Unknown: Cave of Bones
DOCUMENTARY | Spelunking excitement but little viewpoint diversity emerges from this exploration of a South African fossil site
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➤ Rated TV-PG
Scientists in the Netflix documentary Unknown: Cave of Bones would have you believe a recently discovered hominid species that was “nonhuman” and “not an ape” buried deceased companions deep inside a South African cave system 300,000 years ago. Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger claims shallow oval pits with partial skeletal remains suggest Homo naledi engaged in “ritualized disposal of the dead.” In the film’s final scene, as the camera sweeps across a church congregation and other religious adherents, Berger concludes that this early practice was the “kernel … for the incredible capacity of religiousness … in contemporary humans.” Translation: Spirituality, like a stone ax, began as a primitive tool. Evolution alone has generated modern religious traditions.
That sketchy theological speculation coincides with dubious scientific deductions. Berger’s team says a CT scan of a rock’s interior shows the form of a “pre-human child”—about as convincingly as the constellation Cassiopeia portrays a queen. And because naledi couldn’t talk but had small teeth, they communicated by smiling. (Reminds me of a 1986 Wittenburg Door News Brief: “By uncovering a primitive tooth, we can reconstruct … what [a caveman] ate … how big a tip he left and whether he had the nerve to bless his food in public.”)
The documentary offers negligible opposing viewpoints, and question marks alchemize into truth declarations. The only excitement comes when Berger descends a steep cave chute 18 inches wide. You’d think that if man really had been improving himself for 300,000 years, he’d have learned by now not to squeeze into harrowingly narrow cave passages. Spoiler alert: The spunky spelunker survives.