Saturday, September 30, 2017

Q&A With Lee Berger on Human Evolution

The Sunday Times has an interview with Lee Berger about human evolution, in advance of his new book, co-written with John Hawks, Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story. As was reported earlier, the original fossils were undated but appeared to be reflective of an early stage in the development of Homo. This idea was shattered when new dates were derived.  As I wrote at the time:
Homo naledi, however, was missing a date—until recently. Nearly everyone in the scientific community thought that the date of the Homo naledi fossils, when calculated, would fall within the same general time period as other primitive early Homo remains. We were wrong. The radiometric dates—recorded using several methods carried out at different laboratories—yielded almost identical ages of between 236 and 300 thousand years before the present (BP). This was an order of magnitude younger than we expected. To say we were surprised would be an understatement.
Interestingly, the interviewer asks no important questions about Homo naledi or the Dinaledi Star cave, itself.  Amid all of the sturm und drang of his tortuous relationships with Ron Clarke and Philip Tobias (✟ 2012), there is one interesting question about human evolution in general:
Throughout the final chapters of the book you often mention how much there still is to learn about Homo naledi and that it’s very likely that there are more early hominim species which are yet to be discovered. The skeletal material you recently came across in the Lesedi Chamber shares similarities with Homo naledi and adds to this statement. What can/does this new discovery tell us about human evolution in Africa?

I think the clear picture that has come from both the discovery of Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi is that the story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one but that ours is a complex history. Naledi and sediba show us that there is more to be found – it’s clear that we don’t really know their ancestral history and the few fossils of other species found across Africa don’t help us much with interpreting where they fit in our family tree – and that’s exciting. We currently are back in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers and making new discoveries – particularly exciting is we seem to have strong evidence that Homo naledi did indeed come down the narrow chute the way our “underground astronauts” come – and that is wonderful and hard to explain – but it’s exciting!
This has been a contentious issue: whether or not the fossil remains were “placed” there or were brought in by scavengers. What is also not clear is if the book was published before the new dates became available, or not.  I will have to buy the book to find that out.  While the rest of the interview is a tad unsubstantive, it is interesting.

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