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Interview: Lee Berger on Homo Naledi and fame

Interview: Lee Berger on Homo Naledi and fame

Witwatersrand University’s Prof Lee Berger sits down for breakfast with J. BROOKS SPECTOR and discusses the larger meanings of the discovery of Homo Naledi, the origins of humanity, and need to focus more attention on science in a country like South Africa, both for the advancement of knowledge as well as for basic economic goals. And so much more.

Over the past several months, the international scientific community, as well as the wider world, has been abuzz over the astonishing discoveries in the Dinaledi Cave where Homo Naledi’s remains were found. While the facts of their discovery, and the way they were carried out were extraordinary by default, some deeper implications of what Homo Naledi may mean have also become the subjects of debate. That, of course, has opened still larger questions about the origins of consciousness, and the origins of religion.

During one of his visits back in South Africa, from what has now become an intense international travel schedule following the public release of the Homo Naledi discoveries, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger spoke with the writer about such questions.

The basic facts of the recent discoveries were reported earlier in The Daily Maverick. In addition to the more detailed scientific papers published by the eLife platform, at the time of the discoveries, the findings will, by now, have been published and broadcast in more popular media around the world. The near-instant global spread of the findings, the fascination and the notoriety of Homo Naledi still astounds Berger. He speculates that perhaps it was due to the large number of scientists, globally, who actually participated in the preparation of the two big papers, as well as the boom in social media and other electronic communication over the past few. All of this spread the news quickly and thoroughly. Perhaps, too, the decision to release as much information as quickly as possible, in order to invite commentary and peer review from beyond the co-authors of the papers, contributed to the spread in interest. Beyond the facts of the discovery, Homo Naledi’s story has also nibbled at the edges of discussions about religion. Crossing over into that fascinating zone where science meets religion has certainly done little to dampen interest in the discoveries in the Dinaledi chamber underground.

Berger says that scientists like himself – paleoanthropologists trained both in dealing with fossil remains as well as contemplating the possibilities of hominin “society” – knew early on that they were dealing with something extraordinarily deep in that cave. This became clear as soon they identified all the hominin remains inside the cave. Finding a single species fossil bed is, well, almost unique, in nature. Still, it became clear that that was the case deep in the cave, once the fossil bones came up to the surface.

And yet, one largely only sees such a mono-specific remains field with modern humans in burial grounds as a result of a great catastrophe. It became clear, the further they went with the findings, that this was something very special. They found evidence that the remains had not been dragged into the cave; there were no marks on the fossil bones, and no predator marks from fangs or claws.

Everything was bizarre about this,” he said, including the fact that there was no evidence that these fossils were not deposited there by water, as has most often been the case with other large fossil deposits. Moreover, the fossils were distributed up the slope of the chamber – something that would seem to defy gravity – unless the remains had been placed there somehow. And yet, there was little or no evidence of any other material from the outside world deposited in that inner chamber with the Homo Naledi remains.

Were the remains layered or placed in some sort of orderly fashion in the chamber? “What we can tell from them, so far, is that they do not come in at the same time,” Berger says. “Material comes in early, and then material comes in after that and it is laid around earlier material. And that is very important because of the demographics…. It is not fifteen individuals who came into a cave and died.” And then there is the kicker: “In eliminating all the natural possibilities [aside from the action of aliens]… we’re left with that this appears to be a deliberate body disposal site.”

Berger is careful not to use words like burial ground, cemetery or reliquary, but the tantalising hint of just such a thing hangs faintly in the air. We speak of the presumed Neanderthal burial site with the possible evidence of flower pollen in the grave, denoting the idea the deceased was honoured via some sort of burial ceremony, although even that is now in dispute. In any case, Homo Naledi would seem to have come eons earlier than that Neanderthal grave.

Does this “disposal” speak in any way to any kind of the birth of religious feeling, a nascent sense of the afterlife, or even just the sense of self-awareness, more generally, on the part of Homo Naledi? This may be an awkward discussion for a paleoanthropologist, in the absence of any other evidence, and especially given the apparent great age of the fossils, that the remains were clearly not human, and given the size of Homo Naledi’s brain cavities.

As Berger says about this, “We’re going to have to open up an entirely new field of inquiry [about this]…. No matter what that level of consciousness is, until this moment, we have never had any level of strong evidence of a non-Homo Sapiens species in a ritualised way of dealing with death…. That is, doing the same thing in a repeated manner…. I do think we have the strongest evidence of this ever discovered.”

