Some prominent South Africans have claimed that the discovery of the human ancestor, Homo Naledi, is part of a "racist plot" to portray Africans as subhuman baboon creatures. Following the announcement of the discovery last week, Zwelinzima Vavi, a powerful trade union figure, dismissed the find as a conspiracy to compare Africans to "monkeys."
"No-one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon. Sorry."Vavi took to Twitter, where he has over 300,000 followers, to express his views. "Finish en klaar" is Afrikaans for "that's the end of it", or "that's final". Vavi's comments about the Homo Naledi find were backed up by the South African Council of Churches, according to the ABC, as well as gaining endorsements from elected members of the ANC, South Africa's ruling party.
It would appear that this strange and perplexing row began with a series of racist tweets comparing images of Homo Naledi to various African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, commenting on a perceived similarity of features between them and Homo Naledi. Vavi's comments, which have attracted worldwide attention (and confusion), were rooted in his memories of racist treatment under apartheid. He said that the pictures of Homo Naledi reminded him that he had been called "a baboon all [his] life".
Amusingly, Lee Berger, overseer of the Homo Naledi dig, felt moved to point out that at no time has evolutionary science claimed that humanity descended from baboons. Other than this, his comments attempted to distance himself from the controversy.
"For our scientists, the search for human origins is one that celebrates all of humankind's common origins on the continent of Africa."Western commentators, Richard Dawkins among them, have weighed into this heated debate by expressing perplexity. Dawkins was at pains to point out that, far from identifying Africans with apes, Homo Naledi re-enforced the fact that "we're all African apes." Vavi now appears to be trying to distance himself from his comments. While the racism aspect of the debate loomed large, the Homo Naledi controversy highlighted another aspect of the South African polity, which is the little known prevalence of fundamentalist Christian thought. The Rand Daily Mail lamented that much of the angry comment surfacing around Homo Naledi was finding traction amongst the large number of militant creationists in South Africa.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the debate, the furore surrounding Homo Naledi is, to many commentators, an indication of the deep divisions that still exist within post-apartheid South Africa.
[Image via Youtube screengrab]