Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Searched for


Name generator

Oh, hey, this is kinda neat for anything set in the real world: a character name generator.

No options for “throw letters together to create neat names for secondary worlds,” unfortunately, but plenty of other options. Let me just see … how about a female, virtuous, Andorran princess, born in 1200 AD?

Princess Agnes Glaser (Nessa)
–Agnes: tagged as wise, tagged as witchy, tagged as Catalan
–Glaser: tagged as witchy

Really? I wonder why Glaser is “witchy.”

Princess Monica Belnades
–Monica: tagged as wise, tagged as Catalan
–Belnades: tagged as witchy

Okay, what if I switch the country to … Sweden.

Princess Louise Eriksson (Loulou)
–Louise: tagged as wise, tagged as witchy, tagged as Swedish
–Eriksson: in use in Sweden, in use in Sweden, in use in Sweden

Well, not terrible, honestly. This might be useful for those (many) moments when one gets stuck trying to think of names for random characters.

I saw the link at The Passive Voice blog, btw.

Please Feel Free to Share:


Floating habitats

From James Davis Nicholl at tor.com: Five Science Fiction Books Featuring Floating Habitats

Five! Don’t you think it should be possible to get to ten?

Well, let’s see …

Venus is so inconsiderate. It presents itself as a sister world, one that would seem at first glance to be very Earth-like, but… on closer examination it’s utterly hostile to life as we know it. Surface conditions would be extremely challenging for terrestrial life, what with the toxic atmosphere, crushing pressures, and blast-furnace-like temperatures.

That’s at the surface, however. Just fifty kilometers above the surface, there is a region with terrestrial pressures and temperatures, a veritable garden of Eden where an unprotected human would not be almost immediately incinerated but instead would expire painfully (in just a few minutes) due to the lack of free oxygen and the prevalence of toxic gases.

Yes, you know, this sort of thing makes me think of this great post from Russell Monroe: What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different Solar System bodies? The part about Venus is actually my favorite part of that post:

Unfortunately, X-Plane is not capable of simulating the hellish environment near the surface of Venus. But physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.

The atmosphere on Venus is over 60 times denser than Earth’s, which is thick enough that a Cessna moving at running speed would rise into the air. Unfortunately, the air it’s rising into is hot enough to melt lead. The paint would start melting off in seconds, the plane’s components would fail rapidly, and the plane would glide gently into the ground as it came apart under the heat stress.

A much better bet would be to fly above the clouds. While Venus’s surface is awful, its upper atmosphere is surprisingly Earthlike. 55 kilometers up, a human could survive with an oxygen mask and a protective wetsuit; the air is room temperature and the pressure is similar to that on Earth mountains. You need the wetsuit, though, to protect you from the sulfuric acid. (I’m not selling this well, am I?)

The acid’s no fun, but it turns out the area right above the clouds is a great environment for an airplane, as long as it has no exposed metal to be corroded away by the sulfuric acid. And is capable of flight in constant Category-5-hurricane-level winds, which are another thing I forgot to mention earlier.

Venus is a terrible place.

You should absolutely click through and read about the Cessna flying everywhere else in the solar system, but meanwhile, back to Nicholl’s post about floating habitats — which five does he mention?

Floating Worlds by Cecilia Holland (1976)

Venus of Dreams by Pamela Sargent (1986)

The Clouds of Saturn by Michael McCollum (1991)

Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey Landis (2010)

The House of Styx by Derek Künsken (2020)

I haven’t read any of them, though several sound like they might be pretty good! That most recent one sounds grim. All dystopian politics and toxic family relationships. I might be reading too much into the description, but that’s my guess.

Anyway, though commenters at the post mention various others, including stepping sideways into fantasy, I’m pretty sure they’ve missed some science fiction examples. I’m almost positive Kim Stanley Robinson floated habitats or cities in the atmosphere of Venus in 2312, with the Chinese being particularly involved in terraforming that planet. Could’ve been some other book, but I’m pretty sure it was Robinson’s 2312.

I’ve only read a couple of Iain Banks’ Culture series, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t floating habitats in the high-tech post-scarcity utopian Culture. Can anybody more familialr with that series confirm or deny this?

I normally stick to books, but we all remember the floating towns from Firefly, I bet. What a great episode that was. What was the name of it … okay, “Trash.”

I’m sure there are plenty of other SF floating cities. And if we do expand our search terms and look at fantasy, there’s everything from Castle Black to (of course):

Meanwhile! Did you hear about this?

