publication. After about a year and a half of study (having initiated excavations in the fall of 2013), they fast tracked publication of their results and published their findings in eLife, a new online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal. Further, they provided free access to all data, including 3D download of major specimens to anyone interested. Some paleoanthropologists, including Tim White, took exception to their pace to publication (he took over 15 years to publish results for Ardipithecus and when he did in 2009, included 11 peer-reviewed papers in a complete issue of Science (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.).

Several news stories highlighted this developing feud (e.g., Lents 2015, McKie 2015), while others took exception to some of the hasty claims made by the authors with respect to the possibility that the Rising Cave finds suggested that Homo naledi purposefully buried (or discarded) their dead (e.g., Shermer 2016a, 2016b).

For Discussion 5, integrate your findings on Homo naledi from Assignment 4 with the debate about the speed of science in paleoanthropology, as exemplified by the efforts of Berger and colleagues. (Granted, the geological context and condition of fossil remains and requisite ‘fossil prep’ is markedly different for the fossils from the Middle Awash in Ethiopia compared to those recovered from Rising Cave.) Further, the original report did not provide dates for the finds, but new finds and ‘good’ dates are now published for this assemblage (Dirks et al. 2017), and suggest a quite recent age for these hominins (Lents, 2017). 

Evaluate and assess these two stark approaches to reporting new discoveries to the public. With respect to paleoanthropology, which approach is better and why? Should Berger et al. have waited to report their discoveries until the dating had been resolved?

References cited

Berger, L. et al. (2015) Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. eLife 2015;4:e09560 (September 10, 2015).

Dirks, P. et al. (2017) The age of Homo naledi and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. eLife 2017;6:e24231 (May 9, 2017).

Lents, N.H. (2015) Paleoanthropology wars: The discovery of Homo naledi has generated considerable controversy in this scientific discipline (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. eSkeptic.

Lents, N.H. (2017) Big news on Homo naledi: More fossils and a surprising young age (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. eSkeptic.

McKie, R. (2015) Scientist who found new human species accused of playing fast and loose with the truth (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. The Guardian (October 24, 2015).

Shermer, M. (2016a) Did this extinct human species commit homicide? (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. Scientific American (January 1, 2016).

Shermer, M. (2016b) Homo naledi and human nature (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Scientific American (January 7, 2016).


Your responses should be no more than a paragraph or two. Be sure to respond to another student’s post. Have your initial response done by the due date and your response done before the close date (two days after due date). 

Dania Galdo Section 03ED


Homo Naledi Fossils

Homo naledi is an ape-human species discovered in South Africa in the year 2013. The remains were found in the Rising Star Cave System located near Johannesburg. It is estimated that the fossils are about 200,000-300,000 years old, even though many researchers disagree on the date.

Article 1

According to Barras (2017), in the year 2013 Lee Berger and his colleagues from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand discovered something extraordinary; they discovered thousands of bones that are believed to belong to an early human species. This new species was found inside a cave system in South Africa, and will help researchers in knowing the time of its existence and the way in which it fits in the human evolutionary tree.

By the year 2015, the new species had been named Homo Naledi and it had been discovered that no other researcher had ever come across such species. Even though some of its skeletons were similar to the modern human structure, parts of the features were extraordinarily primitive, for example, its skull was slightly bigger when compared to that of a chimpanzee. However, it was hard for Berger and his team to establish the age of the fossils. Without the age of the fossils, the majority of the other researchers agreed that the real importance of discovering the Homo Naledi to help understand human evolution is not clear. However, speculations were that the H. naledi could be 2 million and above years old and not less than 100,000 years old.

In April 2017, Berger and his team reported that they had discovered a way of dating the fossils. According to an interview with National Geographic magazine, Berger disclosed that the fossils of the Homo naledi are aged between 300,000 and 200,000 years. However, a researcher said that the age of the fossils is surprisingly young for such a species that still has primitive characteristics present in fossils that are approximately 2 million years. Examples of these primitive characteristics are curved fingers, size of the brain, and its type of hip joint, trunk, and shoulder.

