I sit in the audience in the auditorium of St Mary’s School for girls. It is a posh school, with manicured gardens and every imaginable facility. I am here to watch a presentation on human evolution by the Walking Tall Educational Project, an initiative of Past, the Palaeontological Scientific Trust. The project aims to inspire learners, educators and members of the general public to recognise, understand and value their ancient African heritage. The audience of teenage girls is abuzz with curiosity; a mixed crowd, united by class rather than race. But the race questions persist.
To understand where we are, we must know where we come from. And the future we leave to our children is determined by what we do today.
Our universe is close to 14 billion years old and our planet Earth formed about 4,5 billion years ago. Homo sapiens (modern humans) appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago. We are a very young species, existing for less than 3% of the time since we last shared a common ancestor with our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. If we reduced the history of our planet to a timeline of 14 years then the human race has been here for 3 minutes and the industrial revolution happened 6 seconds ago.
Homo sapiens was an exclusively African species until 80,000 to 60,000 years ago, when Africans, from our own Cradle of Humanity outside Johannesburg and the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, migrated to the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Australasia and eventually the Americas.
The irony for some of the most brutal proponents of racist stereotyping, including our own home-bred Apartheid architects is that we all carry the African gene pool. These African colonising populations began to diverge from one another in physical characteristics, some as a result of adaptation to different environments (e.g., skin color as an adaptation to intensity of ultra-violet radiation). These divergent characteristics are used to define races, which have been in existence for only the last 1% of the time since we diverged evolutionarily from chimpanzees.
Compare any two individuals, regardless of population, and their genetic sequences differ by only about 0.1%.
The small amount of genetic variation that exists is greater within any one population than it is between populations, a fact that has led many biologists to view human races as an invalid biological construct. Many centuries ago, some early Greek and Roman philosophers argued that skin color and other features were associated with climate, especially ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun. This fact created biological systems that have evolved natural sunscreens.
So what is our African dignity, based on Africa as our ancestral homeland? We are the storehouse of our species’ amazing fossil record, and the place where all distinctively human characteristics arose; from bipedalism to the first use of fire, language; from the earliest technology tools to seeds and cereal staple crops and the domestication of animals; from the use of tin and development of weapons against marauding tribes to the early development of human settlement. The earliest records of trade and the use of writing and communication owe much to Egyptian and Nubian civilisations.
So why do we feel this sense of inferiority and how do we overcome it?
I remember growing up under Apartheid feeling inferior to whites because of the colour of my skin. I had my human dignity wrenched from me at a tender age. I was 4 years old when we were evicted from our home because the Group Areas Act said we were a “black spot”. My childhood was that of a second-class citizen, defined by exclusion through segregated parks, schools, buses, beaches, clinics and shops. It bred a deep, undying anger that found an outlet when I heard Steve Biko raise the flag of Black Consciousness.
I discovered that reclaiming our human dignity was based on black pride. I was black and proud of it.
We had the power to change our narrative. Fighting racist oppression was a way for me to reclaim my stolen human dignity. That was the glue that held together that 1976 generation, the engine of our 1980s mass struggle, was driven by a vision of social justice and solidarity.
As I absorb the facts of our human evolution I think of the crisis facing our humanity today. The rising poverty and inequality has a racial face to it. The vast majority of the poor are black, living in teeming townships and our burgeoning squatter camps. Addressing the rising racism in our society requires us to do work across all racial groups.
Too many black kids still associate “whiteness” with success, superior intelligence and status. The reality is that a young black child stuck in a shack in Diepsloot, whose parents are unemployed, where schools are shambolic, with rundown infrastructure, overcrowding, where little teaching takes place and our children are robbed of their innocence and the potential to climb out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
As I watch the simple stage and versatility of the cast of the Walking Tall Educational Project I understand why every South African child should understand human evolution. It instills pride knowing we are the source code of human origin. We were the original inhabitants. There is a scientific, rational reason why we are different, one that culture, racism, religious belief or racist charlatans can never undermine.
If our children had that information they would be liberated in mind, soul and body from the falsehoods of racial theorists and the prejudices of individuals. We would be able to understand our role as humankind.
We would understand that the rate of species extinction, especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, is greater than in the last 65 million years at least, when the Earth suffered the fifth mass extinction in the history of life, killing off the dinosaurs and over three-quarters of other plant and animal species.
By some estimates, the present rate of extinction is well over 50,000 species a year. Yet powerful “dirty economic interests” hire climate denialists and pump billions of dollars into disputing the science that proves that the projected 4-6 degree rise in temperature puts us on the road to an ecological disaster. Not even the extreme weather patterns, prolonged droughts, torrential flooding or rising temperatures can deter human greed.
The future is catastrophic for our children. Fueled by the climate crisis we are already seeing growing food insecurity; wars are being fought over land, water, energy and food.
Paleontology offers a script for the future. Its lessons are a roadmap to a sustainable future. We can learn from past extinctions. We can study civilisation and the journey of humankind. We can understand the beauty and the horror of our technological progress. We can understand that we are part of nature, not apart from nature.
Our generation is the custodian of the future. Africa’s unique fossil treasures hold all of the information necessary to making that future a just and equitable one. If we can ignore the superficiality of racial markers we can build the bold new narrative we need in our beautiful country and the world. DM
● The Walking Tall Educational Project at Past
Jay Naidoo is the patron of Scatterlings of Africa, a paleontology initiative committed to linking our fossil sites in Africa and connecting them to our vision of a proud African Renaissance.