Possible evidence found for life on Venus

From just a few says ago:

The best evidence for life beyond Earth has been found in the most surprising of places – the atmosphere of Venus.

A team led by Jane Greaves, who is a professor at Cardiff University, has detected the presence of phosphine gas in Venus’ clouds. The intriguing thing about phosphine, which is a molecule formed of three hydrogen atoms and one phosphorous atom, is that on Earth its only natural source is from some anaerobic (i.e., non-oxygen breathing) microbial lifeforms. No known geological mechanism or non-biological chemical reaction produces it on our planet, although it is produced deep inside gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn where hydrogen is plentiful and the temperature and pressure extremely high.

Of course, if there’s one thing the past decade has shown us, it’s that there is plenty we do not understand and have never before seen when it comes to geological mechanisms on other planets. Still, pretty neat, eh? Though I will never be satisfied with microbial life on other planets. If we’re talking about life on other planets, I want it to be more like James Tiptree Jr visualized in Up the Walls of the World.

Please Feel Free to Share:


Recent Reading: Archivist Wasp and Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Okay, maybe it took me five years to read Latchkey, but (a) that’s by no means a record for how long a book has sat around on my TBR pile. Not even close. And (b) anyway, the delay was partly because I definitely wanted to re-read Archivist Wasp first and generally, not always, I prefer to delay a re-read until I’ve forgotten a reasonable amount of the story.

You may recall that I really loved Archivist Wasp when I first read it. You can read my comments about that book here. On a re-read, yep, still love the story. If anything, I enjoyed the re-read more because I knew certain things about the ending would be highly satisfying.

So, Latchkey. When I saw the cover, I didn’t realize the town was on fire! Check out the full spread of the cover art. Yep, there is considerable drama regarding the fate of the town in the story. Not exactly from being put to the torch. More on that later.

Now, Nicole says that she poured Archivist Wasp out onto the page in a single burning swoosh of writerly obsession, whereas Latchkey was much more heavily revised during the drafting process. It would be so interesting to see the earliest complete draft, if she started with a complete draft rather than re-writing in pieces, because the final version is . . . hmm. It’s much more cluttered than Archivist Wasp, with different pieces that all have to fit together. And they do! Latchkey is a cohesive whole, with a dramatic frame story of invasion and ordinary battle wrapped around an even more dramatic underlying story about loyalty, commitment, memory, and most of all identity. I wonder if getting that to work is one of the things that had to be done during revision.

Let me see. Okay. So we start with Wasp, now Isobel, more or less integrated into the town. We see a bit of the girls who used to be upstarts and a bit of the other townspeople; we get a pretty good feel for their lives. Let me just mention that I’m extremely glad not to live in that world and definitely would not want to visit. Even when things are going well, this is … well, it’s basically a look at a postapocalyptic dystopian world when things have settled down and ordinary people are just trying to get by and pretty well making it day by day. But even if people are kind of doing okay, it’s still fundamentally a postapocalyptic dystopian world.

During this part of the story, we don’t see the ghost at all. There are reasons for that, which the astute reader will surmise almost at once, though those reasons are laid out explicitly later. Anyway, things happen and a quite horrible, revolting enemy town attacks, and various complications ensue, and the ghost finally turns up about 30% of the way into the story. From then on, the theme of identity becomes really central (though that was always a strong theme, right from the beginning).

The ghost is an even more amazing character in this novel, now that we know him a little better, and come to think of it, so is Isobel. They (and others) get into worse and worse (and worse) situations, and let me tell you, I would have been too tense to enjoy the story as much except the ending of Archivist Wasp implied that Kornher-Stace would pull off a decent ending this time as well. Which she did. Part of it I saw coming, part of it I thought the author would pull off somehow (she did), and part of it I guessed wrong about. Put it all together and it was (almost) as satisfying as the ending to the first book.

Is there room for a sequel? Absolutely. Does the story need a sequel? No. This is a satisfying duology as it stands.

Who would love this book: Readers who appreciate prickly but fiercely loyal protagonists, and like a story that centers friendship rather than romance. Readers who like the sort of thriller where things get worse and worse, but finally wind up with a (plausible) satisfying ending – not necessarily cheerful, but good. Readers who like dystopian settings – this is not exactly a dystopian novel; Latchkey in particular lacks some important defining qualities of YA dystopia; but anyone who enjoys YA dystopias would probably love this story.

