Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

It is deeply ironic and equally tragic that the fossil record and DNA testing prove that all of humankind has a shared ancestry and heritage that began in SA — where for decades politicians were wedded to an ideology of racial difference and white superiority.

As a child Christa Kuljian watched the BBC series The Ascent of Man in 1973, which focused on the discovery of the Taung Child skull and concluded that it was "almost certain now that man evolved in Africa".

The series lodged in her mind and contributed to her decision seven years later to focus on the history of science at Harvard University. One of her lecturers was the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote in his book The Mismeasure of Man that "science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly."

Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins
Christa Kuljian

Kuljian’s excellent book examines the search for human origins in SA and the context that tainted it; how the beliefs of individual scientists, and the times in which they lived, shaped the narrative; how the race narrative changed over time and what this means for the understanding of what it means to be human.

As an author at the height of her skills with a science education, Kuljian fluently traces the race thinking that blighted science for centuries and suggests new ways of discovery that could be inclusive of all.

The first scientist to suggest humans evolved in Africa was Charles Darwin, who in 1871 concluded: "It is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere."

His theory was derided for almost 150 years as leading scientists argued that humans must have evolved in "more civilised" Europe or Asia.

Some believed that black people were a different species from Europeans or that they had not yet evolved. Their cultural prejudices led to parts of a skull and jaw — dubbed Piltdown Man after the discovery in England in the early 1900s — being hailed as an early human ancestor until proved to be a hoax a few decades later.

One of the foremost early palaeontologists in SA was Robert Broom, who combined his interest in old bones with his medical practice. He gathered "Bushmen" skeletons for his own research and to send abroad, often boiling the flesh from their skulls in pots of water on his kitchen stove.

At the turn of the century, the South African Association for the Advancement of Science called on scientists to take measurements of indigenous South Africans to provide accurate "descriptions" of them.

Broom wrote a paper on the Boskop Man fossil found in 1914, describing the skull with the thick-boned cranium as "the direct ancestor of the more or less degenerate Bushman".

Raymond Dart claimed the discovery of the Taung Child skull in SA in 1924, although a student, Josephine Salmons, delivered it to him. He dubbed it Australopithecus africanus, which means southern ape from Africa. He believed the people of Southern Africa were influenced by ancient visitors of the Near East, who brought them the arts and their customs.

Dart spent years measuring the anatomy of Bushmen and concluded that they were childlike in body and behaviour. He arranged the collection of the skeleton of a young Bushman woman, /Keri-/Keri, after hearing that she was dying in an Oudtshoorn hospital and added it to his massive collection of skeletons, which he considered "specimens" to be studied.

Kuljian went in search of /Keri-/Keri’s skeleton in 2014 and discovered that it had been lost or misplaced. She found a cast of her body hidden between cupboards and a wall at the University of the Witwatersrand. "Horrified, I think back to all the male scientists who thought themselves entitled to probe /Keri-/Keri’s body," she writes.

After the discovery of an adult Australopithecus skull at Sterkfontein in 1936, Broom posed for photographs alongside "museum boys" and "quarry boys". The black men who worked for museums and universities and patiently chipped out fossils deep in caves were given no recognition.

Dart’s student Phillip Tobias, who became one of the most beloved scientists in SA, began his career as apartheid was being entrenched. While in an early academic paper he decried the race thinking that led to the deaths of millions of people, he said he believed that the racial classification of people was the necessary work of scientists.

However, in 1985 Tobias wrote another article in which he acknowledged that scientists were beginning to question the biological validity of race.

He confirmed that all living human beings were members of a single species, Homo sapiens, which arose in Africa before making its way across the globe.

The theory was derided for almost 150 years as scientists argued that humans must have evolved in ‘more civilised’ Europe or Asia

This "argument" ended conclusively in the 1980s when scientists working in human genetics declared that DNA showed all humans had a common ancestor and she was from Southern Africa.

After the end of apartheid black people demanded the return of the bones piled up on university and museum shelves.

Sarah Baartman’s body was returned from France, and many Griqua bones were handed over by Wits and buried.

Another Wits palaeontologist to achieve international acclaim was Lee Berger, who discovered Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi. Berger used Google Maps to discover a network of caves near the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng — finally acknowledged as a site of all human evolution dating back 3.5-million years.

Berger discovered the human ancestor Homo naledi in a cave filled with the "largest assemblage of fossil human relatives ever discovered". Unfortunately, the find offered an opportunity to reopen the discredited race debate when for former trade unionist Zwelinzima Vavi and ANC MP Mathole Motshekga accused Berger of suggesting that black people were descended from baboons.

Kuljian believes that if more black South Africans were offered opportunities in palaeontology, many stereotypes and prejudices will, eventually, be destroyed.

"Like field workers working with fossils cemented in breccia, it is necessary for us to chip away at long-held prejudices and beliefs, holding new truths up to the light and examining them with care and open minds," she writes. "Despite the work to be done, certainly there is hope for the future."


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