Sunday 20 September 2015

On the Politics of Human Origins – Homo naledi and beyond

Martin Porr and Jacqueline Matthews

The topic of human origins has been making headlines again recently with the announcement from the Rising Star team of the new species, Homo naledi. The open access eLife articles describing this new species and its geological and taphonomic context can be found here and here (respectively).

Image of the Dinaledi skeletal specimens from Berger et al. 2015 (CC BY 4.0)

As was to be expected, the discovery and its circumstances (including the dramatic cave and the trowelblazers who worked in it!) have generated immense interest but also quite a bit of controversy. Each new find in palaeoanthropology and announcements of new human or hominin species has always tended to generate fierce debates among academics, and in a positive move in this case these debates are now far more accessible and open to the public rather than being locked into academic-only spaces (for commentary on this aspect see this Savage Minds post and also John Hawks' recent blog post).

These debates usually surround issues of dating and taxonomic-morphological determination and therefore the position of the respective find in the greater narrative of human evolution. In the case of the latter, the question almost always arises if the finds in question can be regarded as ‘human’ or not, and whether they are part of the lineage that leads to ‘us’, to modern humans. However, in the case of human evolution these questions are not only discussed in relation to morphological or anatomical features, but – in the presence of suitable archaeological evidence – also in relation to behavioural or cognitive features. Common questions include: Did they think like us?, or; Did they have language? Such features are already being discussed in the case of Homo naledi. For example, in their original research articles the authors suggested that the archaeological find situation in a remote part of a cave system implies that the human remains might have been intentionally placed there drawing into question whether this species had ‘mortuary rituals’ or ideas of an afterlife – and we would refer the reader to Rosemary Joyce’s tremendous post on the treatment of the dead in relation to such discussions.

There are already many thorny questions to answer in relation to Homo naledi, we’ve just introduced a few prominent ones above, and it is still far too early to assess the impact of this finding on the broader narrative of human origins (especially as we await dating, etc.). The discussions around this recent case also draws our attention to the often under-appreciated fact that debates about human evolution and origins are far from purely technical and scientific affairs. Rather such debates reflect beliefs and convictions about what it means to be human and what the relationships between contemporary and past populations and their respective identities are. These debates demonstrate that the concern with human origins always takes place in a complex historical, social and cultural landscape. In relation to this recent discovery a number of online articles have recently been published that deal with these aspects, put simply: the politics of human origins. For the rest of this post we’ve pulled together a quick annotated selection of some recent articles and news stories dealing with aspects of this ‘discovery’ beyond the anatomical assessments and archaeological find situations.

Screenshot from Jon Marks' Tales of the Ex-Apes Trailer #2

         Moss: The Ugly Nationalist Politics of Human Origins
Candida Moss wrote a great piece for The Daily Beast, which draws a lot from Jon Marks’ latest book, Tales of the Ex-Apes (pictured above). In this piece, she stresses the nationalist historical dimension of anthropological research (in a wider sense of the term) and that research about origins of different kinds of humans and ethnicities has played an important part in the establishment of European nationalism in the 19th century. These observations emphasise that there are no purely biological facts, but that all such facts are a consequence of hypotheses, observations and interpretations, which are always driven by explicit and implicit political agendas and interests of individual researchers and research traditions. At the same time, these aspects draw attention to the tendency to naturalise social and historical differences with reference to supposedly underlying biological and natural processes or dispositions. This is of course the logic and basis of racism, which as an ideology fuelled some of the most appalling atrocities of the 19th and 20th century.

            ABC News: Discovery of new human ancestor Homo naledi sparks racism row in South Africa
Those who followed the presentation of Homo naledi at the University of Witwatersrand will know that this discovery was regarded by representatives of the current South African government as a major source of pride and as evidence that all living humans share a common ancestry and that can be traced back to Sub-Saharan Africa or even South Africa. (We are reminded here of the meeting between President Obama and Lucy in Ethiopia earlier this year, in which this sense of pride and connectedness was also very strong). This is probably very much in line with the Western interpretation of these finds and the view that we are all essentially Africans or – as Richard Dawkins has said – African apes. Therefore, it might possibly come as a surprise to some that a recent ABC News story reported of accusations from prominent individuals within South Africa who saw the recent palaeoanthropological research as supporting a view of African people as “sub-human” or closer to “baboons”. Such a critique draws our attention to racist traditions of colonialism and the misuse of scientific research in attempts to ‘rank’ colonised peoples as supposedly ‘lower’ than Europeans – this is an ugly history that was repeated in many areas of the world, and which is clearly still a prominent concern for (at least some) affected individuals. There is of course another layer to the issue reported in this article, namely that the current scientific explanations and interpretations are also rejected by Christian fundamentalist groups, because they contradict the account given of human origins in the Bible. 

         O'Grady: Humans aren’t so special after all: The fuzzy evolutionary boundaries of Homo sapiens
The original authors have of course strongly rejected the claims mentioned above and have emphasised their view that the respective finds rather support a universal biological heritage of all living humans; the authors' also highlight the complexity of the global human evolutionary past that becomes more and more apparent with each new find. Cathleen O'Grady picks up this thread of complexity in her piece for Ars Technica, which deals with ‘fuzzy’ evolutionary boundaries (this is bound to drive archaeology undergrad students mad). O’Grady writes that: "the fuzzy beginnings of the genus Homo make it clear that defining the difference between us and our closest relatives is a complex problem: we share our bipedalism, our abstract thought, and possibly even our capacity for toolmaking with other species, and it’s not even all that clear where the boundaries of fossil species lie".

          de Waal: Who Apes Whom?
As we mentioned above, palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic archaeology move within a complex landscape of social and historical interpretations and these fields continue to create an even more complex assessment of global human variability in the past. While many members of the public and indeed researchers seem to be obsessed with finding the origin for humanity or the one trait that made us human, there are others who would argue that this strategy is fundamentally flawed (including, we should note, ourselves). Frans de Waal provides an insightful commentary on this topic for The New York Times, he writes that: "The discovery of these fossils is a major paleontological breakthrough. Why not seize this moment to overcome our anthropocentrism and recognize the fuzziness of the distinctions within our extended family? We are one rich collection of mosaics, not only genetically and anatomically, but also mentally".

At times like this it is important to remind ourselves that research into human origins is not immune from politics. These political dimensions are not something that can be avoided nor are they a reason to cease such research, but what they do call for is a greater awareness of the complex landscapes that human origins research exists within and is produced from. It is also necessary to recognise that anthropology’s aim is not to find universal characteristics of human beings and their origins, rather it needs to be focused on recognising and understanding the dynamic meshwork of similarities and differences that is humanity – both in the deep past as well as the present. As such, anthropology, palaeoanthropology and archaeology can play vital roles in contributing to critical debates about the many ways of being human and the creation of identity.

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