And if you haven’t yet read Archivist Wasp, then by all means pick that one up first and then go on to Latchkey.

Please Feel Free to Share:


SF suitable for adapting to the stage

So here’s a thought: what SF stories, novellas, even short novels, might work reasonably well (or very well) if you tried to adapt them to a stage performance? I guess what you would want is:

–limited number of settings

— limited number of characters

–relatively straightforward plot

–high in drama, probably, rather than slice-of-life, but psychological drama counts

Not that I am an expert in adapting anything to the stage, but offhand those qualities seem suitable. I’m going to assume that special effects are in practical reach for everything and not consider how difficult that sort of thing might be.

So, how about it?

The first author who springs to mind for me: John Varley. He wrote short novels (Millennium) and many shorter works as in, for example, Persistence of Vision. Plus his work would totally appeal to many modern audiences, especially in the themes that deal with gender. It would be a public service to bring his almost completely forgotten work back into the public eye.

The cover of Persistence shown on Amazon is not NEARLY as good as the wonderful cover on my copy, which is this one:

The artist was Jim Burns.

So, as I said, Varley is the very first writer who springs to mind here. But who knows, maybe a close reading with stage adaptations in mind would establish that in fact his stories aren’t as suitable as my first impression suggests. So what are some other works that might be good for this purpose?

Okay, how about Dawn by Octavia Butler? The basic cast is two people for a huge proportion of the story; the basic setting one locked room. Then we do expand out of that room and that limited cast, but not to a huge cast or a vast number of different settings, as I recall.

For that matter, Butler also wrote the amazing story “Bloodchild” that might also do very well. Strictly limited cast and setting, fantastic psychological story.

Here’s a classic that might work very well plus it would be a period piece: “Nerves” by Lester Del Rey. I think the number of characters is about a dozen, and as I remember, the whole thing takes place in a nuclear power plant. Tense, dramatic story.

How about Hellspark by Kagan? Bigger setting, I guess you’d need at least two sets. As with any locked-room mystery, which is what this basically is, there’s a limited cast, plus I expect you could dispense with some of the characters. Plus it’s such a neat story.

Although big in a sense, it seems to me that Weber’s On Basilisk Station might be a good choice. Set almost entirely on one ship, with a relatively small number of important named characters. I think it could be turned into a pretty neat play.

So those are the SF stories that I came up with — what are some you all can think of that might be especially well suited to a stage adaptation?

Please Feel Free to Share:


Evoking the period


I haven’t read many books by Tey … let me see … Brat Farrar, that was one. A Shilling for Candles. I think only those two, though I liked them both.

Well, here’s this paragraph from the Crime Reads post:

The Franchise Affair has become a wonderfully evocative period piece, including the supposed raison d’être of the plot. Why would the respectable if isolated Sharpes commit such an extraordinarily desperate act? It is the alleged explanation which is so interesting: they were indeed desperate—desperate for domestic help. Marion Sharpe cannot cook, the house is large and too far away for the local cleaners to patronise. This kind of problem, which sounds fairly surreal as a motive for abduction today, appeared perfectly convincing to the middle classes of the late forties: the domestic staff who vanished into the war effort and were expected to return having signally failed to do so.

This makes me want to pick up this story just for that — though the author of the post also talks up The Franchise Affair as a story too! — but as it happens, the two things I most appreciate in murder mysteries are:

a) Character, and

b) Setting

Style would be third in line and plotting a distant fourth. I appreciate a mystery I don’t figure out, but I don’t mind much if I do figure it out, although if the mystery seems TOO obvious, that’s a shame. Still, I’ll enjoy the story no matter how obvious the murderer is, if the writing is good, the characters well drawn and sympathetic, and the setting beautifully evoked. I’m not sure why setting is so important to me in mysteries, but it is, so that’s a big reason I lean heavily toward historical murder mysteries, and also mysteries set in, say, South Africa.

Josephine Tey’s books were written with contemporary settings, which undoubtedly provides that little extra depth of verisimilitude, but of course plenty of excellent historical mysteries are written by modern authors. One of the best examples I can think of where the setting is beautifully drawn while the mystery itself is not that mysterious is Barbara Hambly’s / Hamilton’s series featuring Abigail Adams as the protagonist. I enjoy these books very much even though the murderer is relatively obvious in each of the books.

