The discovery of an allegedly new human ancestor in South Africa has prompted anti-apartheid activists to condemn those quick to make jokes about Homo Naledi for racism, using the new fossil to compare black people to apes.
Following the creation of a multitude of internet memes shared on Facebook and Twitter comparing an illustration of Homo Naledi to black African leaders like South African President Jacob Zuma and Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, some legislators in South Africa have condemned the find itself as a ruse to perpetuate the idea that black people are “subhuman.”
“No one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon. Sorry,” African National Congress (ANC) politician Zwelinzima Vavi said in response to the discovery, adding on Twitter, “I am no grandchild of any ape”:
I am no grandchild of any ape, monkey or baboon – finish en klaar. Now prove to me scientifically that I am https://t.co/z03VFYb3zF
— Zwelinzima Vavi (@Zwelinzima1) September 12, 2015
He noted later that “I have been called a baboon all my life,” particularly during South Africa’s apartheid rule, and that Homo Naledi was a plot to aid white supremacists in feeling superior to black people. Mathole Motshekga, an ANC legislator, agreed, saying the discovery is meant to support “the story that we are subhumans.” “That is why today no African is respected anywhere in the world because of this type of theory,” Motshekga said of evolution generally on South African television. Social media users helped ignite this outrage with racially-charged posts about Homo Naledi:
— Nonny (@Nonny_Mkh) September 17, 2015
I say to mom that Mugabe looks like a walking corpse and she says “Mhmm, Homo Naledi”
— Kate Poen ♡ (@SoulLover__) September 15, 2015
Wat does it say about black people wen white folk compare Mugabe to Homo Naledi? Maybe Im just over reading into this pic.twitter.com/YbE5J0OrmC
— Chipochashe Munemo (@XIV_XI_MCMXC) September 13, 2015
Not all South African politicians rejected the discovery. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was “delighted” that the fossil had been found in their country, and heralded the find as a scientific achievement.
But even those who see Homo Naledi’s existence as something to praise, and not dangerous racial pseudoscience, have expressed dismay with the speed at which the discovery became a joke at the expense of black Africans. Tom Eaton, a columnist for South Africa’s The Times and avowed atheist, writes that those who see these memes must understand the revulsion to the discovery on the part of those who lived through apartheid:
Even as Facebook reacted, racists gloated over pictures comparing Naledi with Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma. It is dangerous to discount the theory of evolution, but it is also understandable when most of your contact with the idea of primitive, dark-skinned knuckle-draggers has come not in the form of scientific debate based on our common humanity but as the poisonous barb on a white supremacist insult.
Homo Naledi‘s skull was found in a cave near Johannesburg, South Africa, and its discovery has triggered a new conversation on the rational abilities of human ancestors. Some have argued that its discovery, hidden in a cave, suggests that its relatives buried it, which would imply that its species understood the concept of morality. Many scientists say it is too soon to confirm that conclusion, however. The site of its discovery is currently the largest collection of hominin fossils in Africa. It is believed that the species lived in Africa 2.5 million years ago, though it is too soon for scientists to be able to definitively date the fossils.