On Thursday morning The New York Times ran a high profile story about the discovery of a new human ancestor species—Homo naledi—in the Rising Star cave in South Africa. The discovery, announced by professor Lee Berger, was monumental because the evidence for Homo naledi were discovered in a burial chamber. Concern for burial is usually seen as distinctive characteristic of humankind, so the possibility that this new non-human hominid species was ”deliberately disposing of its dead” was especially exciting.
To anthropologists the article was not only newsworthy it was also humorous, for the Times illustrated the piece with a photograph of Australopithecus africanus, a species already well-known. This howler of a mistake (at least to self-identified science nerds) was also somewhat understandable because the differences between the two skulls are sufficiently subtle that a lay viewer can indeed easily mistake them for one another. In fact, some have pointed to that similarity and wondered (while acknowledging the importance of the discovery) if it is indeed a “new species.”And that gets to the deeper issue: What and who were our ancestors?
It might seem as if the answer to this question is simply a question of biology, but in his new book Tales of the Ex-Apes: How we think about human Evolution anthropologist Jonathan Marks argues that the story we tell about our origins, the study of our evolutionary tree, has cultural roots. Evolution isn’t just a question of biology, he argues, it’s also a question of mythology. Our scientific facts, he says, are the product of bioculture and biopolitics.