A recent article published by researchers led by palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger made sensational claims about an extinct human species called Homo naledi. The researchers argued that H. naledi buried their dead in Rising Star Cave in South Africa over 240,000 years ago and may have decorated the cave walls. However, many scientists, including the authors of this article, are not convinced by the evidence presented in the three online articles.
The peer reviewers and journal editor found the evidence to be “inadequate” and suggested numerous changes to make the argument more convincing. A peer-reviewed critique concluded that there was not enough evidence to support the hypothesis of intentional burials by H. naledi.
To establish enough evidence for such claims, the authors argue for the routine use of modern scientific techniques. These techniques can provide supporting data and help avoid controversies while increasing public confidence in such claims.
Researchers in human evolution often collaborate with geologists and other Earth scientists due to the long timescales involved. Analytical techniques from the Earth sciences can provide valuable information about the context of fossils and archaeological material. These techniques can be used to study sediments at a microscopic level, providing information that would otherwise be impossible to obtain.
Advancements in instruments and methods for studying sediment have allowed for detailed analysis of archaeological sites and the preservation of fossils and artifacts. Micromorphology, a method involving microscopic analysis of surrounding sediment, has proven to be a powerful tool for analyzing ancient human remains and burial practices.
Micromorphology could have provided evidence for or against the deliberate burial of H. naledi remains. It could have revealed traces of a grave cut or subtle differences in sediment that were not apparent during excavation. Peer reviewers of the original burial paper suggested using micromorphology to interpret the sediments of the possible grave fill.
While there is currently no compelling case for intentional burial at the Rising Star Cave site, the authors believe that utilizing scientific techniques from the beginning of investigations into human evolution could help avoid controversies and provide stronger support for hypotheses. This approach would also increase confidence in findings presented to the scientific community and the public.
The authors emphasize the importance of scientists communicating their findings carefully to avoid increasing skepticism towards scientists, which can have far-reaching impacts. They call for the widespread use of scientific techniques in future investigations into human evolution to prevent controversies and strengthen the evidence supporting hypotheses.