Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently (or you’re avoiding the news, understandably), you might have noticed some big announcements came out of South Africa this week. A team of researchers, led by Lee Berger and John Hawks, announced 1) the age of Homo naledi 2) a new chamber discovered with fossils in it 3) a relatively complete naledi skeleton from that chamber. As expected, these stories made headlines. Some excellent overviews of these findings have already been written–including this one by Nathan Lents–so I’d like to do something different. I want to address a problem of a subset of news headlines, headlines that screamed that the naledi news was “controversial” and hotly debated. This is a common problem with the media, specifically science communication, who are trying to get people to click on their stories by calling a discovery “the first,” “the most,” “controversial,” etc.
I’m here today to advocate a change in that practice. Let’s celebrate the fossils for what they are (amazing) and for what they teach us (a lot). A fossil discovery doesn’t have to be over-the-top-controversial to be interesting (and spoiler alert–from my vantage point on the edge of paleoanthropology–this news does not appear to incite quite the rage or disbelief some headlines imply). Fossil discoveries can be interesting, fascinating, and exciting for other reasons, the recent naledi announcement is a great example. Science is all about asking new questions, exploring the unknown, and questioning previous hypotheses. Now that is exciting. From day one, naledi has forced us to do just that: question our previous notions and ask questions previously unimaginable. So I’ve come up with a short list of other reasons we can celebrate naledi, besides controversy:
- Fossils are beautiful. I mean, have you seen this face? Take a minute to look at it. Really look at it. I can’t be the only person who wants to celebrate just seeing this member of the hominin family tree for the first time, right? Those bones of the face–especially around the nose–are very delicate, they don’t usually preserve for hundreds of thousands of years. And don’t even get me started on how much of the skeleton was recovered–a truly rare feat. Neo’s mere existence and degree of preservation is headline worthy, it’s no wonder the skeleton’s name means “gift.”
On a related note, retrieving rare, delicate fossils is not an easy task. It’s easy to overlook the amount of work that goes into discovering a skeleton like Neo, removing it from the ground safely, and studying it. A huge round of applause goes out to the cavers who discovered this chamber, as well as the excavators who lay wedged between rocks for hours at a time to remove the delicate bones.
- We learned something new. Well, we learned quite a few new things–and there’s more to come, I’m sure. We learned that naledi was unquestionably a species of hominins living in South Africa approximately 300,000 years ago, with fairly limited variation (the skull of Neo compared to the original skull announced in 2015 is strikingly similar). We learned that it’s possible to retain primitive traits like small brains and climbing adaptations into the recent past. But arguably the most shocking and interesting thing about this new round of finds is that we learned modern humans were definitely not alone in South Africa in the recent past.
- We’ve been forced to question long-held ideas about our own evolution and our place in nature. This type of questioning often results in advancement of science. There is a laundry list of ideas that naledi challenges: assumptions that big brains were important in recent human evolution, beliefs that human evolution was less bushy and than other animal lineages, and more. But arguably the most interesting challenge was to the idea that, in recent history, Homo sapiens ruled the globe–and ruled it relatively alone.
Evidence has long been building to overturn this notion, scientists have recognized that Neanderthals co-existed with modern humans for a time, and more recently realized that Denisovans and the little hobbits from Flores were also on the scene as recently as 60,000 years ago. It could be argued, however, that those species existed in far off locations, in Asia and Europe, while human evolution was occurring in Africa (until, of course, those humans left Africa and encountered at least some of these creatures). Naledi is different. These creatures have been found in South Africa, in modern humans’ backyard. This is fascinating–and it raises a lot of questions. Did Homo sapiens individuals ever encounter naledi? What happened when they did? Why are Homo sapiens still here and not naledi? I just love imagining all these hominin species running around the globe, co-existing but competing for resources, Game of Thrones style.
From these recent announcements, scientists have shown us something we’ve never seen before, taught us new things, and forced many of us to rethink our place in nature. That sort of wonder and growth is what science is all about, don’t you think? *Note*: there will always be discussion, debate, and a healthy dose of controversy in science, that’s what science is all about: challenging ideas in order to strengthen and advance knowledge. I’m not trying to minimize controversy or pretend it’s not there–it’s very important to the overall endeavor. I just think the media sometimes plays it up when there are other news-worthy aspects to paleoanthropology.
I find these points (and many others) much more interesting than reports of somewhat-invented-controversy. What else have I missed that is worth celebrating? Tell me in the comments!