Thursday, May 26, 2016


Todd Wood responded to some feedback regarding his recent naledi posts:

That included a response to my post:

i) I'll comment on his response to me, but before I get to that I'd like to back up a bit. I don't object in principle to the human identification of nailed. For instance, given the vast variety of dog breeds, some of which are scarcely recognizable in relation to each other or the wild canines from which they derive, by the same token you could have considerable variation in humans.

ii) In addition, I'm not challenging a burial hypothesis.

iii) That said, Todd himself says naledi had a brain the size of an orange. That, of course, raises the question of whether a creature with a brain that size could have human intelligence. Admittedly, the correlation between mind and brain is complex. I'm a substance dualist. Young children have simpler, smaller brains than adults, yet they have cognitive abilities that adults typically lose. Young kids can sponge up languages. They have retentive rote memory. So perhaps a creature with a brain the size of an orange could have human intelligence. But that demands more discussion. 

Over on Triablogue, we find these questions:

is it possible that the floor of the cave is higher than it used to be, due to cumulative debris building up over the intervening time? In other words, was there originally more space between the ceiling and the floor?
Yes, definitely.

What about the possibility of flooding? Would that deposit debris in the back of the cave?
No, there is no evidence of any of that in the Dinaledi chamber.  That point has been emphasized more than once.  These bones did not wash into the back of the cave.

I'm afraid Todd misunderstood the thrust of my question. I wasn't suggesting the fossils were deposited in the cave by flooding. Rather, my second question was piggybacking on my first question. Would repeated flooding be a possible source of debris which, over time, effectively lowered the ceiling of the cave–by raising the floor, through cumulative layers of debris? 

The tacit assumption is that the agents who buried the remains were the same kind of creature as what was buried. However, humans sometimes bury animals.
That's true.  I thought of that myself, but I'm not sure it gets us anything.  As hard as it is to believe someone would crawl that far underground to bury their own child, I'm not sure it's any easier to believe they would do that for a beloved pet.  The only thing it would get you is the ability to affirm the burial hypothesis while saying that Homo naledi isn't human.

I find that response unsatisfactory in several respects:

i) Todd's objection is predicated in part on the inaccessibility of the location. Yet he conceded that originally, the site might have been more accessible. There may have been more space between the floor and the ceiling at the time of burial. But that concession weakens the premise of his objection, does it not?

ii) I'm puzzled by his saying "I'm not sure it gets us anything…The only thing it would get you is the ability to affirm the burial hypothesis while saying that Homo naledi isn't human."

But surely that's a consequential alternative explanation. There's the hypothesis that it wasn't human and wasn't buried. There's the hypothesis that it was human and was buried. Then there's a third hypothesis that I proposed, which splits the difference. 

iii) Moreover, he doesn't seriously engage my argument. My counterexamples weren't confined to pet animals. I gave two examples of ancient burial customs involving animals. The first involves donkeys. As Kenneth Way documents, in the monograph I cited, donkeys had symbolic/ceremonial significance in the ancient Near East, which is why they were sometimes buried.  Among other things, Way mentions ancient cultural associations between donkeys and socioeconomic status, scapegoat rituals, sacrificial rites, death, divination, and donkey deities.  These associations wouldn't even occur to a modern reader. It's so far removed from our worldview. 

Likewise, I mentioned the ancient Egyptian practice of mummifying animals. That's in part because Egyptian mythology has theriomorphic deities. (Hinduism is another example in kind.) Surely it takes as much effort to mummify animals as it did to bury naledi.

In certain pagan cultures, animals aren't merely animals. Animals were vested with religious, numinous, or preternatural significance. They could represent deities. You have this in various American Indian cultures as well as indigenous African religions, in addition to Hindu and Egyptian mythology. From what I've read, theriolatry, theriomancy, and theriomorphism were widespread in paganism. 

We need to make allowance for the mindset of ancient humans when we interpret burial rituals. It may take a special effort for modern people, even Christians, to assume that viewpoint, because it's often so alien to our own view of animals. The heathen outlook differs both from Christianity and secularism with respect to the animal world. 

As I understand it, Todd thinks a local naledi community used the cave as a family crypt or cemetery for its own dead. That's possible.

But I'm questioning a non sequitur in the argument. The inference that if burial presumes human intelligence, and the remains are naledi, then they were buried by naledi–in which case nailed were human. Naledi buried their own kind. 

I'm documenting the fact that ancient humans sometimes bury animals. Some ancient humans have a cult of animals. Theriolatry. They attack sacral significance to some animals. As a result, they go to some trouble in disposing of the remains (e.g. burial, mummification). So it's possible that the naledi remains are extinct apes.

And that might be more consistent with the subhuman brain size. That's not what we normally associate with an adult human brain.

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