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?
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).