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Book Review: Born In Africa


Battle over bones
KS NARAYANAN | New Delhi, September 15, 2012 12:30
Tags : Born In Africa book review |

The origins of human kind has always intrigued us from times immemorial. The ancient and the medieval world sought explanations in religion, myths and spiritualism. Very soon, it became certain that the answers lay elsewhere.

However, it took scientists a full century of investigations to come close to understanding the beginnings of human life. But with thousands of fossils hunted and hundreds of discoveries made; the story of man’s origin has continued to get more and more convoluted. To this day, ultimate clues still remain hidden.

In Born In Africa: The Quest For The Origins of Human Life, Martin Meredith, a leading historian and Africanologist has summarised  the trail of discoveries about human origins made by scientists over the last century. In doing so, Meredith, also a journalist, describes personal rivalries, raging controversies and heated debates, contempt and fraud as well as feats of skill and endurance. To present the illuminating story of our common humanity in a lucid summary, Meredith much like the fossil hunters, sifts through a maze of narratives, books and personal reminiscences of several generations of scientists spanning a hundred years.

Naturalist Charles Darwin suggested that Africa was cradle of humankind, since it was the homeland of gorillas and chimpanzees. Though immediately ridiculed by the Victorian era custodians, Darwin’s idea was first scientifically challenged by the late 19th century German biologist Ernst Haeckel who argued that Asian apes, orangutans and gibbons are more closely related to humans than African apes, making Asia a more likely birthplace.

Haeckel’s idea was attested when Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois convinced the world that he had laid his hand on the missing link when he found a hominid molar, skullcap, left femur and a thighbone and named it Pithecanthropus erectus – upright ape man. To the world at large, it came to be known as “Java Man”. It is a different story that Dubois was mocked that the bones belonged to giant gibbon.

This was followed by the discovery of Piltdown Man which was found to be a hoax and later dismissed as the most outrageous palaeontological fraud till the 1950’s.

From here on Meredith takes readers on a tour of the Dark Continent where early discoveries in South Africa were made by Raymond Dart (Taung Baby) and Robert Broom.  However, the larger part of the book is devoted to the work of Louis and Mary Leaky in the Olduvai gorge in northern Tanzania and then on the work Richard Leaky and Donald Johanson in northern Kenya and Ethiopia.

Meredith recounts the hazards of the African landscape and the demands on stamina and persistence these fossil hunters faced. Africa seemed unwilling to part with her secrets. In Tanzania’s Olduvai gorge, where Mary Leakey first spotted the 1.75 million-year-old skull she referred to affectionately as “Dear Boy,” researchers battled black dust clouds, drought, scorching sun and wild beasts.

In human anthropology, fame and academic success depends on finding rare human remains. This requires persistence, a knack for fund-raising and luck. One has to convince a sceptical scientific establishment of the importance of the discoveries.

The fossil hunters, who held the field, fame and funds to themselves for more than a century, especially in Africa, lost ground to the molecular school that found wide acceptance in early 1980’s. John Buettner-Janusch of Duke University, summed up popular scorn against molecular approach when he said: “No hard work, no tough intellectual arguments. No fuss, no muss, no dishpan hand. Just throw some proteins into the laboratory apparatus, shake them up, and bingo – we have an answer to questions that have puzzled us for at least three generations”.

But the genetic information of modern hominids (humans, chimps, gorillas and orangutans) and other primates can be studied to show when they last had a common ancestor.  It turns out that gibbons and humans had a last common ancestor around 20 million years ago, orangutans split off from us around 16 million years ago, gorillas around 10 million years ago, and humans and chimpanzees had a last common ancestor only around 6 million years ago.
The second part of the book deals with the importance of concepts of bipedal evolution, climatic change and waves of migrations to explain human origin.

Grappling with such a complex subject, Meredith successfully breaks down the drama of trials and triumphs over the 230 pages in a layman’s language, describing the basics of field research in an intelligible language. He has also provided a synopsis and sources for every chapter at the end of book. Overall, a rather good read.  

Author: Martin Meredith

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-84739-276-3

Pages: 230

Price: Rs. 499

Publisher: Simon & Schuster India

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017