According to Barras, (2017), it can be quite difficult to establish the age of the bones of the H. naledi fossils. Many of the available techniques that can be used by researchers have to use isotopic analysis of the bone samples. In the case of the Homo naledi fossils, Berger and his team are unwilling to utilize the techniques as they will be forced to destroy small samples of the fossils material. The other option can be used to establish the age of the bones is through dating the layer of sediments or rock that blankets the fossils. Unfortunately, the H. naledi fossils were found in a cave, thus the sedimentary layer found could not be dated easily. The other option for working out the approximate age of fossils is comparing the remains with other remains found beside them. In the case of the H. naledi, there were no other species found alongside them. Hence, it still remains unclear on how Berger and his team established the age of the fossils. Nevertheless, reports are that Berger and his team found another cave with H. naledi remains, and it could be that the additional fossils were easier to date. If the fossils are indeed 300,000-200,000 years, the only possible scenario is that the Homo sapiens evolved in Africa approximately 200,000 years ago, and if the H. Sapiens were able to get to the South of Africa shortly after that, it is likely they led to the H. naledi’s extinction.

Article 2

According to Greshko (2017), researchers from South Africa discovered new species that is younger than their primitive body suggests, and it is possible that the species was in the same landscape with the early Homo sapiens. This discovery was made in the year 2013 by two caver explorers from South Africa. The remains were found in the Rising Star cave system that is located near Johannesburg. This species is one of its kinds that have ever been found in Africa. The species has a tiny brain size with a torso and shoulders that are similar to those of an ape. However, the species also has some unwaveringly humanlike features. The species was named Homo naledi, which is a Sesotho name for ‘star.’ A report published on the elife magazine claimed that, a team of paleoanthropologist from University of the Witwatersrand led by Lee Berger estimated that the age of the fossils was about 236,000-335,000 years old. The team also discovered more remains of the same species in another cave within the cave system that the first remains were found.

If the dating of the fossils is what has been suggested so far, it is likely that as the human species was evolving, it is very probable that another small brained identical lineage was developing from an earlier period, particularly, 2 million and above years ago. The age proposed by the paleoanthropologists could also mean that the fossils were connected to the early Middle Stone Age. This fueled the possibility that the stone-tool reported in South Africa during that time was not just the handiwork of the modern humans.

Given that the age of the species cannot be verified, it becomes more challenging to establish the exact position that the species fall in the human family tree. Other studies done, dated the fossils by comparing the structure of the teeth and skull with other species, and it is likely that the age of the fossils date back about 2 million years back. Another study claimed that the fossils are about 912, 000 years (approximately a million years). Most scientist disagree with the date given by Berger and his team, claiming that there are too many unanswered questions regarding the species thus, it is close to impossible to establish how old the fossils are.

Studies on the Homo naledi continue to be done following the discovery of more similar remains. Using the different types of dating techniques, a group of nineteen scientists are trying to unravel the possible age of the Homo naledi remains. These scientists are not relaying on the available information, as they find it misleading. However, scientists that have already studied the remains argue that the remains should be more than one million years old and not 200,000-300,000 years old as suggested by Berber and his team.

Characteristics of Homo naledi

Two characteristics of the Homo naledi that are derived are its humanlike skull and face, as well as, its teeth. Two characteristics of Homo naledi which appear to be more primitive are its skeletal features, and a small brain size.

Discrepancies in Interpretation

There were no discrepancies in the interpretation of the fossil morphology of Homo naledi between the articles. Both articles offered almost the same information regarding the morphology of the Homo naledi. They both agreed on the species’ anatomy. However, the articles differ in presenting the age of the remains. Barras, (2017), claims that the remains are about 200,000-300,000 years old; while Greshko (2017) claims that the remains are about 236,000-335,000 years old. Additional, Greshko (2017) offers more information regarding studies done to try date the age of the fossils.


Barras, C. (2017). Homo naledi is only 250,000 years old – here’s why that matters. News Scientist. Retrieved from

Greshko, M. (2017). Did This Mysterious Ape-Human Once Live Alongside Our Ancestors? National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved from


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