A window on the past

2008-01-11 00:00

Johannesburg, Wits University and the Cradle of Humankind all have one

thing in common — gold. Following its discovery on the Witwatersrand in 1886, gold sparked the growth of a scientific community in southern Africa and in 1912 the Transvaal School of Mines became a university college and subsequently, in 1922, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

The discovery of human and animal fossils in the Sterkfontein area — now the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site — was an accidental by-product of the MacArthur-Forrest cyanide process used for gold extraction, which required huge amounts of lime. Mining the limestone caverns in the Sterkfontein area brought the fossils to light, dramatically changing the way we view human origins.

The linkages between gold, science and palaeontology are just some of many examined in A Search for Origins — Science, History and South Africa’s ‘Cradle of Humankind’ edited by Philip Bonner, Amanda Esterhuysen and Trefor Jenkins.

“We wanted to do something that would bring people up to date with the scientific record,” says Bonner, professor of history at the University of the Witwatersrand. “But we also wanted to go beyond that. We wanted to show how the scientific advances took place within the context of their time.”

The Cradle has been a site of conflict since prehistoric times — australopithecines versus the great cats, and Boers versus Britons in the South African War of 1899-1902. “The Cradle thus provides a lens through which to view and comprehend a series of absolutely pivotal and formative moments of South African prehistory and history,” says Bonner.

“The Cradle opens windows on to many pasts,” he says, pasts that include palaeontology, geology, genetics and a remarkable group of scientists, among them Raymond Dart, Robert Broom, Bob Brain and Jan Smuts — “South Africa’s four-times prime minister and public intellectual” — who, in 1925, gave the Sterkfontein area the name which subsequently stuck: the Cradle of Mankind, later amended to the Cradle of Humankind.

A Search for Origins brings into the public domain much information previously only accessible to academics,” says Jenkins, professor of human genetics at Wits, not least information from his own field featured in a section of the book titled Fossils and Genes: A New Anthropology of Evolution.

“For the hundred years after Darwin enunciated his theory of evolution by natural selection, and suggested that humans had originated in Africa, the primary evidence for human evolution came from fossils,” writes Jenkins. “In more recent times the techniques of palaeoanthropology have been augmented by scientists working in the field of molecular genetics advent in the late 1970s to produce increasingly detailed and accurate descriptions of the evolutionary development of humankind.”

It has also provided the evidence for human origins beginning in Africa, “although we didn’t have to wait for DNA”, says Jenkins. “Blood groups showed the emergence and that was in the early 1970s.”

But there were still denialists. Jenkins cites American anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, author of Origins of Races, who claimed humans had arisen in different places at the same time — in Europe, Africa and Australia. “This belief was hanging around until fairly recently in the face of DNA evidence that humans arose once and then spread from Africa. But people were locked into the old view.”

“White people couldn’t accept that people had recent beginnings and a common origin, and were related,” says Jenkins. “There is such a difference between black and white, they said, we can’t be related.”

Such ideas were in tune with apartheid-era South Africa. “The presentation of black people as technologically and ideologically primitive justifed separate and unequal education,” says Amanda Esterhuysen, lecturer in the schools of geography, archaeology and environmental sciences at Wits.

“The book allows us to see the politics of South Africa through the Cradle,” she says. Archaelogy and politics were inextricably linked, at first reflecting European concerns that threatened creationist biblical notions of time which in South Africa had racial and political implications as well.

Even when it became apparent humans had originated in Africa, the role of black people was downplayed by, among others, Jan Smuts. “Smuts shared the view of his scientific contemporaries that humankind had not only evolved in the African interior, but had subsequently degenerated there as well,” says Bonner. “All subsequent achievements and advances which occurred on the African continent were then credited to a flow of reverse migrations from the north” — conveniently culminating with the whites.

“In many ways Smuts was a pioneering figure — he understood and accepted continental drift long before most scholars — and yet he subscribed to this theory of degeneration. The two things sit side by side uneasily.”

This irony is explored further in a section of the book titled The Racial Paradox: Sterkfontein, Smuts and Segregation. “The segregationist thrust in Smuts’s thinking was driven forward and buoyed up the threat to white domination supposedly presented by poor whites,” says Bonner.

“A host of relief projects were initiated to provide protected employment to poor whites, which almost always simultaneously discriminated against blacks. The flagship of these was Hartbeespoort Dam, an irrigation scheme directly opposite the Cradle.

“Smuts, more than any other figure, embodies and personifies the paradox that is Sterkfontein — emblematic as it is of the complexities, the contradictions and the delusions of old South Africa. The Cradle is more diverse than palaeontology. There’s far more to it than fossils.”

• A Search for Origins — Science, History and South Africa’s ‘Cradle of Humankind’ edited by Philip Bonner, Amanda Esterhuysen and Trefor Jenkins is published by Wits University Press.

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