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Murder in the Cave

Did Homo naledi behave more like Homo homicidensis?
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“Fossil First: Ancient Human Relative May Have Buried Its Dead” (Reuters). “Why Did Homo naledi Bury Its Dead?” (PBS). These are just two of the many hyped headlines that appeared last September in response to a paper purporting the discovery, in a cave in South Africa, of a new species by paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger of the University of the. There were reasons for skepticism from the get-go.

The age of the fossils is undetermined, and it is not yet known where in the hominin lineage the fossils fit. Their hands, wrists and feet are similar to small modern humans, and their brain volume is closer to that of the small-brained australopithecines, like Lucy. Researchers are debating whether these and other traits constitute a new species or a variation on an existing species. Instead of publishing in Science or Nature, the prestigious journals in which major new fossil human finds are typically announced, the authors unveiled their discovery in eLIFE, an open-access online journal that fast-tracks the peer-review process. And instead of meticulously sorting through the 1,550 fossils (belonging to at least 15 individuals) for many years, as is common in paleoanthropology, the analysis was published a mere year and a half after their discovery in November 2013 and March 2014.*

What triggered my skepticism, however, was the scientists’ conjecture that the site represents the earliest example of “deliberate body disposal,” which, as the media read between the lines, implies an intentional burial procedure. This, they concluded was the likeliest explanation compared with four other hypotheses. (continue reading…)

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I Was Wrong

Those three words often separate the scientific pros from the posers
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My friend James Randi speculates — with only partial facetiousness — that when one receives a Ph.D., a chemical secreted from the diploma parchment enters the brain and prevents the recipient from ever again saying “I don’t know” and “I was wrong.” As one counterexample I hereby confess that in my column on Chinese science in the July issue I was wrong in my conversion of Chinese yuan as 80 to the dollar (it is eight).

More serious was a statement I made in the June issue about a Fox television program claiming that the moon landing was faked. I said that the lunar lander rocket showed no exhaust because there is no oxygen-rich atmosphere on the moon. I was partially wrong. The lack of an atmosphere plays a minor role; the main reason is that the lander’s engine used hypergolic propellants that burn very cleanly. In both instances, readers were kind enough to provide constructive criticism. (continue reading…)

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