For wonderful contemporary-ish settings, it’s hard to beat the Tannie Maria series, set in South Africa. Unfortunately, the third book is for some reason not currently available, at least not from Amazon. Not just unavailable in Kindle, but unavailable period. That’s getting to be pretty unusual. Such a shame when it’s a book one would really like to read.

So: if you were making a Top Ten list for murder mysteries with beautiful, evocative, interesting settings, historical or otherwise, what would you put on it? Anything come to mind?

Please Feel Free to Share:


10 Universal Rules for Writers: can it be done?

There are tons of rules writers are frequently told to follow. Plenty of novice writers take these lists seriously. Nearly all these rules are essentially false, though some have a grain of truth to them. A few so-called “rules” are actually potentially harmful.

An example of the first type is: Never use adverbs. This is clearly just bad advice. You can open any novel by any brilliant stylist and instantly see that this author does in fact use adverbs. Obviously better (but unhelpful) advice would be: Never use adverbs badly. That can be expanded into more useful advice, but that takes a good many words, which is where the short-but-wrong forms of rules come from, I suppose.

An example of a harmful “rule” is: REAL writers write every single day. That’s terrible advice because it’s so often not true, and also can’t be true, and shouldn’t even be true. This is the kind of advice that makes people feel bad about themselves for no reason at all.

But! Is it possible to come up with ten rules for writers which are actually universal? True for all writers, all the time?

I’m betting no. Ten is probably too many. But let’s try.

1.In order to succeed as a writer, you must finish at least some of what you start.

That rule is truly universal. Unless you define “succeed” in some way that invalidates the rule, such as, “If I’m having fun, then I’m succeeding” or something like that. I would prefer not to stretch the definition that far. I would say that it is just 100% true that successful writers must finish some of what they start.

This leads into a second rule:

2. In order to succeed as a writer, you must make your work available for people, including people who are not personal friends, to read.

If you finish projects and stuff them into a drawer and no one but you ever sees them, then you may be a writer, but I don’t know that you can be said to be successful as a writer. Again, if you define “success” in some “but I’m having fun” way, then sure. But I am inclined to think that success as a writer means that some people who aren’t you have to read your work.

I am not at all sure that there are too many other rules that are actually universal. I can think of plenty of rules that would make you a better writer, but that is not the same thing. You’ll be a better writer if you have a feel for correct grammar, word usage, punctuation, and the rhythm of language. But we can all think of highly successful writers who don’t have all, or maybe any, of that and yet there they are, highly successful.

In the same way, you’ll be a better novelist if you have a feel for tension, pacing, character, and dialogue, but most of us can probably think of novels that are highly successful even though they are deficient in one or more of those qualities. I sure can, even some examples that I like quite a bit. There’s a series I like a lot even though I’m perfectly aware the characters are flat; there’s another I’ve read several times even though the dialogue is barely serviceable.

However, I think I may be able to list a couple more rules that are actually universal.

3. You cannot be a successful writer if all “your” work is actually plagiarized. You may be a successful scam artist, but you are not in any sense a writer if you are “creating” “new” “works” via plagiarism.

4. Related to the above, I’m not sure I would say that someone is a successful writer if all their work is ghostwritten by someone else. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. I get that having a book ghostwritten is legal and not the same as plagiarism, but the person who puts the words in a row is the writer, and if that’s not the person whose name is on the cover, then the putative author is not the writer.

I can think of one more rule that is (pretty much, probably) universal:

5. In order to succeed as a writer, you must refrain from crazy, borderline illegal behavior like physically stalking reviewers. I imagine we have all seen the occasional cautionary tale along these lines; eg, google Kathleen Hale and there you go. An author may be able to recover from the stigma, but seriously, just don’t get involved in that kind of interaction if you want to be a successful writer.

That’s five! That’s more than I expected to come up with when I started! Can anyone think of any other rules that are actually, or nearly, universally applicable to all writers? Or even all novelists?

Please Feel Free to Share:


The phrase is not “free reign”

Here’s another post at tor.com, this one by Judith Tarr: Those Handy Equestrian Metaphors

Peeve here reminds me to note that in our essentially horseless society, a particular set of metaphors has slipped loose from its original meaning and caught hold of another that still makes sense. Sort of.

To wit: free rein and its converse, to rein in.

Now even otherwise well-educated writers and editors believe it’s free reign and, by apparent extension, reign in.

Quite right. This is one I’ve noticed more than once, and I do wish people knew where the terms came from and what they’re supposed to mean. Then this mistake would be impossible.

