Wake-up call from cradle of humankind
IT WAS Pliny the Elder who coined the immortal phrase, “Semper aliquid novi Africa affert”, or in our terms, “From Africa always something new”. Those of us who live and love this country and this continent know that instinctively.
But, the works of pioneering palaeontologists like Robert Broom, Raymond Dart, Philip Tobias and, now, Lee Berger, prove conclusively that Africa is not just the fount of something new, but rather the epicentre of mankind as we know it.
Yesterday, Wits professor Berger and his team of experts revealed perhaps one of the greatest finds yet about the origin of our species – in the aptly named Cradle of Humankind, itself one of the longest-running archaeological digs in the world that has already yielded us so much; from Mrs Ples to now Homo Naledi, the man of the star.
This creature is not human, it is pre-human. It is an animal – and yet it buried its dead. This is the revelation of Berger’s find, not a single fossilised skeleton, but an entire cave of remains laid there by their peers, not dragged there by predators or slain in a single catastrophic event.
It is a revelation that speaks more to the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin than to the dogma of a week-long perfect creation, and is something that will be mulled over for months, if not years to come, as experts – and tourists – from all over the world flock to Maropeng and Sterkfontein to learn, or just to ponder.
For us, the discovery is slightly more basic. It is the affirmation that our quintessential African trait of ubuntu is indeed prehistoric. People cared for one another, people identified with one another, they were because of each other, before they were even classified as sentient beings.
How deeply ironic, nay tragic, that the country that could reveal this incredible insight was also the country that could bear witness to the inhumanity of apartheid, the mindless hatred of xenophobia and the appalling selfishness where today we have one of the worst Gini coefficients of inequality in the world.
This really is a wake up call for all of us, even if it is several million years late.