Scientific Controversy: Did Homo naledi bury their dead and make art?

In case you’ve been living in a cave (small joke), a huge controversy has erupted over spectacular claims by Lee Berger, the lead scientist in the team that discovered H. naledi in the Rising Star cave system in 2013. He lost around 40 kilos to fit into the site a few years ago, and he noticed a few things right away. They got a photographer into the space, and that’s when the controversy starts.

Berger held a press conference in December 2022 to announce naledi possibly used fire. In early 2023, he announced a forthcoming book with anthropologist John Hawks called “Cave of Bones,” which the publisher has been promoting as an Indiana Jones-like “scientific adventure story.” Berger spent all Spring leaving hints of other discoveries, followed by three preprints that dropped in early June.

So much for my summary.

The controversy centers around the fact that Berger et al. have turned the scientific peer-review process on its head. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An example of the backlash:

If nothing else, watch this video with Flint Dibble. The first 15 min is a great review. The rest is a “public peer review” of the evidence for naledi burial, which is fascinating and instructive in itself for non-scientists like me.


Flint’s dad Harold Dibble re-excavated numerous claimed Neanderthal burials and came up with these criteria for intentional (and ritual) burial:

The “grave” (Feature 1) is a natural depression 50 cm x 25 cm x 8 cm deep. Here’s a pic:


H. naledi stood about 1.5 meters high. An intentional burial in a 50 cm long space? The body would never fit. Lots of other issues.


I watched a document about the site and excavation. As far as I understood, the interpretation of a burial is based on the location of the bodies, in a distant end of a cave system beyond a difficult passage, and the lack of animal bones at the site (except the skeleton of an owl). It is difficult to explain how the bodies ended up to such a remote place where other animals did not get, except by thinking that H. naledi intentionally dragged the bodies there. ‘Burial’ does not necessarily mean in this case digging of a grave for individuals.

  • The second video by Gutsick Gibbon says more. Charcoal and charred animal bones, soot on the chamber ceiling, and two or three hearths–one small and one larger–strongly support use of fire in the largest chamber. Erika (Gutsick Gibbon) strongly suspects there is or was a larger entrance way elsewhere.
  • Dating of the charcoal remains to be done.
  • Naledi falls between australopithecus and neanderthal, clearly arms and limbs that support traveling through trees AND bipedal travel on the ground.


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It’s definitely remarkable that they dragged the bodies so deep into the cave system. But the claim Berger et al. are making is an intentional burial. The earliest known intentional burial is H. sapiens 74,000 years ago. That makes H. naledi not just an outlier, but an outlier by 225,000 years!

Yes, it seems obvious naledi used fire. Only way to navigate in a cave.

The burial and graphic engravings are the truly controversial claims. It doesn’t help things that Berger and his team bypassed peer review in favor of press conferences and a book announcement.

Is this from Gutsick Gibbon? It’s true naledi has a mix of ancient and modern morphology, but it’s a bit misleading to say it falls between australopithecus and neanderthal. That implies naledi was an ancestor of Neanderthal, which we don’t know.

Terry quoting Gutsick Gibbon

Let’s not get all crazy or anything. Shouldn’t we be asserting and explaining before we waste time ensuring we have and preserve all the data? < / sarcasm >


I agree with that sentiment. Part of peer review is to make sure the data supports the conclusions made in the paper, but if its a close judgment call then I think the benefit of the doubt should be given to the author, especially for something that will garner a lot of interest in the field. Let Berger make his case and let the debate begin within the field. Controversy is exactly what science is meant to deal with.


I’m not sure where I come down on this. Mostly just an interested spectator, although I suspect it may take a decade to sort out.

True. But the preprints make pretty strong claims, and I suspect the book will go even farther. For those interested, here’s the cover:

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I haven’t read the articles or listened to the videos here.
Is there any explanation for the near 10 year gap between the the discovery and photography, and the book?

Has Berger already published the photos and descriptions of the find? It seems like the cave discovery has not been an unknown for all these years. Has it just been ignored?

If the press conference and book had come out closer to the cave’s discovery I could understand better the rush to publish (scoop), and also get the information and particularly photos out before anyone could damage the site by snooping or worse.

