Origin and Detour

It’s hard for me to read stories about human origins without feeling like there’s some kind of agenda at work, buried just beneath the surface. Modern humans are not African at all, the Piltdown hoax would have had us believe; our ancestors, lost to deep time, were in fact properly English, an anthropological pseudo-discovery that came just in time, its advocates hoped, to help save the British Empire’s reputation… or at least to boost a few specific careers.
Nonetheless, I’m something of an addict for stories about human origins.

[Image: A portrait of the Piltdown forgery in action, by John Cooke (1915); Richard Fortey’s recent book Dry Storeroom No. 1 has a great chapter on Piltdown].

Caught up in all of this are the fantasies of belonging that different origin stories allow us to project upon the present. For instance, if you feel at home in the grasslands of South Dakota, can you say it’s because you are “from” the plains of Africa? Or, if you love living in the American southwest, is it because humans really originated in the desert valleys of the Middle East? You’re simply sensing that deeper attachment?
In this context, the eroded riverine landscape of Olduvai Gorge has become something of the ultimate origin point for all of us, giving geological form to an idea so extraordinarily abstract (our very origins as living creatures) that its value is at least as much rhetorical as it is scientific.
I mention all this, though, because an article published earlier this month in New Scientist suggested that modern humankind’s primordial African ancestors might themselves have been immigrants – having walked south after a much earlier and, until now, undocumented evolutionary appearance in Europe.
Referred to casually as an “into Africa” scenario – as opposed to an “out of Africa” one – this would mean that “our ancestors lived in Europe and only later migrated to Africa, where modern humans are thought to have evolved.”
Europe, in this model, is the origin, Olduvai Gorge a mere inn along the way.
I don’t mean to overplay the possible political interpretations here – although I do want to say again that I simply cannot read stories like this without wondering what might be at stake in the acceptance of their conclusions, and if there isn’t a certain amount of wish-fulfillment going on (finally, Europe is the center once again!) – but do check out the original short article for more.
At the very least, it’s worth asking what might happen if we do make it all the way down to the very point of human origin – to that germinal site of all future reference and emanation – only to discover that it’s a meaningless detour.
Beneath the foundations, are there always deeper foundations?

(Also on BLDGBLOG: Early Man Site).

3 thoughts on “Origin and Detour”

  1. re the European claim: there will always be Neanderthal, France. Has anyone been to the museum there?
    That this protohuman was originally conjectured to be a Cossack or a Celt tells us a bit how intra-European perception worked way before the African scenario could ever be proposed.
    And no less controversial now, how about the recent claim that humans may have snacked on baby Neanderthal?

  2. The claim that "Boskops" existed which differed from contemporary humans as contemporary humans from homo erectus is a bit weird, but IMO it would be interesting to find out how homo erectus lived:
    They probably had fire, specialized stone tools, became independent from a specific ecological nice, lived in tents or huts around paved central meeting places, took care of each other etc. OTOH, they had not developed language and the (climate change induced) change of partnership patterns caused women to invent clothes and cosmetics i.e. "personas".

    Interesting book on more modern life:

    An interesting essay on the beginning of language's current role in human life is in Y. I. Manin's "Mathematics as Metaphor", containing e.g. a very interesting article on the architectural archetype of the "empty city", describing "how the archetype of the dead city appears again and again in the creations of architecture, literature, art and film, from ancient to modern times, ever since human beings began to congregate in cities, ever since other human beings began to congregate in armies to ravage and destroy them" (quote from http://bmgt.wordpress.com/2009/03/ ).

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