National Geographic published an article on a remarkable find, unlike anything I’ve ever heard of – a remote and barely accessible cavern in South Africa that contains piles of the bones of some presumed early hominid – and very little else. It’s as if bodies were dumped there – an almost inconceivable feat, considering that, at least today, that would require dragging the body through two insanely narrow passages and up one wall in terror-inducing darkness. It is not unknown to find piles of bones in a cave, where some unfortunate animals fell through some hidden hole on the surface. In such cases, you’d find a variety of creatures – a fox here, a rabbit there – not just one species.
And what a species it is. These ape-people or people-apes look more like us than like chimps, but had comparatively tiny brains. The bones reveal a wonderful mix of ancient and modern features. And because of the unique location and conditions, dating is proving very hard: no layers of ash or known formations above and below the find, just a pile of old bones in the bottom of cave, covered in the dust time has peeled off the walls.
But that’s normal science, as cool as it is. What caught my eye was a paleoanthropologist opining thus:
“What naledi says to me is that you may think the record is complete enough to make up stories, and it’s not,” said Stony Brook’s Fred Grine.
That is so, so Scientific! I *love* it! 40+ years ago, when I first got into paleoanthropology (see here for details), I remember somebody mentioning that all the bones from all the human-ish pre-homo sapiens specimens found to date (the date at the time being something like 1970) would fit nicely on a kitchen table. Yet, storms, typhoons, even, of furious arguments over stuff one could not possibly determine based on the physical evidence were a constant feature of paleoanthropological discussions. This species, known from bones you could hold in one hand, *must* or *can’t* be a human ancestor! Humans must have developed *here* and not *there*! And on and on – friendships and careers were made or ruined over this kind of crap.
So when I see a man in this profession simple state what is baldly true – that we just don’t have enough information to do anything more than speculate by making up stories, my heart rejoices. There’s nothing wrong with admitting ignorance; there’s plenty wrong with assuming knowledge you don’t have.
The author of the essay also mentions:
The purpose of the meeting was to try to come to some consensus over the confounding record of early Homo, without grandstanding or rancor—two vices endemic to paleoanthropology.
If I were a paleoanthropologist and had two dogs that followed me everywhere, I’d name them Grandstanding and Rancor. Wonder if anyone would get it?