No, These Ancient Humans Probably Didn’t Murder Each Other

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Michael Shermer, writing for Scientific American, asks “Did This Extinct Human Species Commit Homicide?”


I know, it’s always the same. Is there a question in the title? The answer is probably no. Regardless of what the following article says.

To back up for a second, last year I talked a little about the astounding discovery of a possible new species of human deep within a cave in South Africa, collected by a team of super rad spelunking female scientists. I mentioned that a lot of the details of the research perturbed cranky old gatekeepers, including the fact that the lead researchers used social media, hired younger up-and-coming scientists, and published in a respected open-access journal, making their data available to the public relatively quickly.

We can add Shermer to the list of perturbed gate-keepers, since he uses his platform at Scientific American to first look down his nose at open-access publishing, wondering why the researchers didn’t publish in Science or Nature instead. By this point, that’s a pretty outdated understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of open-access journals, plus it’s an argument from authority. A paper being published in an untrustworthy journal would be a warning flag but not an actual reason to dismiss it, and regardless, eLIFE is a pretty awesome journal, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Max Planck Society, and Wellcome Trust. See? I can do argument from authority, too!

One of the nice things about an open access publishing platform is that anyone can view the paper and its data in full, allowing us to immediately know that Shermer’s hypothesis, that the bones ended up in the cave due to murder and sacrifice, is most likely wrong. As study coauthor John Hawks wrote in his response to Shermer, the paper clearly states that there were no “green” fractures that would have occurred at or near time of death, no cutmarks or toothmarks indicating butchery, and no cranial bones showing intentional breaking. Hawks points out that maybe in the future they’ll find some evidence of violence, but after two years of study they haven’t found a single bit.

To make matters worse, Shermer has responded on Twitter by claiming that his article was “less about H. naledi & more about human nature & our violent past that is often downplayed”, which makes one wonder why the entire thing is about H. naledi, including his conjecture that these researchers in particular “are downplaying an all too common cause of death in our ancestors—homicide in the form of war, murder or sacrifice.” He states emphatically that “further examination of the Homo naledi fossils should consider violence (war or murder for the adults, sacrifice for the juveniles) as a plausible cause of death and deposition in the cave.” That seems awful specific to H. naledi.

But Hawks takes Shermer at his word, which doesn’t help Shermer much, pointing out “So H. naledi was a way to get attention for your pre-existing views about human nature? Not very skeptical-sounding.”
Indeed, a good skeptic begins with the evidence and goes where it leads. In this case, the evidence shows us nothing about violence but everything about how easily bias slips into science journalism.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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  1. January 4, 2016 at 4:26 pm —

    Precisely. These Killer Ape-type arguments make me so mad I want to choke the people making them!

    Shermer’s arguments are a fine example why many skeptics–so smug in their assumption that they’re being critical thinkers–instead develop huge blind spots.

    If he had read the reports, he would’ve known that the evidence so far doesn’t support violence as an explanation. You can quibble over the researchers’ conclusions, but your argumenst should at least acknowledge the reported findings.

  2. January 5, 2016 at 6:05 pm —

    Man, does Shermer think he’s a science writer, a philosopher, or an artist? Because this whole nihilistic “They probably murdered each other, but I’m talking about us, not these hominids in particular.” thing doesn’t feel like science writing. (And it feels kind of…retro? The Cuban Missile Crisis was over 50 years ago.)

    • January 5, 2016 at 6:54 pm —

      Precisely. This kind of attitude is common in those who came of age in the Cold War.

      It drives me nuts when I read referenced to war before the Neolithic. There’s actually no real evidence of mass slaughter before the Mesolithic, actually.

      Is it too much to ask for evidence before they start making assumptions like that?

      • January 6, 2016 at 1:03 pm —

        I specifically mentioned Cuba because that was as close as we came to the end.

        War is basically politics by other means, as the old maxim goes. No more, no less.

        • January 6, 2016 at 1:13 pm —

          Indeed. But it seems to me a general Cold War mentality seeps into these killer ape-type theories. I think ancient hominins were neither as Cold War-like as chimps or as 60s peacenik as bonobos.

          Oops, I just did it, too.

          We shouldn’t be projecting modern political paradigms on ancient hominins.

  3. January 8, 2016 at 12:53 am —

    I just read Shermer’s article and it really didn’t make any sense. It seemed to me that he started out questioning whether H. naledi actually buried its dead at this location and then turned to the issue of violent death. As I understand it, there were some specific reasons why the scientists thought this was a burial place and Shermer really didn’t refute any of those reasons. Then he discussed violent death and seemed to indicate that if they had died a violent death, none of those other details mattered. It really did not tie together logically.

    The down-grading of the public access journal seemed gratuitous.

    Your explanation of Shermer now being on “the list of perturbed gate-keepers” makes sense.

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