Origins of human life

2011-11-02 00:00

MARTIN Meredith can justly claim to be an expert on African affairs, and has written much on modern Africa and its political and economic developments.

In this latest book, he plunges into the realm of palaeoanthropology and the search for the origins of human life on earth, and provides a detailed and systematic survey of the efforts of many researchers (several South Africans among them) to find and explain whatever fossil remains of early hominids can be found in the soil of both Asia and Africa. The latter proves to be very much the cradle of humankind.

This is a fascinating story, and the book is full of engrossing ­information. Perhaps few non­specialists are aware of just how much ­evidence the earth has yielded up, mostly in the form of bone­fragments and stone tools in huge quantities. Meredith also introduces the reader to a long line of dedicated, sometimes fanatical, occasionally unscrupulous workers in the field, many in competition with one another. It seems that ego and hyper­competitiveness are no strangers to even such an inspiring terrain. And he throws in some helpful glances at Darwin and his ­theories (fundamentalists and ­creationists might find the book stomach churning).

For all the fascination of the ­material, the book is somewhat heavy-going. The fault is perhaps mainly in the material, and certainly not in Meredith’s clear and coherent prose. There are just too many names, too many discoveries, and above all too many rival theories supplanting one another, all of this leading to a degree of bewilderment.

Just as the reader finally ­assimilates the importance of one discovery and its accompanying theory, a new set appears from ­another area, and this is repeated, no doubt unavoidably, throughout the book. Perhaps the book should rather be treated as an ­historical textbook than as a single read-through, and be dipped into as required by specific interests.

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