Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Did Homo naledi bury their dead?

I am continuing my recently-found interest in human origins.

All the more reason I was glad to find this article at PBS' NOVA. It detailed how 1,550 bones from the early humans known as Homo naledi were found in a remote cave in South Africa. The beginning of the text starts out like an adventure novel, speaking of voyaging through "nauseatingly narrow passages" and traversing a "40-foot vertical drop" that was only eight inches wide in a few places.
It's not just the geography of the location that makes this find interesting. There are a few other peculiar facts as well.

For one thing, the bones are exclusively from Homo naledi. The bones do not show signs of teeth marks or other such telltale signs that they were carried there by predators. If the cave were the bottom of a once open pit that they all fell into then the bones should be shattered and scattered at the point of impact. There should also be bones of other animals present. No, the skeletons are in many cases complete and "lying more or less in the position they last had in life." The conclusion one must come preliminary stages that these Homo naledi went through the claustrophobic constraints to bury their dead.

It's curious then to speculate just how far back hominids had a concept of death. Contemporary apes have demonstrated an unambiguous understanding that death is irreversible when one of their group dies. Chimpanzees and other primates exhibit mourning behaviors of watching over a corpse in silence or grooming it. They may sometimes stop eating out of grief. In other cases, members of the groups have filed past corpses to say goodbye, almost in a manner like a human wake. Unlike humans, however, the apes do not bury their dead.

Is this what happened in the cave in South Africa? Sure looks that way, even though it can't be said for certain. The mass pile of dead might be from one catastrophe or another. But it just looks so ritualistic. This cave, one so difficult to get into, was designated as a sacred space for the dead by our distant ancestors. At the very least, it might have been a practical matter. It was a convenient repository to store corpses so the dead weren't laying around and decomposing, stinking up and contaminating everyone else. There's just an uncomfortable amount of guesswork sometimes in these matters as one paleontologist points out in the article.

“Mortuary ‘rituals’ wherein pinheads [the nickname given to the Homo naledi due to their small craniums] regularly dispose of corpses makes a better headline than ‘we don’t yet have a clue,’ ” William Jungers, a paleontologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, told National Geographic.

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