BLACK HISTORY MONTH: AFRICA – THE DAWN OF HUMANITY AND HOW THE WORLD WAS POPULATED

Co-Authored by:

Ewen Turner & Sarah Saunders

 

 

Let’s start at the beginning…

According to the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher; the world began in 4004 BC. Specifically on the evening before October 23rd.

Huh?!

Today we know this to be nonsense, but in 1650 this was the height of scientific sophistication. Ussher had studied the Old Testament, ancient Egyptian and Hebrew texts, analysed how the ancient calendars were calculated and came up with a date for ‘Creation’. Nowadays we have scientific carbon dating that can pinpoint the beginnings of humankind with astonishing accuracy and we now know that the human story goes back much further than 4004BC.  Fossil and archaeological evidence shows us that it began in East Africa in the Great Rift Valley, specifically Olduvai Gorge, and Africans shaping their own worlds, shaped the larger world as well. 

Evidence Confirms We Are All From Africa

Dinknesh, also known as ‘Lucy’, an ancient human ancestor changed the way we understand the dawn of humanity when her 3.2 million-year old fossilised skeleton was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and evidence of stone chopping tools and hand axes have been found dating back nearly 2 million years.

Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) have been ‘dated’ to around 300,000 years ago.  In 1997, an almost complete Homo sapien skull was discovered at Herto Bouri, Ethiopia and is the strongest evidence yet that modern humans emerged in Africa. ‘Idaltu’ walked the valley 160,000 years ago.

SOURCE: Berkeley.edu. Paleoanthropology Laboratory, National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

Africa is our first home and the cradle of civilisation. The Blombos Cave in South Africa evidence over 140,000 years of human habitation and signs of the first forms of human creative expression. A 77,000 year old cross-hatched drawing, done in ochre on a stone fragment is believed to be the earliest known drawing by a human in the world. This artistic impression was created with purpose and meaning and predates other ancient drawings by around 35,000 years. The emotional and cognitive behaviours that we see as ‘being human’, were present long before modern humans left Africa, busting the myths that Africans are uncivilised or sub-human.  

Over the next 120,000 years, small bands of us, artistic souls, independent hunter-gather groups roamed before a group emerged above the immediate need for basic human survival; cognizant of their surroundings and socially aware. 

Where did we go?

It is thought that somewhere between 80 and 50,000 years ago, some humans left Africa heading North and West into Europe, and East through Asia.  This was a gradual, evolving process. People moved, they mixed, and they produced more humans.  As a result, Homo Sapiens began populating the rest of the world. 

It is thought that the development of speech may have led to the mass migration.  The climate and sea level at the time were both very different and low sea levels meant crossing into the Americas from Asia via the Bearing Strait was possible as they were linked by land. While this was going on, further migration happened down through southeast Asia along the islands to Australia and New Zealand.  There was no English Channel so humans and animals could wander freely across all of Europe and gradually receding icecaps exposed more land and slowly humans moved north. 

It is also worth noting that Neanderthal populations were still in existence at this time. They had lived and existed in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years and the last traces of Neanderthals have been found in Gibraltar and it is thought they died out around 42,000 years ago, around the time that our species arrived on the continent. The reason for the demise of Neanderthals is unclear, be it from violence, competition or illnesses, but nevertheless, Neanderthals became extinct and Homo Sapiens continued to populate the world and the roots of every family tree can be traced back to Africa.

How come we look different if we’re all the same?

74,000 years ago, a disaster (which many believe to be the super-eruption of Mount Toba) had reduced the human population to a few thousand so there is evidence that the migration out of Africa was from a relatively small group. It was this group of humans which then went on to populate the rest of the world meaning that we, as modern humans, share almost all the same DNA. Looking deeper we find that there is “more genetic diversity within Africa than in the rest of the world put together” (Adam Rutherford).  Africans have more genetic variation than anyone else on earth.  There are multiple studies that trace our DNA lineage back all the way to ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ and it appears all our DNA lines lead to just that one woman in Africa. How incredible is that?! Passed down through females from mother to child, Eve had enough daughters in succession that her DNA survived. ‘Eve’ was not the first human, but every other female lineage eventually had no female offspring and so failed to pass on their mitochondrial cells. You can read more in this New Scientist article here.  Our genetic differences are literally skin deep as we are all descended from the same family.  There is only one race, the human race.

It also turns out that skin colour is a relatively new and truly terrible way to categorise humans. Skin colour is a natural variation caused by melanin.  Melanin is the substance present in the skin that is responsible for our beautiful variety of skin tones and shades, eye and hair colours. It also has a variety of beneficial properties including protection from UV light.  Variations in skin colour and tone have existed for 900,000 years, long before we wandered out of Africa and pale skin tones existed in Africa, long before humans arrived in Europe.  White supremacists regularly argue that somehow Whiteness is ‘more evolved’ and there are fundamental differences between skin colour. This is, of course, nonsense.

In summary, racial purity is an impossibility, we are all from the same place and have been moving and interbreeding since the dawn of time.

So, when we hear arguments such as ‘Britain for the British’…they are farcical.   

The British Isles only became an island about 7,500 years ago when sea level rose and made the English Channel.  ‘Cheddar Man’ lived around 10,000 years ago and is the oldest almost complete human skeleton ever found in Britain and according to DNA evidence had Black skin and Blue eyes.  Since then, the water hasn’t done much to stop people from coming and going. This island had invasions by Normans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Huns, and dozens of other smaller tribes and clans.  Oh, and remember the Romans? They had a pretty big empire that spanned from Africa to Britain. You get the idea. People mix, and we all are a product of that mixture, not just in the UK, but the whole world and skin colour as a classification is a relatively modern social construct.

SOURCE: Natural History Museum. Model of ‘Cheddar Man’ rendered by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions/

When European colonisers, missionaries and others headed out into the wider world, skin colour was an obvious factor of ‘difference’ and the pseudoscience of ‘Race’ was developed in order to justify the newly commercialised use of enslaved people. Think of the question people asked scientists to prove at the time:

“Why are Africans inferior?”

Note the question wasn’t “Are Africans inferior?”

This was done to justify slavery both commercially and morally. Slavery didn’t sit well with the Christian values but if ‘science’ could ‘prove’ that Black Africans were ‘subhuman’ then lo and behold it becomes not only ok but in fact the right thing to do! What was created was an entire system of categorisation that placed ‘White’ at the top, a racial hierarchy that provides unearned societal benefits based on your position in relation to other groups. This classification system is the foundation of structural racism as we know it. Whilst this was a political and commercial move, society naturally followed and these stereotypes along with pseudo-science have stuck, sadly even today. It is also worth noting that interestingly, although the term ‘ethnic minority’ is used to describe ‘other’ non-White communities, Global Majority People (non-White people) represent approximately 80% of the world’s population.

Things you should know –

  We all came from Africa

  We populated the world by mixing, moving and breeding

  We (humans) share almost identical DNA

  Skin colour is a variation in melanin and holds no value to discussing evolution or physiology.

  The idea of ‘Race’ was created by White people to position themselves as superior and justify the enslavement of people on a commercial scale

 

Further reading – How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford.

Africa’s Great Civilisations – Henry Louis Gates Jnr

Dr Richard Leakey

Dr Emma Mbua – National Museum of Kenya

Dr Christopher Henshilwood

Dr Rebecca Bradshaw

Dr Wendy Black

Iziko Museum – Cape Town

Selina Grace et al. suggests that Cheddar Man “most likely had blue/green eyes, dark, possibly black hair, and dark to black skin”