Sorry, if all the answers to my questions are in the references for the post. I just haven’t had time to follow up on them.

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I do remember watching a documentary years ago that detailed his hiring process for the initial excavation. He advertised for anthropologists who had small frames, preferably with some climbing experience. That’s why he ended up with a team of mostly female anthropologists. It is the sort of “science adventure” tale that many of us can relate to and find inspiring.

I can also see how Berger may have fallen in love with his own hypothesis. This happens quite often in the scientific community. It’s hard for us humans to emotionally disconnect from something that we spend so much of our time, effort, and passion on. This is one of the major reasons why scientific consensus is so important.

But, Berger has definitely earned the right to take his moment on the stage and make argue his case. How well his case holds up remains to be seen, but I certainly applaud him for the effort and passion he has put into this.


Losing 50 lbs to finally see it for himself is no joke. Didn’t know the team was mostly female. That’s pretty cool. I think the book will be a bestseller, and it’s well-earned, as you say.

You’re definitely right about the need for scientific consensus. That doesn’t happen overnight. Still lots of evidence to come in and be weighed.


The discovery of the fossils had to be carefully excavated in an extremely difficult location. That’s time-consuming work. Here’s an article by @DarrelFalk from several years back.

The timetable is this: Berger lost a bunch of weight to finally fit into the cave himself last summer. I follow him on Twitter, and fairly quickly he sent out a call for a photographer who could fit into the cave and take professional shots of stuff on the ceiling and walls. By December, the team had done enough investigative work to identify soot and other signs of fire use. No surprise, but people complained that a quick C-14 test would’ve determined if it was more than 50,000 years old, at least. Over the next few months, Berger hinted on Twitter about more news to come. It wasn’t until the preprints recently appeared (see the OP) that the more spectacular claims of intentional burial and graphic marks were made.

That catch you up?

Edit: The first 15 min of the Flint Dibble video in the OP is a good summary of where things stand.

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I should’ve mentioned the name and location of the cave. The Rising Star Cave system is located near Joburg in a UNESCO protected site called “Cradle of Humankind.” There is zero chance of it being defaced or disturbed now.

The conundrum, as far as the engravings go, is that spelunkers tipped off Berger to the bones in the cave. And if naledi explored the cave eons ago, scientists can’t yet rule out the possibility that sapiens didn’t later explore the cave independently and leave the “hashmarks” behind. I think subsequent tests and research will answer that question, but at the moment it’s still open.

One map of the cave system and the difficulty of access:

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It makes me a little anxious just thinking about crawling in that. An MRI pretty much taxes my limit on claustrophobia. While I have not read the supporting evidence, it does make me wonder why they would do an intentional burial back there. Seems more likely due to getting lost and curling up and dying or being forced there to die alone, which of course would perhaps be even more interesting than being buried.


Ugh. I hadn’t thought of that possibility, but it can’t be ruled out. (What if their torch went out?) And I still can’t get past the obvious fact that the bones wound up in a natural depression. It definitely requires more investigation, but I’m personally skeptical because it would be such a huge outlier to the rest of the data on intentional burial and graphic marks. Like I said earlier, extraordinary claims require overwhelming evidence. It may take a decade for all the tests to be done and a scientific consensus to form. @T_aquaticus

Edit: On second thought, if you look at the screenshot from Flint Dibble’s video, the bones aren’t positioned in even a curl-up-and-die situation. I don’t know. This is a mystery that will take a long time to unravel.

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He has a prior 2017 book

Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi


I also should’ve mentioned that there are many, many other bones in the Dinaledi Chamber. That’s why they acquired the name Homo naledi. But it’s only the fossil in the lowest spot of the Dinaledi Chamber that is claimed as an intentional burial. I think that’s troublesome, but we’ll have to wait and see what future excavations and tests show.

Addendum: I’m tall and skinny, but I’d rather die than crawl through that cave.

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I mean elephants kind of do it. They will go out of their way to visit the site and rub the bones and I think some have also placed leaves and stuff over them sometimes. Ants also has some species I believe that bury their dead.

I was listening to a podcast a while back, I think the leaky foundation, or maybe common descent podcast, and it mentioned that Neanderthals may have potentially buried their dead too.

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