One of the most confusing and enigmatic “ape-man” discoveries of the 21st century has been Homo naledi. Its discoverer was Lee Berger, a controversial American paleoanthropologist working at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. The claims surrounding this discovery have been extolled, criticized, and debated by both evolutionists and creationists. In fact, a 2015 science news piece in The Guardian highlighted the raging controversy among secular academics over H. naledi. It was titled “Scientist who found new human species accused of playing fast and loose with the truth.”1
Since the first journal publication describing H. naledi in 2015,2 much additional work and analyses of the bone fragments and other archaeological and geological aspects of the research have been published. As a result, we can now step back and take a fresh look at all the data and conclude that yet another false ape-man story has been perpetrated upon the public to prop up a failed paradigm of human evolution.
History of the Homo naledi Discovery
The story told by Berger in his book Almost Human reveals that a former student mysteriously showed up and convinced him to support an effort to explore caves in the area of South Africa where he was working.3 The student also persuaded Berger to utilize the labor of several amateurs experienced in cave exploration. Fortuitously for Berger, the amateur explorers were able to penetrate the nearly inaccessible lower reaches of the Rising Star cave system and find a remote chamber littered with fossils. Berger’s initial reaction to the pictures provided by the cavers of some of the fossils protruding from the chamber sediments was “It wasn’t human; that much was clear.”3
As the Rising Star cave system progresses downward, two extremely narrow passages connect the two lowest chambers (Figure 1). When Berger investigated the cave system, he just barely squeezed through the first narrow passage, called Superman’s Crawl, and entered into a large chamber called the Dragon’s Back. He immediately noticed that the walls were covered with fossils. In his book he states, “This chamber alone deserved further investigation, but we were here to see fossils farther on.”3
Numerous fossils were embedded in sediments in the Dragon’s Back wall through obvious flooding of the cave system. Berger’s initial announcements omitted this highly relevant fact. They claimed the fossils in the chamber below it, the Dinaledi Chamber, had been intentionally buried—not flood-deposited. This chamber contained the fossils Berger was most interested in. Berger could not get through the narrow chute to reach it, so he hired a team of six thin, small women to do the fossil excavations.
After several rounds of excavation, the Dinaledi Chamber yielded 1,550 mostly disarticulated bone fragments plus an undisclosed number of rodent and bird fossils, all buried in a shallow layer of clay-rich sediment. Berger’s team tried to piece together as much of this hodgepodge of bones as they could and claimed that 15 different individuals were represented in total. These findings supposedly documenting an alleged new hominid species were then published in the lower-tier scientific journal eLife.2 Berger’s discoveries and new hominid claims also benefited from popular media coverage provided by National Geographic magazine.
However, Berger’s discovery soon became controversial. World-famous hominid paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley revealed to the press that the prestigious journal Nature had previously rejected Berger’s paper along with its conclusions.4 In other words, Berger’s claims concerning H. naledi were being met with strong skepticism even among evolutionists.
Another odd twist to the H. naledi story is the incriminating revelation made by Berger in his book that his group had known about another section of the cave system containing more hominid fossils that was much more easily accessible, but they kept it quiet while the H. naledi story was being formulated. Then later, in 2017, Berger’s group published a paper detailing the presence of at least three more H. naledi fossils in this other section in what is now called the Lesedi Chamber.5
What Is Homo naledi?
Many problems surround the myriad of bone fragments and their reconstruction to supposedly reveal 15 new hominids from the Dinaledi Chamber. We’ll examine three. The first problem is that of homogeneity—whether all the fossils even belong to the same species. Berger and his researchers initially claimed (and still do) that the bones were homogeneous in their representation of a single almost-human species.2,6
However, the extreme non-homogeneity of the fossils was first noted by Jeffrey Schwartz, a well-known evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who believed that the huge mix of bone fragments was too varied to represent a single species. He said, “I could show those images to my students and they would say that they’re not the same.”7 Schwartz also claimed that one of the skulls looked like it came from an australopith (ape-like creature), as did certain features of the femurs. In a 2018 paper analyzing inner ear bones from the Dinaledi Chamber, Berger and his team state, “The Dinaledi ossicles resemble those of chimpanzees and Paranthropus robustus [an ape] more than they do later members of the genus Homo.”8
Since the original 2015 eLife publication, numerous research papers describing anatomical analyses of the bone assemblage have been published, mostly by members of Berger’s team. They keep showing that H. naledi is nothing more than a suspicious hodgepodge of ape-like bones (Australopithecus) and a few human-like bones. These papers reported on analyses of skulls, pelvic remains, leg bones, hands, and feet and give the same original confusing anatomical mosaic story.6,9-13 One of the few critical papers published outside Berger’s group contradicted the claims that H. naledi had flat, human-like feet.14 In addition, a very recent paper analyzing pelvic remains stated:
Though this species has been attributed to Homo based on cranial and lower limb morphology, the morphology of some of the fragmentary pelvic remains recovered align more closely with specimens attributed to the species Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus africanus.10
The most recent attempt to bolster H. naledi as being almost human involved the study of a skull endocast (a cast of the inside of the cranium). This report by Berger’s group claims, “H. naledi shared some aspects of human brain organization.”15 They are referring to a human-specific brain region called BA45. However, when Shawn Hurst, one of the study authors, consulted with Dean Falk, a neurobiology specialist in hominid paleontology at Florida State University, Falk disagreed:
“We agreed on most of the interpretations,” she says—but not on the presence of a modern BA45….“I’m not seeing BA45,” says Falk. “To me the general shape of the region looks ape-like.”16
The Dating Problem
A second problem concerns the dating of H. naledi. When H. naledi was first published, there were no official radiometric dates to go along with it—just the evolutionary speculations of Berger and his team. They stated, “If the fossils prove to be substantially older than 2 million years, H. naledi would be the earliest example of our genus that is more than a single isolated fragment.”2 These evolutionarily optimistic speculations of millions of years were soon to be dashed against the stones of their own old earth-biased radiometric techniques.
