Johannesburg - The discovery of Homo naledi should not be seen as a way for people to put religion under the microscope, but rather a way to better understand humanity’s “deep family tree”, said Professor Lee Berger, the man behind the discovery.
Berger was responding to tweets over the weekend by former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who insisted he was in no way related to “baboons”, “monkeys” or “apes”.
The unearthing of Homo naledi is arguably one of the greatest South African archaeological breakthroughs in the past decade, but now a cloud of negativity is putting a damper on the discovery.
Social media erupted with excitement at the announcement of the find last week, but sandwiched between posts of awe were racist memes and evolutionary misunderstandings.
Last week, Berger, a Wits University professor, revealed his team suspected they’d uncovered a new human relative at the Cradle of Humankind, after parts of at least 15 individuals were found in a chamber deep within the Rising Star caves.
An artist’s reconstruction of what Homo naledi may have looked like did the rounds on social media; within hours, offensive memes comparing his looks to politicians and other famous figures were being distributed online.
While this comparison ruffled feathers, proponents of evolutionary theory were equally perturbed by Vavi’s tweets in which he also denounced the discovery.
“Science is materialism – it’s facts that can be proven. No one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon – sorry,” he posted on Friday.
Vavi was immediately attacked for not understanding the theory of evolution.
Despite scientifically proven facts that humans of all races share 99 percent of their genetic sequence with chimpanzees, Vavi was adamant he was “no grandchild of any ape, monkey or baboon – finish en klaar”.
On Sunday he said the comparison of black people to baboons had made him question the validity of the discovery.
“It’s insults like this that make some of us to question the whole thing,” he tweeted, followed by: “Should we expect that all blacks in Europe will due to different weather there evolve to be whites & whites in Africa evolve to be black?”
Founding president of the Kara Heritage Institute, Mathole Motshekga, agreed saying last week: “Humanity did not evolve from the animal kingdom, and more specifically the apes.”
Berger was quick to respond to Vavi’s comments on Monday morning: “Our science is not asking questions of religion nor challenging anyone’s belief systems; it is simply exploring the fossil evidence for the origins of our species.
“I would repeat: We, as a species, are not descendant from baboons; baboons are a distant relative of ours no closer in their relationship to us most likely than a dog is related to a cat.
“Naledi is a human relative, giving us insight into our deep family tree,” said Berger.
“We completely agree that humans are not descended from baboons.
“The search for human origins is one that celebrates all of humankind’s common origins on the continent of Africa. It should not be divisive.
“We encourage everyone who wants to understand more about the fascinating evolution of our species to go and see the original naledi fossils on display at Maropeng until October 11,” he told The Star.
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) also entered the debate on Sunday. Eyewitness News reported that SACC president Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa said while the council was celebrating the discovery, it did not approve of the theory that humans descended from baboons.
“God, the creator, is far greater than all of us, but we celebrate that discovery in South Africa. They must keep on probing, but listen to what God is saying to us and not make a jump to quick, foolish conclusions,” Siwa was quoted as saying.
“To my brother, Vavi, I would say that he is spot on.
“It’s an insult to say we come from baboons. We must continue to engage and discern what it is that God is communicating to us at this time.”
Methodist church leader Paul Verryn supported the find, saying Homo naledi did not contradict biblical scripture.
“The essence of what is written in scripture is that humanity and the whole of creation is designed and brought into being by God and that we have a very unique dignity,” he said.