Curriculum Vital

    Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life, by Martin Meredith

    The theory that Africa is the birthplace of humanity is even more recent than Charles Darwin’s theory that we and all other creatures on Earth are evolved beings. Darwin himself suggested it was on the expanding plains of Africa many thousands of years ago that early humans, forced into bipedalism to survive in their changing environment, turned their now free hands to tool-making and other crafts. With this growing knowledge – and the extra meat it brought – our ancestors developed that most crucial physical feature, a bigger brain.

    As so often, though, vindication for Darwin would come long after his death. Until the Second World War, the general consensus was that the birthplace of the human species was Asia, home to the orang-utans and gibbons that bear such a close resemblance to Homo sapiens. The story of how palaeontologists came to debunk this theory and pinpoint Africa as man’s home is the subject of Martin Meredith’s brisk and brilliant book.

    It’s fitting that a species as riven and schismatic as Homo sapiens should emerge in a corner of Africa that is being wrenched apart by colossal tectonic forces. The Afar Triangle in East Africa is, Meredith writes, ‘one of the most forbidding regions on earth, a tormented land of active volcanoes, blistering salt flats, boiling hot springs and sunken deserts lying far below sea level.’ It is also home to the oldest hominid fossils on the planet. For the early humans who lived here, life was a constant struggle for survival. (Around 60,000 years ago the climate changed so dramatically that by some estimates our population fell to just 5,000 hardy humans.) Equally, the early quests to find and excavate the remains of our long-lost relatives tested the limits of human endurance.

    The pioneering palaeontologists who unearthed the Afar Triangle’s hidden treasures had to battle not only scorching sun and flooding rains, but also other palaeontologists. The desire to make the crucial find was so strong that in one famous case it fractured a human family.

    Mary and Louis Leakey are to palaeoanthropology what Marie and Pierre Curie are to radioactivity. As individuals and as a pair working in some of the most difficult terrain of Kenya and Ethiopia they found many of the most important human fossils, including that 3.6-million-year-old footprint on the book’s cover and a 1.75 million-year-old skeleton known as Dear Boy. Louis Leakey became a global celebrity. Like any dominant male, though, Leakey was under constant threat from rival males. He and his wife had to compete with an American paleoanthropologist named Donald Johanson, while Mr Leakey also had to compete with his ambitious and impatient son Jonathan. These and other fossil finders were often guilty of self-aggrandisement and hyperbole, human failings that are more than offset by the (as it were) ground-breaking work in question.

    The best selling author of The State of Africa, Meredith weaves the (again, as it were) human side of the research and discoveries with the abundant facts and data with which we modern Homo sapiens are blessed. We now know, for example, that we are one of 20 human species to have existed, and that we only left our African nursery around 60,000 years ago. Meredith presents clearly and concisely all the competing theories as to how and why that happened. With evolution and inheritance back on the year six science programme of study, now is a great time to explore mankind’s fascinating family tree. 

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    Book review: The Third Chimpanzee (adapted for young people), by Jared Diamond