Others that seem especially common and that I have seen recently:

site / cite

phase / faze

peek / peak

Speaking as someone who routinely types random homophones ALL THE TIME, especially when tired, it’s nice to catch this sort of thing and fix it before you hit “post,” especially if you’re trying to make a serious point about something. It’s just hard to take someone seriously when they type “phased” when they meant “fazed,” even if their point is otherwise persuasive.

Anyway, that’s not really Judith Tarr’s point. She’s pointing out that you shouldn’t use metaphors that don’t fit the world you’ve developed, so if you have no horses, there are a bunch of metaphors that don’t work for that world. Good point, and I’m sure that happens, but I’m not sure I’ve seen this problem very often. Or at least, I haven’t noticed it. Can anyone think off hand of a time when you DID notice a misused, inappropriate metaphor that didn’t fit the world the author had created?

Please Feel Free to Share:


Chronicles of Elantra

Sorry about the lack of posting; busy weekend, lots going on, some of which I expect I will tell you all about fairly soon.

Meanwhile! Here’s a post by Liz Bourke at tor.com: Revisiting Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra

This caught my eye because

a) some of you have recommended this series;

b) I like some of Michelle Sagara West’s other work;

c) I fear I could not quite get into the first book of the Elantra series, but I’m willing to try again or even jump ahead and try a book later in the series.

so I’m interested in what Liz has to say about this series. I suppose she must have read the whole thing because why else would she be doing a post like this?

She begins this way:

Those fifteen books … are a satisfying combination of contemporary-feeling secondary world city-based fantasy, and go-big-or-go-home epic. Every single volume has a relatively self-contained arc (at least one major problem, and major frequently means fate-of-the-world, is solved in every one) but the series as a whole has continuing arcs of growth and change for its cast of characters, and especially for its protagonist, Kaylin Neya.

See, that’s the kind of thing that makes me feel like I really ought to give this series another try.

As the series has advanced, Kaylin has acquired a wider circle of friends and allies, and in part, these are what give the books fresh interest and appeal with every new volume. More people bring with them more problems and concerns and their own ways of seeing the world—and Elantra, for all that it’s a single city, is a wide weird world indeed. … The Chronicles of Elantra are enjoyable, entertaining, engaging fantasy novels that always leave me feeling satisfied—and rather reassured, despite occasional horrible things happening, because somehow, it all comes mostly right in the end.

I know some of you like this series — what do you all think of jumping ahead? If you have a favorite book in the series, what is is?

Please Feel Free to Share:


Oh, *there’s* the rest of the plot!

If you’ve been following along closely enough, you have realized that there’s an excerpt from the third book in the Tuyo series at the end of NIKOLES. This third book, TARASHANA, is not finished, obviously. There hasn’t been anything like enough time to finish a whole third book since May even if I were doing nothing else AND being obsessive. (Well, actually, if both those criteria had been met, I guess there has been, but no.) It’s going to be a long book, I can say that; probably at least as long as TUYO.

Anyway, I expect the third book WILL be finished next year. I was sure enough to put that excerpt at the back of NIKOLES, even though I did not know the second half of the plot. Generally the second half occurs to me somewhere during the writing process and there’s no problem.

(I used to say always, but no. I have been completely stuck 85,000 words into an SF novel for a good long time now because the last part of the plot has not only not occurred to me, but has also resisted all attempts to bash it into shape by brute force. (Yes, this is very frustrating.))

So my actual point here is, even though I have not actually been working on that particular book lately, I woke up super early this morning and, while waiting for my alarm clock to tell me it was time to get up — five, and in a well-run world, that would be dawn all year round — anyway, while lying there, I suddenly figured out:

— who the bad guy is and what their motivation is. That was a tough one! But now it seems obvious! Hopefully my idea about this will work perfectly and I won’t have to change my mind about it, but I think it will be fine.

— exactly why the Tarashana character is behaving in the way that she is and precisely what she wants to achieve, and the specific form of magic she is trying to use, and a metaphysical justification for her to believe this will work.

— that the Tarashana character is definitely female, and why. (Why may not be visible to the reader, but there’s now a worldbuilding reason for this to be the case, as well as just deciding to make her female). Anyway, I had been going back and forth on that decision, but she is now definitely a female character.

— how to work out the timing in a way that will probably let me do the denouement I have in mind without too much trouble.

That’s basically everything. I already knew:

— how to get Our Heroes into position to meet the Tarashana character.

