Born in Africa

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Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life by Martin Meredith examines the history of human evolution studies, focusing on Africa, and provides a comprehensive overview of the conflict between different researchers, different points of view, and sometimes, different evidence. It is a good read.

Meredith starts out with an examination of the Taung fossil, its discoverer, anatomy, and associated controversy. As you probably know, Taung was brought light by anatomist Raymond Dart, and had its initial impact on human evolutionary studies in the 1920s when the British Piltdown fossils, now known as forgeries, held sway as the archetype of early human ancestors. At that time, there was a concept of what a human ancestor would look like (large human-like brain, ape-like teeth and in-between body) and lo and behold, a fossil fitting this description was found and immediately established as physical dogma, despite the presence of what we now regard as obvious indicators that it was a fake. Taung has more of an ape-like brain and ape-like teeth but a more human-like body in that it walked upright, and depending on one’s view, could be regarded as somewhat human-like in other details. Britain was a, if not the, center of the world of Anthropology (and many other disciplines) and already had a very nice human ancestor, thank you very much. Dart’s work was thus sidelined, ignored, or even ridiculed. By the mid to late 1940s, as is well chronicled by Meredeth, Piltdown was uncovered as a hoax, and Taung and other materials from South Africa vindicated, just in time for two major events to occur: The de-centralization of human origins study so other people could play too, including South Africans, the French and even the Americans; and the start of discovery (in the 1950s) of what would eventually be regarded as several key fossils from Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Meredeth’s chronicle then moves on to the days of Mary and Louis Leakey, and their real and intellectual heirs, Richard and Meave Leakey, the Berkeley group the most famous of which are Donald Johanson and Tim White, and the increasingly internationalized and nondisciplinary teams of researchers addressing finer and finer questions about human evolution. His telling of the story is rich in detail. I thought I had heard all of the scuttlebutt, but Meredith had a few tidbits new to me, and most of the … interesting moments … that he leaves out have more to do with the archaeological research than the fossil research.

The take-home message of Meredith’s Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life is that conflict in personality, national interest, and access to resources is more interesting than the story of human evolution itself, mainly because there is more flesh on it. We can name the actors in the drama, and we can feel their joys and their heartaches. We can relate to the underdogs and be very annoyed at the coyotes. Meredith does not ignore the human evolutionary story itself: You get that too. But as a comedian once said of baby races: The real reason you are interested is to see the crashes.

(This is a modified version of a review originally published here.)

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