In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote his famous novel: ‘The descent of man’. This novel was first of its kind because it recognised the concept of evolution. For Darwin theorised and validated the idea of chimps and gorillas found in the African continent to be the relatives of humankind. That is to say: Darwin didn’t say that humans evolved from chimps but that there is a common ancestor. This common ancestor – the missing link- has been the topic of discussion and mystery for decades. We think we are closer to working out the missing link every year that passes.
I was in South Africa a few weeks back. Amongst its apartheid ridden recent past, a stain on South African history, there is a wonder and beauty to the country. The African continent itself is the birth of all us. And in the summer of 2016, I had the chance to delve into the history of all of us. This is my retelling of my experience at the Human Cradle: The Birth of Humanity.
People argue that evolution is a theory. It hasn’t been proven. But a theory in scientific terminology is very different from a belief, guess, speculation or opinion. In science, as opposed to common usage, the term theory is applied by an explanation that is supported by evidence. Therefore the theory of natural selection and consequently evolution is a theory that has centuries of evidence to back it up. It’s not merely a made-up fantasy. We are living proof that species on this earth are constantly changing and the best traits that allow survival are being passed down through generations. (Definition adapted from museum of the Human Cradle, South Africa)
Evolution of humans started the day the Earth was formed. Below is a timeline of the main events in evolutionary history.
- 4.6 BILLION YEARS AGO — Life originates
- 2 BILLION YEARS AGO – Giant meteor in South Africa forms the Verdefront cater
- 575 MILLION YEARS AGO – Origin of multicellular life (Eukaryotes)
- 543 MILLION YEARS AGO – Proliferation of marine life
- 2.4 MILLION YEARS AGO – First Homo Africanus appears
- 1.9 MILLION YEARS AGO – First Homo Ergastus (the humans that moved out of the African continent to the continents of Europe and Asia)
- 1.6 MILLION YEARS AGO – First Homo Erectus appear
- BETWEEN 1.6 MILLION YEARS AGO AND THE HOMO SAPIEN – The Missing Evolutionary Link. What came after the neanderthal?
- 190 THOUSAND YEARS AGO – First ever Homo Sapien
The fossils of Mrs. Ples were found at a place called Maropeng in South Africa. Mrs. Ples was an Australopithicus. This is what we would now call a humanoid: half ape, half human. The fossils were found formed in liquid limestone in the caves made of Dolomite. The rock that formed around the fossil (brecha) retained the fossils for 3 million years after Mrs. Ples death from where she had fallen to her death. It remained untouched and unknown until it was eventually excavated by Dr. Robert Boom and his team of paleontologists in the 1930s. This discovery cemented the fact that not only did evolution lead to modern humans but also that humankind began in the African continent. For more information on this please click here . This is a link to the official website for South Africa’s world Heritage site: The Human Cradle in Gauteng.
The end result of evolution and centuries of ‘survival of the fittest’ has led to present day. To us. We are the humans who were smart who managed to survive harsh winters, wars, plagues and even at times political unrest. We are a diverse species but with characteristics that define us as a distinct human species:
- Humans have bipedalism (ability to walk on two feet)
- Humans have a far complex brain than any other animal existing or extinct. This happened because as our diet changed, our gut became smaller so more energy was redirected to the development of the brain.
- Humans can control fire – and therefore cook, clean and keep warm
- Humans can make tools for survival – like forks, spoons, axes, saws, swards, guns and bombs
- Humans are social animals
- Humans have exceptional capacity for creation
- Humans are omnivores – allowing flexibility and the ability to adapt in any environment
- Human teeth adapted as our food became more refined
The curious human led to migration and this led to the first ever humans from Ethiopia and South Africa to the rest of the African continent. From here humans moved out to the rest of the world until humans populated every landmass on Earth.
Africa has given the world humanity-and that is no small thing
– Prof. Philip Tobias
And indeed that is true. But not all migration is voluntary. Not all that humans have achieved has been great. Not everyone has prospered under the rule of human kind.
Despite our advances in science, literature, the arts, society and history, our world still has famine, social, gender, racial inequality, war, poverty and illness.
The greatest species and race on Earth has much still to solve. Question is: Can we or have we gone too far in our own destruction? These days, one has to turn on the news for just a minute and the failures of humankind become apparent. Nevertheless, tomorrow is a new beginning and with each beginning there is new hope.