— an important aspect of the Ugaro society that I wanted to show you.

— the important character arcs for Ryo and Aras and also some subsidiary character arcs.

— the denouement, except there are really at least two denouement scenes. That should be fine. There are two denouement scenes in TUYO and so far no one has complained about that.

When I get back to it, I hope that TARASHANA will now be in shape to go pretty quickly.

Now, if the back of my brain would only present me with the last part of the plot of that SF novel, that would be really useful!

Please Feel Free to Share:


Recent Reading: Almost Human by Berger and Hawks

So, I have been kind of wondering, every now and then, about the current state of our understanding of hominid evolution, because that is the sort of thing I sometimes wonder about.

You may have heard of the discovery and description of Homo naledi in South Africa a few years ago. I did, and read this excellent National Geographic article with fascination (I think you have to now register (free) to read this article). (There’s also a video, but I don’t know if you have to register to view it.) The head paleontologist for all this was Lee Berger, and he did lots of cool things, including allowing free access to the real fossils and casts of them, and encouraging dozens of publications by heaps of paleontologists. So now there’s this book of his, Almost Human, published in 2017, which I happened across just a few weeks ago.

I picked up a copy at once and read it immediately and I have to say, if you’re the least bit interested in hominid evolution, and you like narrative nonfiction, you should absolutely read this book. It’s not technical at all. It’s very much a story about these discoveries.

I really want to look up some of the more technical papers cited in the bibliography, plus I need to do a literature survey and see what Berger’s been up to in the last couple years, but this was a great reorientation to the field plus it’s just a fun read. Let me quote a little bit that includes a wonderful analogy:

For their work, the preparators use an “air scribe,” a metal device about the size of a large fountain pen, attached to a compressed air hose. The business end of the scribe is a tungsten-tipped metal implement with a sharp, pencil-like point. As compressed air is injected into the scribe, the whole tip vibrates rapidly up and down, a few microns at each pulse. It is as if an ant had invented a jackhammer …

I laughed when I got to that phrase. That may be the best single line in the book. I mean, it’s hard to top! I also bookmarked the section about the safety procedures used when excavating the Homo naledi fossils from the very difficult cave where they were found and made my mother read that section. (She went on to read the whole book, which should tell you something, because this is not her normal kind of nonfiction reading.) I don’t dislike caves, quite the contrary, I’ve been caving and I enjoy reasonably safe caves and I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but this one, well, let’s just say it would hardly be possible to go overboard about safety in this particular cave. Not sure I would be willing to go all the way into the part where the bones were found.

Anyway, Berger was first responsible for finding some great fossils of a new species, now called Australopithecus sediba, in 2008. This is a mosaic species, with lots of primitive features and lots of derived features, so it was basically a matter of lining up lots of important anatomical features and asking, Okay, Australopithecus or Homo? Small brain, primitive. Small teeth, derived. Relative proportions of molars, primitive. Anatomy of the foot, primitive. Anatomy of the pelvis, more derived. And so on and so forth. As you see, eventually Berger decided to assign this new species to Australopithecus, for lots of reasons but partly on the basis of primitive characteristics of the legs and feet.

Could this species be in the direct line of descent to modern humans? Sure, could be! Or maybe not! That’s the thing, there are SO MANY DIFFERENT hominid species, and they have such different combinations of traits. This one has the sort of mosaic of traits that would be expected for SOME transition between Australopithecus and Homo, but there is absolutely no reason to expect there weren’t lots of other hominid species with completely different mosaics of traits.

In 2013, Berger found another such species. This was Homo naledi. Berger was responsible for finding tons and tons of fossil material in the Rising Star cave system, in the same basic area as the A. sediba – a very thoroughly explored area, and yet here’s another completely new hominid species. Getting to those bones required getting through a nine-inch gap (!) and creeping through this extremely narrow forty-foot-long chute. Lots of people just could not fit, including Berger himself, so he wound up recruiting a team of six young female paleontologists plus support staff. Here is an interview with one of the women recruited for this excavation. They took out about 700 bones in three weeks and – I did not know this – there are thousands and thousands of bones probably still in that cave, if someone had the funding and inclination to go get them. Then they located another spot in the same cave system and recovered hundreds more bones from that location, same species. They got complete hands, complete feet, they got almost every possible bone of the body, all ages, it was just an incredible find. Berger then organized a workshop, pulled in thirty young paleontologists from all over, and studied the heck out of these Rising Star fossils.

