"Cave of Bones" scientist Lee Berger talks about extinct apes that buried their dead and created art

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, the lead scientist at the "Cave of Bones" site of Homo naledi fossils in South Africa, spoke at the Explorers Club in New York City Monday evening. He and his team have made amazing discoveries in the Rising Star cave system, including many individuals of a previously unknown species that lived about 300,000 years ago, Homo naledi, a small-brained, bidpedal hominin (human-like ape).

Berger has made numerous explosively controversial claims about the naledi fossils found in the deep, inaccessible chambers of Rising Star. He believes these small-brained non-humans traversed the complex cave system using fire. He believes they used chambers as burial sites for their dead, even burying one child with a "tool-shaped stone" in their hand. And he believes they adorned this burial site with primitive art, cross hatchings etched into the cave walls.

This is presented in a new documentary on Netflix, "Unknown: Cave of Bones," as well as a Cave of Bones book by Berger and John Hawks

These are extraordinary claims because naledi had a brain about the size of a chimpanzee's, yet Berger asserts that they planned and executed complex operations and engaged in abstract thought about death, even implying some kind of proto-religious rituals.

He has been criticized by some of his peers for presenting all of this to the public with what they say is insufficient evidence, and before a finalized peer-reviewed paper has been published. The pre-print of his team's paper is here, and the peer review that found that there was not enough evidence to support the paper's conclusion, and that it should not be viewed as finalized scholarship, is here.

Nevertheless, his theories are fascinating (and convincing to this layman), and every expert is in agreement that, whatever their ultimate meaning, the findings in the Rising Star cave are "incredible and incredibly valuable."

At the talk, Berger said that we need to re-think our bias for human exceptionalism when it comes to culture. Other animals, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and elephants have culture, and we need to recognize that in our analysis of their behavior.

He said that we are on the cusp of a "new age of discovery," in which we will make new discoveries by appropriately examining fossil sites not just for paleontological analysis, but also for evidence of culture and ritual.

Berger also speculated there may have been interbreeding between humans and naledi, and talked about the possibility that humans have some naledi genes.

Berger announced that he and a group will meet to think about what to do with the Rising Star site going forward. There is a lot more to be learned from the site, but he feels the need to recognize the level of cultural complexity shown by this group of naledi. He said he would not use the word "sacred," but he knows the site had great significance to the naledi, and that should be respected.

Here is the Cave of Bones book: