Naledi and human evolution: A carefuly case of identity

So we had quite the stir in the world of bones last month. The findings on Homo naledi, a prehistoric hominid that might have buried its dead a few million years before hominids were supposed to know what “dead” really meant, were released this September.

I must admit, I am not a trained paleoanthropologist by any means, merely a student of culture. Still, my background gives me pause whenever a concept like “ritual burial” is mentioned. Burying dead is a tall order, one that requires abstract thought and concepts of individual and cosmic identity. And the academic world rightly paused when the news on H. naledi was unveiled. As I said, burying dead is a rather tall order, and one that ought to make us consider.

There are tenuous strands of meat and gristle–by contemporary understanding–that make us human. And one of those strands is the complex and abstract idea that allows such a ridiculous concept as ritualistically and purposefully disposing of our dead. That a creature–one which, admittedly, may have evolved into us–could do something like that a couple of million years ago (the findings on when naledi lived are not yet in) is striking. But we should be careful not to anthropomorphosize our ancestors too soon.

I recently read “The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack” by Ian Tattersall, a nonfiction tome about the evolution of our understanding of human evolution. His writing was brusque; toward the middle, the narrative devolved into almost pure species categorization–I felt like I needed more charts to keep up–and the book only started getting really interesting during the final pages when Tattersall switched from reportage to speculation. But he made a fair point repeatedly throughout.

That point was that our understanding of human evolution has been jaundiced by scientists who wanted to believe that human evolution was the ultimate result of a single, perfect line of development. As a result, the scientific community has tended to overplay the humanity of prehistoric species in an attempt to sync us–humanity–up with our predecessors because, presumably, we want our ancestors to be like us. That idea has been anathema to the real understanding of human evolution, Tattersall said, which is far more complex than a single lineage. Given the number of fossils in the fossil record, I’m willing to agree. But the nature of what makes us human still remains.

Many things have been suggested as what makes us human: tool making, art, religion. But maybe none of these is the best classification. Maybe what separates us from the animals is that there is no other creature that seeks its own origins. Maybe a better name for our species would be homo petitor, the “man who seeks.” After all, isn’t any quest, whether it is artistic, scientific or spiritual, is ultimately a quest for the self?

We are always straining for something to make us special. Tattersall argues against that; he argues against there being anything particularly special about being a human being. But through writing his book, Tattersall covertly concedes that there is something to special about being human, namely the idea that only humans would bother to write a book. Likewise, although naledi may or may not have buried its dead prematurely (according to the fossil, and cognitive, record), it takes a human mind to consider the consequences of such an action.

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