In/On the Bones: species meanings and the racialising discourse of animality in the Homo naledi controversy

  • Benita de Robillard Interdisciplinary Arts and Culture Studies, Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Keywords: Homo naledi, race, species, the animal, South Africa


In this article, I address a controversy about species meanings and a racialising discourse of animality surrounding the Homo naledi fossils that were discovered in 2013 at the Cradle of Humankind; a fossil-rich area located just outside of Johannesburg. Nothing less than the origins, and definition, of humanity were said to be at stake in the fossils. This claim issued from the co-presence within the specimens of so-called “human” and “animal” features. In South Africa, the fossils provoked what Claire Jean Kim (2015) would call an ‘impassioned dispute’ about the perceived relationships between animals – particularly primates – and persons who are socially marked, and who identify, as black. Situating the naledi event within the long history of the ‘interconstitution’ (Kim 2015) of blackness and animality, I argue that the controversy surfaced anxieties about the untethering of racialising species meanings from prevailing ideas about the ontological foundations of “the human”. By approaching the cultural politics of the dispute, I explore how it provided an opening onto the conjugation of race and species within South Africa and conclude that the naledi event attests to the perils of eliding the history of race science as well as the difficulty of retaining within anti-racist politics “the animal” as a device to secure “the human”.