Friday, September 23, 2011

New-Age Darwin

Olorgesailie Prehistoric site of the Homo erectus in Kenya
Richard Leakey

The differences among the peoples of the world are only skin-deep. This statement does not come from a pastor or a pundit, not from a politician either, but an anthropologist neck-deep in work on hominid fossils in Kenya. The ‘high priest’ of paleoanthropology, himself, Richard Leakey is placing in perspective the morphological changes that have accrued among humans - over millennia - that inhabit diverse continents and habitats, and that in the modern world of intolerance and one-upmanship lead to discrimination  - racial or civilizational. It is only right that a man who has spent his life-time studying human evolution and unearthing fossils of our prehistoric ancestors should delicately dust off the debris of accumulated prejudices settled over mankind and see this reality in its starkness.


I am excited to hear him - finally - having seen the Prehistory section of the National Museum at Nairobi and having been a member of Kenya Museum Society – both of which were founded by him. Here he was in person, a giant of a man, both literally and figuratively, walking on his prosthetic legs (an outcome of an air crash in 1993 which many believed was an act of sabotage to stop him in his tracks as the fearless Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service when he curbed ivory poaching successfully) and talking with a twinkle in his eyes. For the next hour-and-a-half, I am captivated by Richard Leakey’s take on a serious scientific discipline of Human Origins rendered humourously and at times, self-deprecatingly like when he talks of his lack of technology savvy. And though I have read it before, I get goose bumps when I hear it from the horse’s mouth that early humans originated in the savannas of Central and East Africa!

In one of his early finds of a human cranium, Richard was pooh-poohed when he suggested that it resembled Caucasians in its features as it went completely against the grain of Western and Caucasian supremacy! Anthropology, itself, saw a decline in the post WWII era due to its controversial ties with colonial (and racist) agenda and has come into its own only in the last few decades, I learn. Richard is a strong votary of Out of Africa theory which says that it was from sub-Saharan Africa that Homo sapiens moved out to Europe, Eurasia and other parts of the world. He says, dramatically, “Take a genetic swab from any of your mouths and you’ll trace your ancestry to the African pre-humans.”

Study of Human Origins involves many diverse enterprises such as archaeology, geology, paleontology, genetics, botany, ecology and so on, and it is this very multidisciplinary approach that has led to many  incontrovertible conclusions. It is now believed that evidences from fossils, genes and language all point to the African origin of modern humans in the relatively recent past.

To quote another anthropologist, John Reader, “Geneticists conclude that the entire population of the modern world descended from a relatively small group of people that left Africa 100, 000 years ago.” In his phenomenal book: ‘Africa – A biography of the continent’, he writes: “Furthermore, they (geneticists) said that every human being alive today carries the mitochondrial DNA of just one African woman who lived more than 10,000 generations ago.” In that context, Richard is known to have framed the famous premise that says: 'Africa was not discovered by Europeans, Africa created them!'

Richard’s parents – the famous Louis and Mary Leakey – worked in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Northern Tanzania and their spectacular finds at the Olduvai Gorge (one of the places I have been fortunate to visit, but more about it in another blog) have created archaeological history. While Richard had a headstart working under their tutelage, he soon emerged out of their shadows and carved a niche for himself with his work on the shores of Lake Turkana, which he calls “a rich treasure trove of pre-human fossils”. Many experts, today, believe that the Eastern part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley is indeed the cradle of humankind as more fossil evidence is found here than anywhere else in Africa.

For nearly four decades, Richard Leakey and his team have worked in the Turkana basin in Northern Kenya unearthing human skulls and skeletons to piece together a fascinating chapter in the history of Human Evolution. It is here that nearly 16,000 fossil specimens have been obtained, the most important and significant find being the “Turkana Boy”. This is an almost complete skeleton of a 12-year old boy who lived 1.6 million years ago on the western shores of Lake Turkana. The Turkana boy is a specimen of Homo erectus, the precursor to the Homo sapiens or the modern man. Today, Koobi Fora on the eastern shores of the lake is one of the most important sites, fossil dense, synonymous with the Origin of Humans project in Kenya. This is the fertile ground where fossil remains of man, mammals and stone tools are mired tracing our ancestry back to Homo erectus, Homo habilis and even Australopithecine (pre-humans that were deemed to be the bridge between primates and man) eras.

The Turkana Basin Institute, under the leadership of Richard Leakey has created a self-sufficient facility where all the specimens are preserved in situ with no need whatsoever to take them out of Turkana for research purposes. Leakey has co-opted local communities and research students for the projects in a holistic approach. In this hallowed ground, a minefield of discoveries await, a real-time jigsaw puzzle that when unraveled will throw light anew on the Origin of Human Species. And one day, I hope I get to visit this place.


Richard Leakey figures in Time Magazine's list of 100 Greatest Minds of the 20th Century.

1 comment:

  1. lovely encapsulation of what we heard the other day in wonderment. sri

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