Unlike A. sediba, H. naledi has a very, very human-like foot and leg, except the neck and head of the femur is very Australopithecus-like and so is the pelvis. The wrist is very human-like too, but the thumb has a unique metacarpal and there is a distinct curvature of the finger bones. The shoulder is much more primitive. The general summation I first read about this species is that the more medial parts of the skeleton are more primitive and the distal parts more derived, and you see that’s about right. Then the spine is very similar to the Neanderthal spine. The teeth were very small, the skull shaped much like some of the skulls assigned to Homo erectus, but the brain was about a third the size of the modern human brain.

Despite the small size of the brain, it seems almost certain that those many fossils got into those highly inaccessible cave locations because living H. naledi carried their dead into those locations. Water definitely did not wash those bones into those locations. Animals most certainly did not carry bones into those places. And because there are so many bones in two different locations, I’m happy to say my alternative hypothesis, which I never liked much, does not seem to be likely – I was afraid that predators or enemies might have forced those H naledi individuals to creep into very inaccessible locations and hide there until they died. I do think now that a burial type of behavior seems more likely, which is much nicer to think about.

At the time I first read about H naledi, the age of the fossils had not been established. The rock formations surrounding the bones couldn’t be dated, there weren’t any contemporary animal bones to date, and so that was a tough problem. But finally Berger and his colleagues decided they had so many bones and especially teeth that they could sacrifice a few to destructive testing. So now we know those bones are less than 450,000 years old, maybe as young as 250,000 years. This is remarkable, as just guessing from anatomy, most people were leaning toward those bones being more like two million years old. If those bones are as young as 250,000, they more than likely overlapped in time with early modern humans, during the period when modern humans were anatomically identical to contemporary modern populations but way before there is any evidence of tool use. At this time, there were definitely a lot of hominid species overlapping in time and space, and evidently Homo naledi was one more.

So … what can we conclude about the place of H naledi in our own evolutionary history? We can’t conclude much! I’m so pleased Lee Berger emphasizes that. Maybe H naledi evolved early from H erectus or some similar species and lasted a long time. Maybe some earlier ancestor gave rise to both H naledi and H erectus. Maybe something else.

At this point, as Berger points out, we have four known fossil specimens from Africa which share a basic skull shape with living people. Each of those skull types looks much more similar to modern humans than they do to H naledi or other, definitely older, species. But at the same time, each of those skulls is more different from the others than any modern human is different today. Do they all represent different species, distinct from each other and from modern humans?  Probably! We already know Neanderthals and Denisovans were contemporaries of modern humans and interbred with them, and we see genetic traces of at least one other species in our own DNA too. Now we have H. naledi, which may have, almost certain did, live surrounded by some or all these other species with their much bigger brains, quite possibly competing successfully for a long time. H. naledi was gracile, but overlaps in size with modern humans; the feet and legs were adapted for walking long distances and the hands seem about as well designed for grasping, which means this is a species that occupied the same broad niche as modern humans.

Hominids were SO much more diverse than the impression you’d get from pop culture. For nearly the whole span of hominid evolution, it was just normal to have way more than one species around in any given ecosystem at any given time. I mean, think of sub-Saharan Africa. We currently have African painted dogs, black-backed jackals, side-striped jackals, golden jackals, Ethiopian wolves, Cape foxes, and bat-eared foxes living in the same basic ecosystems right now. That is seven species of canids in four different genera. That is what it was like to be a hominid for most of prehistory! That is just so amazing to think about!

Personally, I would suggest reading this book in combination with Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success, which is about unique aspects of human behavior, not intelligence but social behavior, that in his opinion are more likely to have made modern humans more successful than other hominids or apes. Henrich argues that it is not clear that individual intelligence was the specific advantage that led to the success of modern humans. The plausible long-term competitive success of small-brained species like H naledi lends support, in my opinion, for Henrich’s argument that our eventual success may have depended primarily on social learning and especially on the transmission of adaptive learned behavior from individual to individual across generations. Alternatively, it seems possible that social learning might have provided a small-brained species like H naledi a competitive advantage over other hominid species that may have been more intelligent individually, allowing them to live for a long time in competition with many other hominids. We don’t know! This is just so neat!

It’s things like this, rather than ideas about what might happen if someone went back and shot Hitler, that REALLY make me want a time machine — or at least a way to look back through time.

Please Feel Free to Share: