Paleoanthropology: The Ancestor Worshipping Death Cult

Firstly, this is satire. I love all of my paleoanthropologist friends.

Paleoanthropology is a scientific discipline dedicated to illuminating our evolutionary history. However, it is also a low-key ancestor-worshipping death cult. Consider this; many paleoanthropologists go to great pains to locate and disinter the fossilized remains of hominins: members of our lineage, after we and chimpanzees/bonobos went our separate evolutionary ways.

In the 2013 discovery of Homo naledi, Dr. Lee Berger and his meticulous team of scholars and technicians had to crawl, wiggle, and squeeze through a cave to arrive at the chamber containing more than 1500 specimens belonging to at least fifteen individuals.

Early estimates put H. naledi as a potential basal member of Genus Homo. Many of the features of the skull resembled traits we associate with our own genus. However, the post-cranial remains were more like what we expect among Australopithecines, an extinct lineage of hominins that were likely the clade from which Genus Homo diversified.

The original expected date of 1-2 million years old was supplanted by electron spin resonance, and uranium-thorium and paleomagnetic dating, the fossils were determined to be much younger: 236,000-335,000 years old. This potentially places H. naledi as contemporaneous with our own species, who we have fossil and molecular evidence of dating back to 200,000-300,000 years ago.

From (Hawks et al. 2017)

Paleoanthropologists’ business is in death. They seek out the dead and then treat them like sacred beings. They go through painstaking lengths to protect and preserve the fossils and the labs where they work are ritual spaces.

In anthropology, a ritual is a set of actions or behaviors that are performed in a repeated, formalized, and symbolic manner. Rituals are often associated with religion or spirituality, but they can also be found in secular contexts.

Rituals typically involve a prescribed series of gestures, words, and other symbolic actions that are performed in a specific order and often involve some sort of sacred or significant object, place, or person. For example, a religious ritual might involve the recitation of prayers, the lighting of candles, the use of incense or holy water, and the wearing of special clothing.

Paleoanthropologists use a specialized language, tools, and where their ritual garb: the lab coat. There are repeated movements–measuring, pipetting–all around these sacred objects.

What would a good cult be if it didn’t recruit new members. Anthropology classrooms all over the globe serve as a recruiting tool for future paleoanthropologists. Unsuspecting students from all backgrounds learn about the selection pressures that shaped our evolutionary history. They learn about sacred members of this lineage: Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus afarensis-including Lucy, and Homo erectus. They may even learn about more obscure hominins like Orrorin tugenensis and Kenyanthropus platyops.

Students are exposed to a deep and sacred time where our ancestors struggled against the forces of nature, slowly accumulating traits that would one day allow them the conquer the entire globe and beyond. They learn about stone tool traditions, like “Acheulian” and “Oldowan” and see photographs and, sometimes, hold casts, of these sacred objects.

In lab, the students will handle, measure, compare, and think about fossil casts of skulls and other remains; learning how to distinguish the various features that mark different species and transistions. All of this is in the service of knowing these ancient ancestors.

While few will join the ranks of paleoanthropology, each semester, the future of the cult is secured for at least one more generation.

Here’s to the wonderful death cult of paleoanthropology! May it continue to operate in universities, caves, and landscapes throughout the world!


Hawks, John, Marina Elliott, Peter Schmid, Steven E. Churchill, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Eric M. Roberts, Hannah Hilbert-Wolf et al. “New fossil remains of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber, South Africa.” Elife 6 (2017): e24232.

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