Is it important that ancient human ancestor Homo naledi might have buried its dead?

Ian Tattersall answers


Only one other find comparable to the Dinaledi one has ever been made in paleoanthropology, namely the jumble of hominid bones discovered at the bottom of the 50-foot-deep shaft known as the Sima de los Huesos at Atapuerca in Spain. And it is probably significant that both the Atapuerca and the Dinaledi researchers concluded that deliberate body disposal was responsible for the bone accumulations at their sites. 

However, in the case of Dinaledi it is important to remember that the hominids concerned were very small-brained, and it is very unlikely that they processed information in anything like the modern human manner—which seems to be unique even among hominids. And in that case, it is probable that words such as “burial” or “ritual,” which have very specific implications for us, are not the appropriate ones to use in the Dinaledi case. What was going on in the heads of the hominids who pitched the bodies of their fellows down that fissure at Dinaledi was certainly very different from what would have been going on in your head or mine under similar circumstances.

Ian Tattersall is a paleoanthropologist and an emeritus curator with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.