Gavin Foster
Gavin Foster

Homo naledi, Piltdown and a lesson in African prehistory

Professor Lee Berger and his team of scientists caused a huge stir when they unveiled the skeletal remains of not one, but at least 15 members of a previously unknown hominin species they’d discovered at the Cradle of Mankind. While the team had made no claim to have found the missing link between man and ape, the sudden appearance of Homo naledi as a step closer caused a few zealous anti-evolutionists to attack the discovery.

An eminent ANC member of Parliament and lawyer, Dr Mathole Motshekga, decried the research as “racist pseudo-science” in a televised interview, and then produced a formula to back up his claim. “Science is first and foremost a spiritual thing,” he enunciated mysteriously. “For instance if you want to talk about evolution, you must start with the Law of Squares, which says the mind squared plus the soul squared plus the body squared is equal to this.”

Executive director of the Kara Heritage Institute, Motshekga, an ANC MP who was premier of Gauteng in 1998 and 1999 and the ANC’s parliamentary chief whip from 2008 to 2013, elaborated further on his conspiracy theory by saying “This thing is inconsistent with reality and supports the theory that we are subhuman. That’s why Africans aren’t respected by the rest of the world … they (the west) gave us the title of subhuman beings to justify slavery and colonialism.” He appears to have entirely missed the point — available evidence indicates that every human being on the planet evolved from some form of apelike creature, and we all share common ancestors in southern Africa. See here for the full interview on eNCA.

Should it turn out that Dr Berger and his team did indeed squeeze some hastily-recruited skinny women through the cave’s tiny entrance to plant and later “discover” a few dozen mismatches of monkey and human bones it wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened. Over a hundred years ago, in 1912 England, Charles Dawson, a keen amateur palaeontologist, produced pieces of a skull and jawbone that he claimed to have unearthed in a gravel pit near his home. This excited scientists worldwide, because the remains, when reassembled, displayed strong features of both man and ape. This was surely the Holy Grail of palaeoanthropology — evidence of the missing link!

The Europeans at that time weren’t happy with the theory that man had evolved from the ape in Africa, and badly needed evidence giving their continent a central role. The Germans had produced a part of a jawbone as a low-level candidate five years earlier and the British leaped at the chance to trump that. Despite a few sceptical grumblings — but no introduction of the Law of Squares into the argument — Piltdown Man, named after the place the skull was found, was accepted as being the best evidence of the missing link and Dawson had his fame — for 40 years, anyway. Then, in 1953, scientists subjected the still-controversial finds to more advanced testing, and Eoanthropus dawsoni was proven to be a hoax constructed from a relatively recent human cranium mated to the jaw of an orangutan with filed-down teeth. The bones been soaked in a chemical solution to harden them and give them a patina of age. Dawson, who had died in 1916, was not around to answer questions but the consensus was that he was the culprit, although there was a possibility that somebody else had planted the skull in the quarry for him to find.

Piltdown Hoax1

Dawson as an amateur palaeontologist desperately wanted recognition and would do anything to get it. He had an uncanny knack of finding unusual artefacts, most of them conveniently within about 20km of his home in England, and many of them since proven to be fakes. These included a unique cast-iron Roman statuette later found to have been cast from a modern tourist souvenir, several supposedly 1 500-year-old bricks stamped with the name of Roman emperor Honorius that subsequently turned out to be thoroughly modern, and at least three exciting new fossils that were proven to be fakes in the 1960s.

He also reported seeing a large sea serpent in the English Channel, and experimented with phosphorescent bullets to fend off Zeppelin attacks on London during WW1. In 2003 a British academic, Dr Miles Russell, investigated Dawson’s collection of antiquaries, finding that at least 38 specimens were clear fakes. He noted that Dawson’s entire career seemed to have been “one built upon deceit, sleight of hand, fraud and deception, the ultimate gain being international recognition”.

So, why wasn’t Piltdown Man exposed earlier? There was no doubt an element of racism in that. European scientists badly wanted to disprove the theory that mankind had originated in Africa, so despite the rumblings of doubt, nobody was willing to pull out the rug from under the best evidence they had that shifted Europe into the limelight. So much for Dr Motshekga’s claims that he says are based upon his studies of “primal African scientific information” dating back to “36 000 years before the birth of Adam and Eve”.

Ho hum …

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  • A parliament that doesn’t respect itself
    • divvie

      “Science is first and foremost a spiritual thing,” he enunciated mysteriously. “For instance if you want to talk about evolution, you must start with the Law of Squares, which says the mind squared plus the soul squared plus the body squared is equal to this.”……How does one argue with someone with this peculiar sense of (non) logic? If this is the level of wisdom in parliament I fear for us all.

    • Cliff Smith

      While this sounds like 100% pokery-jiggery to you and I it would be an interesting exercise to present this utterance to 100 academics and thinkers of Dr Mathole Motshekga’s choosing in a blind controlled test to see just how many of them are able to interpret it with some level of consistency.

    • Waxfoot

      Nicely done, sir.
      I can’t think of a better example for highlighting the importance of peer review than Piltdown man.

      (Well, sadly, I can. This time, a South African fabrication:
      Bezwoda WR, Seymour L, Dansey RD. High-dose chemotherapy with hematopoietic rescue as primary treatment for metastatic breast cancer: a randomized trial. J Clin Oncol. 1995;13:2483-2489.)

      Homo naledi will have to stand up to the intense scrutiny of the international scientific community.
      I really don’t think Dr Mathole Motshekga’s obtuse utterances on the matter carry much weight beyond comedic distraction.

    • Jochen Peiper

      With the Chadian and Ethiopian discoveries it is even questionable to suggest we share ancestors in Southern Africa. More correct would be to say we all share ancestry somewhere in Africa…