In 2017, a report was published using six different types of dating techniques.17 These included radiocarbon (C-14), electron-spin resonance (ESR), uranium-thorium decay (U-Th), and optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) in a central age statistical model (CAM), and OSL in a minimal age model (MAM). These techniques were applied to bones, teeth, and flowstones in the cave that were located where the fossils were found, with some even partially covering the fossils. Depending on the technique, ages came forth that varied widely from 33,000 to 849,000 years.
The youngest dates were derived from the C-14, U-Th, and ESR dating of the fossil bones and teeth, which gave ages from 33,000 to 146,000 years. In the end, the researchers rejected these dates and instead decided upon the older dates taken from the rocks and the high end of the range from the teeth. The researchers stated:
By combining the US-ESR maximum age estimate obtained from the teeth, with the U-Th age for the oldest flowstone overlying Homo naledi fossils, we have constrained the depositional age of Homo naledi to a period between 236 ka and 335 ka.17
However, even these cherry-picked dates completely throw off the original evolutionary story of H. naledi being a human ancestor since Homo erectus fossils have been found that supposedly date up to 1.9 million years.18 And H. naledi would have also been contemporaneous with anatomically modern humans, which according to evolutionists have been around for at least the past 300,000 years.19 As a result, the researchers of the dating study conceded:
These age results demonstrate that a morphologically primitive hominin, Homo naledi, survived into the later parts of the Pleistocene in Africa, and indicate a much younger age for the Homo naledi fossils than have previously been hypothesized based on their morphology.17
The Intentional Burial Story
A third problem concerns Berger’s contention that the bones were intentionally buried. Not only were the extremely young (by evolutionary standards) dates a severe problem for the embattled H. naledi, but the ridiculous story originally put forth by Berger and his team for the bones being intentionally and ritually buried has been just as troubling. The companion paper to the original 2015 publication describing the geology at the site stated:
The fossils are contained in mostly unconsolidated muddy sediment with clear evidence of a mixed taphonomic signature indicative of repeated cycles of reworking and more than one episode of primary deposition.20
So, not only were the fossils completely disarticulated and jumbled up in a muddy deposit, they were also intermixed with various bird and rodent bones.
As noted earlier, Berger revealed in his book that the Dragon’s Back Chamber above the Dinaledi had walls covered with unspecified fossils. These were clearly washed in with so much water that they were pushed up and pasted against the sides of the cave. The obvious implication of both the geology and the wide array of disarticulated creatures is that all the bones were washed into the lowest chamber of the cave system by gravity through flooding.
Even more suspicious is Berger’s careful storytelling to support his claim that the H. naledi fossils were purposefully buried while at the same time he hid the Lesedi Chamber discovery. If his story were true, then the Lesedi Chamber would have been a more logical location for the original participants to bury their dead since it is much more easily accessible and would not have required the super-gymnastic athletic ability needed to enter the Dinaledi Chamber. Also, why are we not being told what types of fossils were buried in the Dragon’s Back Chamber directly above it? Is it because it contains the same hodgepodge of fossil debris as the Dinaledi Chamber below it? This would prove they were all deposited during a cave flooding event.
Along with the obvious fact that the muddy, jumbled deposit of bones looks exactly like it would if they were washed in by a local flood, the geology of the cave has now shown that it is largely a single deposit.21 In addition, a machine-learning computer study demonstrated that based on the position of the bones compared to authentic ancient burial sites, H. naledi was not intentionally buried.22 These data also fit well with the fact that no tools or signs of human occupation have been found in the cave, nor are there any signs of the use of burning torches to provide the light necessary for traversing the pitch-black environment and its narrow and treacherous passages.
