George Claassen

Africa was mankind's cradle

2005-10-28 08:27
Little Foot as seen in the rocks at Sterkfontein - the most complete homonid skeleton found to date. (Elsabe Brits, Die Burger)

Little Foot as seen in the rocks at Sterkfontein - the most complete homonid skeleton found to date. (Elsabe Brits, Die Burger)

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Earlier this month, one of South Africa's truly great scientists turned 80.

Phillip Tobias - for many years a leader in the field of research into the origins of mankind - has played a significant role over the past 50 years to establish the fundamental scientific idea that Africa is the cradle of humankind.

As a young researcher, Louis and Mary Leaky asked Tobias to describe a hominid skull they had discovered in Olduvai (now known as Oldupai) Gorge in northern Tanzania.

With Louis Leakey and John Napier, he coined the name "Homo habilis" in 1964, a new species and the first hominid with a larger brain capacity than Australopithecus africanus.

In search of mankind's earliest forebears

Over the past ten days during dusty walks on the trails of Tanzania's Great Rift Wall Valley, and visiting Oldupai in search of mankind's earliest forebears, I was reminded of the words of Tobias on the role Africa plays in science.

"In the context of the re-birth of science in Africa we should perhaps view Africa as a large laboratory and training school within which, for eight million years, experiments among the primates have generated forms whose body structure adapted to the function of walking on two limbs, rather than on four," Tobias said in a paper delivered at the African Renais-Science conference held in Durban in 2002.

"As these bipedal hominids evolved further, from 2.5-2.0 million years ago, survival and adaptation among this new kind of earth being depended increasingly on brain development and cultural attainments."

The richest ape-man site in the world

Tobias was the South African scientist who did more than anyone else to establish the Sterkfontein caves near Krugersdorp as the richest ape-man site in the world - and it was his driving force that led to the caves being declared a World Heritage Site recently.

In Oldupai, an area surrounded by volcanoes, many of them long extinct and dormant, mankind's earliest ancestors lived, as in Sterkfontein where between 1966 and 2005 more than 600 hominid specimens were found.

In the 1990's Ron Clarke, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe found Little Foot deep inside Stekfontein, a virtually complete hominid skeleton, dating back 3.3 million years.

It was the oldest sign of the hominid family in southern Africa, Tobias said, although even older hominid bones have since then been discovered there since then.

Tobias calls Africa not only the cradle of humankind, but also "the nursery, preparatory school and training ground".

What has Africa given to the world?

To cynics and anti-African people who ask "What has Africa given to the world?", Tobias had a simple answer: Africa gave the world the first hominids and also the first human culture.

The dusty gorge among the volcanoes, the rocks and crevices deep inside Sterkfontein, the human footprints found at Laetoli near Oldupai, and covered by volcanic ash, all tell the same tale and confirmed by modern science: mankind took its first steps in Africa.

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger, South Africa's largest Afrikaans daily.

  • Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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