Berger largely dismisses the apparent controversy over the actual ages of the Homo Naledi fossils; questions about whether they are “merely” 700,000 years old, or more than two millions distant from us. He argues that it is the relationships with other species that are the important issue rather than the specific age of particular bones. “However old this is, it is going to have enormous effects” on future research in time. “We have now shifted into the next phase. We dealt with the biology, the taxonomy, and the relationships.” A very tiny number of others in his discipline have disagreed about these descriptions. He explains that forty-six other scientists have agreed on Homo Naledi’s relationships to other prehistoric hominins. The demurring voice has largely just been a dismissive comment by one prominent scientist that, Homo Naledi was just another example of Homo Erectus.

Returning to the intersection of this discovery and religion, Berger is asked apropos of Homo Naledi, if elephants can be said to mourn a dead relative, do they grieve, and would that allow for comparisons with his discovery’s behaviour? Berger demurs about the exactness of the comparison. Not every elephant mourns or over every other elephant’s skull. Although humans would almost certainly contemplate upon the death of anyone, a friend, relative or total stranger, if it happened in front of them. This is why this discovery has grabbed hold of people; the sense that somehow, someway grieving was taking place among Homo Naledi, and that this was something we have always seen as uniquely a human attribute.

In the Victorian era, he explains, humans were fully understood to be separate from the rest of the animals. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s insights forcefully moved away from this and the growing fossil record showed a lesser separation still. Jane Goodall’s discovery of chimps using tools then provoked Louis Leakey’s famous observation that researchers would now have to redefine what it meant to be human, beyond the ability to make tools. This had, previously, been considered as the final separation between humans and every other creature.

And so the barrier between humans and everything else that walks, flies, creeps, swims or crawls has continued to melt away, save for ritualised behaviours. Except that, now, this latest discovery of all the remains at Dinaledi remains, when placed together, will inevitably have yet another profound impact on thinking about what it ultimately means to be, or not to be human. It should, at the very least, lead towards the development of what were thought to be uniquely human behaviours. Berger and the writer banter about whether Homo Naledi “buried”, “entombed” or “engaged in ritualised placement of remains” of fellow creatures. Berger holds fast on the latter, despite the temptations of embracing the former. In this question, then, must lie part of the global fascination with this discovery.

As a kind of insouciant throwaway line, Berger notes that the team left thousands of fossils in the cave, undisturbed, where they will wait for future researchers to examine with the tools and methods that have not yet been developed. To further assist other researchers, Berger and his colleagues have put all the files on the internet, and all fossils have been brought to the surface so that anyone with a 3-D printer can replicate any of them, right down to the smallest details.

There is, of course, another religious issue to be considered in this conversation. This is the one where prominent South Africans have announced, in stark rebuttal to the discoveries, and evolution as a whole, it would seem, the “I am not descended from baboons” argument, and thus the refusal to accept that humans are just one more in a larger array of animals. The irony, of course, is that here one sits in Africa with its astonishing plethora of fossil remains, even as that older missionary-inculcated form of religion and racial hierarchy are being thrown back at scientists to push away the realities of the Homo Naledi discoveries. Berger argues that it is actually better for this view to come out publicly so that scientists can deal with it.

One can certainly agree with the nay-sayers that contemporary humans are not descended from baboons, but, rather, from earlier hominin forms such as Homo Naledi. One can also agree, for good measure, that contemporary baboons are descended from earlier forms of primates as well. Or as Berger says, “We didn’t descend from chimpanzees, we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees…. Every animal we look at is a transitional species.” But has this discourse now become entangled with South Africa’s racial politics as a way to speak about black/white relations, especially given the reconstructions of Homo Naledi as a rather hairy, dark skinned creature that, in the wrong hands, seemingly plays to racial stereotyping? Berger argues that this controversy has actually created an opportunity to educate so that the next time there is another discovery, the education of the public becomes that much easier.

