Homo naledi: Ape-man or just an odd ape?

The hottest story in ancient anthropology in September 2015 seems to be that of “Homo naledi,” as described in “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa,” by Lee R Berger, et al.

Reasons listed that argue for it being placed in the same genus with us are:

  • “characterized by body mass and stature similar to small-bodied human populations”

In plain language, they’re about the same weight and height as pygmies — but so are some apes, right?

  • “Cranial morphology of H. naledi is unique, but most similar to early Homo species including Homo erectus, Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis”

This says its skull shape is unlike anything else, but is sort of like that of fossils placed in our genus — but the skull shape is one of the traits of those fossils that is most unlike our modern human traits.

  • “humanlike manipulatory adaptations of the hand and wrist.
  • “It also exhibits a humanlike foot and lower limb.”

These say that they are somewhat like humans in their extremities. Further study brings out the fact that even there, the fingers were more curved than ours, indicating they hung and swung from branches a lot… like some apes.

Another human-like aspect is:

  • “the dentition is generally small and simple in occlusal morphology”

So the teeth are somewhat like those of humans, but they are also said to be “primitive”

Are there aspects that we could argue indicate we’re dealing with an extinct ape that happened to have some borderline human-like traits? Yes…

  • “a small endocranial volume similar to australopiths.”

This means it didn’t have much room in its skull, so it had a small brain. This may be the most important factor. Figure 12 shows that the brain size matches Australopithecus africanus at well-under 600cc (cubic centimeters), whereas even H. habilis is clearly over 600cc, and H. erectus is at 900cc]

  • “a more primitive or australopith-like trunk,”
  • “shoulder,”
  • “pelvis and proximal femur”

These are also very telling. Recreations of Australopithecines have tended to make them seem more human than they really are, largely based on pelvis and hip being arranged for walking on two feet (there’s some question about that) and the assumption that these creatures were responsible for human-like prints at Laetoli. These “primitive” aspects of the trunk (a rib cage that was wider at the bottom, like a chimp’s),  the shoulder, and pelvis and upper leg would have made australopiths unable to walk with the ease and gracefulness of modern humans.

Taking these into consideration, I have to wonder why the authors say that “The overall morphology of H. naledi places it within the genus Homo rather than Australopithecus or other early hominin genera.” It appears from the details in the discussion section that they pick and choose from the most primitive features of the most primitive fossils assigned to our genus, and downplay or dismiss the australopith-like aspects.

It seems to me that it is more like an ape where it really matters, but probably both evolutionists and creationists will be arguing on both sides, as they have over “the hobbit” fossil, Homo floresiensis. Is this because there is so much overlap in the fossils? Well, certainly not in the brain size, and how much there is in the other areas seems a matter of opinion. There’s no reason God couldn’t or wouldn’t create a bunch of apes with more human-like traits than are found in modern apes, and some (creationists and evolutionists) have suggested that humans might become degenerate and ape-like, so there’s no way to tell for sure just what we’re looking at here. It is in other areas that we must look to see if it could be possible that extinct ape-like creatures became like humans over any number of generations. Those who are sure it must have happened are not being truly rational and scientific.