Furthermore, a forensic microscopic analysis of the H. naledi bones indicates they were fed on by snails that only live in the entrances of caves where there is some light.23 When you combine this with the fact that the smaller H. naledi bones were broken up, the real story emerges that these ape-like creatures were likely killed by carnivores and then hauled into the entrance of the cave system.23 They were then severely disarticulated as they were fed on and their carcasses continued to be scavenged. Eventually the bones, along with those of rodents and birds, were washed and deposited into the recesses of the cave by flooding and gravity.
Conclusion: Another Failed Attempt at Human Evolution
So, what can we make of all the bone fragment analyses and the conflicting results that vary depending on which particular bone fragments are being evaluated and who is doing the analysis? First, it is highly likely that most, if not all, of the hominid bones in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers belong to Australopithecus (ape-like creatures). It is possible that a small human, perhaps a juvenile, could have been killed by a predator and added to the majority australopith mix. Given the track record of Lee Berger in the case of his previous Australopithecus sediba discovery, which was later determined to likely be a mix of human and mostly ape-like bones, this is entirely feasible.24
When you combine the ape-like nature of the fossil bones with the young dates achieved by evolutionary methods, as well as the overwhelming data for carnivory and a cave flooding-based deposition, H. naledi stands as nothing but another failed attempt at promoting human evolution.
- McKie, R. Scientist who found new human species accused of playing fast and loose with the truth. The Guardian. Posted on theguardian.com October 24, 2015, accessed November 25, 2019.
- Berger, L. R. et al. 2015. Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife. 4: e09560.
- Berger, L. and J. Hawks. 2017. Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
- Martin, G. Bones of Contention: Cal Paleo Expert Doubts Homo Naledi Is New Species. California Magazine. Posted on alumni.berkeley.edu October 1, 2015, accessed November 25, 2019.
- Hawks, J. et al. 2017. New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa. eLife. 6: e24232.
- Marchi, D. et al. 2017. The thigh and leg of Homo naledi. Journal of Human Evolution. 104: 174-204.
- Callaway, E. 2015. Crowdsourcing digs up an early human species. Nature. 525 (7569): 297-298.
- Elliott, M. C. et al. 2018. Description and analysis of three Homo naledi incudes from the Dinaledi Chamber, Rising Star cave (South Africa). Journal of Human Evolution. 122: 146-155.
- Schroeder, L. et al. 2017. Skull diversity in the Homo lineage and the relative position of Homo naledi. Journal of Human Evolution. 104: 124-135.
- VanSickle, C. et al. 2018. Homo naledi pelvic remains from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. Journal Human Evolution. 125: 122-136.
- Feuerriegel, E. M. et al. 2017. The upper limb of Homo naledi. Journal of Human Evolution. 104: 155-173.
- Laird, M. F. et al. 2017. The skull of Homo naledi. Journal of Human Evolution. 104: 100-123.
- Williams, S. A. et al. 2017. The vertebrae and ribs of Homo naledi. Journal of Human Evolution. 104: 136-154.
- Li, R. et al. 2019. Homo naledi did not have flat foot. Homo. 70 (2): 139-146.
- Holloway, R. L. et al. 2018. Endocast morphology of Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115 (22): 5738-5743.
- Barras, C. Mystery human species Homo naledi had tiny but advanced brain. New Scientist. Posted on newscientist.com April 24, 2017, accessed November 25, 2019.
- Dirks, P. H. et al. 2017. The age of Homo naledi and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa. eLife. 6: e24231.
- Tomkins, J. 2019. Homo erectus: The Ape Man That Wasn’t. Acts & Facts. 48 (10): 11-13.
- Richter, D. et al. 2017. The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age. Nature. 546: 293-296.
- Dirks, P. H. et al. 2015. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife. 4: 309561.
- Clarey, T. L. 2017. Disposal of Homo naledi in a possible deathtrap or mass mortality scenario. Journal of Creation. 31 (2): 61-70.
- Egeland, C. P. et al. 2018. Hominin skeletal part abundances and claims of deliberate disposal of corpses in the Middle Pleistocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115 (18): 4601-4606.
- Val, A. 2016. Deliberate body disposal by hominins in the Dinaledi Chamber, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa? Journal of Human Evolution. 96: 145-148.
- Rupe, C. and J. Sanford. 2017. Contested Bones. Canandaigua, NY: FMS Publications, 155-178.
* Dr. Tomkins is Director of Life Sciences at the Institute for Creation Research and earned his Ph.D. in genetics from Clemson University.