In conversation, Berger vigorously denies the claim that the scientists were using the media to gin up publicity for their findings. He argues he and his colleagues can’t really be blamed if they find science exciting. The pictures of the six young women scientists, who were picked for their thorough-going scientific skills as well as their ability to wriggle through a very narrow aperture and work a dark, cramped work space when they entered the Dinaledi chamber, simply demonstrated that this kind of work has not just been the preserve of a bunch of old men and their dusty old fossils. Well, it certainly helped make the story just that bit more exciting, even if they really were researchers who had the skills and desire to do the hard work to bring up the fossils.

There was no grandstanding. Instead, it is fundamentally important everyone recognised that it was dangerous work, and people really did get hurt, including some rather serious injuries. Those women actually risked their lives over two years to recover those fossils, and that fact has been important to share, Berger explains. Once the fossils were above-ground, the team published their results in an online, open-access journal, following the usual refereed processes common to scientific writing, and only then via an open press conference. In this they have followed the model pioneered by NASA in letting people know a major announcement will be forthcoming and then making the announcement itself.

It isn’t our fault 250 journalists showed up,” Berger says with a smile. Right in the midst of that press conference, word started to spread via Twitter. “It means we have moved beyond the rarefied, ivory towered place where these things usually sit…. It has become part of the lexicon…. Now you are having science as part of the popular lexicon. That this shows up for people who pay for it, I’m not going to be apologising for that.”

Still, Berger argues that scientists do have a particular problem in palaeoanthropology. In the past, such fossils were seen as especially rare objects and “people have tended to play the man and not the ball (or the fossil). And because of the reduction in dedicated science journalists because of the changing nature of the media, they tend to go towards those stories.”

My colleagues [on this project] are not apologetic about how we communicate…. But if you can’t explain science in plain English…. Darwin, he wrote popular books.” Instead of the seemingly obscure scientific writing, “Maybe we should be writing to each other in that way as well.” Still, he notes, the metrics of how often the two eLife papers have been looked at on the Internet are simply astounding. But the anti-science feeling in the United States, perhaps stems from the inability of so many scientists to explain themselves clearly to the public.

Part of the narrative, as news of Australopithecus Sediba (Berger’s previous discovery) several years earlier, was that Lee Berger and his team were just plain “lucky”. The cave where Homo Sediba was found was just an exception, so the tale went, with nothing more to find out that way.

Luck may, not, however, be a particularly positive descriptor in bone science, as in the put-down, “Leakey’s luck” – a kind of denigration of Leakey’s skill, perseverance, and care in looking for and then finding amazing fossil remains. As far as the Homo Naledi cave goes, Berger insists, “This age of discovery is not stopping any time soon.” He points out that this latest discovery is just a short distance from the presumably already well-explored Malapa Cave at the Cradle of Humankind. “Someone had been there within the past twenty-five years. They left a marker,” but they did not even see the fossil bones right on the surface, Berger says.

The conversation circles back to the way science is being supported, and how restrictions on such support has actually restricted the flow of young black researchers into this field. Beyond his own field, Berger argues that the country must “Invest in all sciences…. We need well-paid scientific jobs and then we will fill them. You will not get your best and brightest if you are not going to pay them…. We need more paid science jobs.” One could say pretty much the same thing about another field, astronomy, where South Africa would seem to have a similar comparative advantage. South Africa has world-class universities, but they need to be supported, Berger argues. This latter point had particular potency, given the #FeesMustFall protests occurring at many of the country’s universities in recent weeks.

Wrapping up, Berger says the point of the Naledi discoveries, boiled down to a single observation, which could be stated as: “There is more out there. And let’s go get it!” And, moreover, beyond simply scientific advancement, these discoveries have a real, down-to-earth economic impact too. It has generated a huge amount of positive press for South Africa around the world, and it has also resulted in a visible increase in tourism (and everything that that implies) for the Cradle of Humankind – and thus for South Africa as a whole. “I can’t tell you how proud it made me to see people queue for two hours to see the fossils at Maropeng,” Berger adds.

Trying to evaluate what kind of “value” developments like the Naledi discovery can bring to South Africa, beyond the advances in knowledge, this leads us, finally, to consider how well, or how poorly, the University of the Witwatersrand and South African science, generally, have been prepared to use this positive story to leverage international fundraising. There is an almost ready-made source among the South African diaspora abroad, and those interested in South Africa more generally. DM

Photo: Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand holds the skull of a new human relative ‘Homo Naledi’, at a media event in Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 September 2015. EPA/SHIRAAZ MOHAMED

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