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South Africa and the search of human origin

In December 2015, Aegean Odyssey will sail on a 19-day Christmas and New Year voyage to South Africa, taking in ports of call including Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Mossel Bay and Richards Bay. The cruise is an ideal opportunity to get up close with some of Africa’s remarkable wildlife. Accompanying this voyage is Dr. David Price-Williams, a life member of the Southern African Society for Quaternary Research and a much loved guest speaker on board Aegean Odyssey. He will be lecturing on the search for human origins, the history of human technology and the drifting continents. In his blog today he shares with us a fascinating story on the search of the ‘earliest human’ and David’s time working as an archaeologist in southern Africa in the mid 1970’s.

Every year we are used to reading in the newspapers about the discovery of a new specimen of early human found in Africa, a new skull perhaps, which is helping us to piece together the story of where we all originated. Apparently, as scientists now think, we came from Africa, all of us. From a beginning three or four million years ago, we emerged onto the world scene and later migrated from Africa and eventually colonized the whole world. You’ve probably heard of ‘Lucy’ from Ethiopia, or of Homo habilis, ‘Handyman’, from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. And since then there have been scores of new examples which have refined the ideas about our origins.

Elephants bathing at Addo elephant park,  © Dr David Price-Williams

Elephants bathing at Addo elephant park, © Dr David Price-Williams

But 100 years ago, that wasn’t the case. Africa was not even remotely considered as a possible cradle of humankind. That location, we were told, was actually in England, in East Sussex to be precise, where fossils had been found in a gravel pit at Piltdown, near Uckfield. ‘Piltdown Man’, as it became known, was ‘discovered’ in 1912 by a local solicitor, Charles Dawson and at the time was widely acclaimed by some of the top medical practitioners as ‘the missing link’, the half-way stage between the apes and modern humans, although humorous cartoons of the time often depicted this honour as being claimed by opposing politicians at Westminster!

But in November 1924 something was stirring in South Africa. The new Professor of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Raymond Dart, was handed a cardboard box containing bits of fossil skulls which had been found at a lime-works at Taung, not far from Kimberley in the Orange Free State and on top of the box was the lime-hardened cast of a small brain as well as a block of travertine which seemed to contain the facial area of a skull.

Over Christmas that year Dart worked on the block and out of the lime emerged the face of a small child which he recognised as a very early form of human. His results were published in the scientific magazine Nature in February 1925 in which he claimed that Africa, not Britain, was the place of origin of our lineage.

Professor Raymond Dart witht he Taung child skull,  © Dr David Price-Williams

Professor Raymond Dart witht he Taung child skull, © Dr David Price-Williams

It was a revolutionary idea and was immediately dismissed by the eminent European palaeontologists as a mistake. Dart was too young, they claimed, too impetuous, not experienced enough, and anyway he was an Australian. What did he know? Not only that but the Taung skull belonged to a child; the mature morphology would have shown it to be that of an ape. And anyway, Dart must be wrong, because ‘Piltdown’ was right. And there the matter rested. Dart’s discovery, which he’d called Australopithecus africanus, the Southern Ape of Africa, was largely ignored in favour of an origin in the Home Counties of Britain.

It wasn’t until 1946, more than twenty years later, when an adult Australopithecine was unearthed at another South African lime-works site at Sterkfontein just outside Johannesburg that Dart’s original idea was taken seriously and the concept of an African genesis for humans really began to catch on.

The Piltdown fragments were re-examined at the Natural History Museum in London and in 1953 it was announced that ‘Piltdown Man’ was a forgery. It turned out to be the biggest hoax which has ever been perpetrated on the scientific community, and had so misled popular opinion that it had held back the proper search for the African evidence for the emergence of Man for getting on for half a century!

Dr David Price-Williams with students at the Taung site © Dr David Price-Williams

Dr David Price-Williams with students at the Taung site © Dr David Price-Williams

When I started working as an archaeologist in southern Africa in the mid 1970’s I remember that my wife and I were taken to Sterkfontein, now acknowledged to be the largest fossil hominid site in the world, and shown the newest evidence they had discovered. We also met Professor Dart, fairly elderly by that time, who was still excited by his discoveries and yet after all these years was still angry at the reception his original idea had received in Europe.

Since that time, loads of new specimens have been found, in southern and in east Africa, and the whole route of our emergence onto the world stage has now been carefully mapped out. Though there are still some debates that rage about the precise order of events, Africa has now been firmly established as our birthplace.

Lions in one of the African game parks, © Dr David Price-Williams

Lions in one of the African game parks, © Dr David Price-Williams

As you travel in the African bush, looking at elephants and rhinos, leopards and lions and all the rest of the animals from the safety of your game viewing vehicle, spare a thought for our own forebears who actually had to compete in the open grasslands among these impressive behemoths and terrifying carnivores. Maybe, if you are like me, you may even begin to feel a strange sense of recognition, a feeling of belonging, in this timeless landscape. And you should know, you can be bitten by the Africa bug. It happened to me in December 1975, my first visit, and prompted me to live and work in Africa for almost two decades so that whenever I return I have an inexplicable sense that I have come home, which in a way I have. In fact, we all have!

Join Dr David Price-Williams and attend his fascinating talks on:

Christmas & New Year in South Africa – December 2015 ›

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