We are all African

While tourists flock annually to explore the vibrant remains of 16th, 17th, or 18th century Paris, or perhaps to catch a glimpse of 2.5 thousand year old buildings in Rome (and indeed I have twice made such a journey), there are few cities around the world that can truly trace their origins back to the very earliest stages of human development.   While decades of scholars would have located such a site somewhere in Western Europe, and perhaps more specifically, in the United Kingdom, all of the evidence to date would suggest the contrary.  No, we are not all British, French, Dutch, or German (which is perhaps a blessing).  Regardless of the colour of your skin, your cultural practices, or a family album filled with decaying black and white photos, it would appear as though, in all likelihood, we are all African.

Of course, this is by no means new news for many of you.  I, myself, have for years now watched the documentaries on National Geographic; I have heard the slogan proclaimed in speeches at rallies; and I have on some basic level embraced the concept wholeheartedly.  Yet regardless of this exposure, I have never really sat and reflected upon, at any length, the meaning and significance of this four word phrase.

A few days ago I was privileged enough to spend a day outside the hustle and bustle of pre-World Cup Johannesburg and journey but a few kilometres into a new environment, and in many ways, a different time.  Thanks to a well made contact I was able to travel into the heart of the Cradle of Humankind, recently proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site, to learn, not only about South African history, but about my own history as well.  While for many, such a trip would likely begin in the Maropeng Visitor Center, complete with a lunch in the Maropeng Hotel, and end following a tour of the famous caves at Sterkfontein, my trip was uniquely different.

My morning began with a drive into the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve.  Following a few brief animal sightings, my two hosts, one an archaeologist and the other a pilot, led me into a fenced off area toward a small cluster of trees, in an otherwise savannahesque  landscape, under which  three tables and many chairs had already been placed.   On the first table was a neatly positioned line of skulls and scull castings; the other two offered an array of fresh fruit, biscuits and much to my enjoyment, freshly brewed coffee.   After coffee, we were joined by a young paleoanthropologist who engaged all of us with a brilliant lecture on human evolution (which I won’t attempt to recreate barring a few informative links I will provide below).  This lecture, complete with accompanying skulls, covered roughly 2.5 million years of human and humanoid evolution, from Australopithecus (our ancestor) and Paranthropus Robustus (two different humanoid species who lived very different lives at the same time and location in South Africa) all the way up to modern homo sapiens.  After the talk, we were taken on a private tour of one of the more recent dig sites in the Cradle of Humankind, given by the paleoanthropologist currently responsible for the site.

So what does this all mean for a student studying development in South Africa?  Beyond having been an awe inspiring and thought provoking day-trip, our discussion at the dig site speaks to, and perhaps more specifically, in opposition to, many of the mainstream conceptions about ‘development’ that have historically dominated academic discourse.  While it is perhaps less common these days in many parts of the world to blame race for a given location’s “under-development”, similar concepts helped lay the foundation for the colonial project, and are still evoked as justification for everything from eugenics to genocide.  Recognizing our inherent “Africaness” is not only recognition of where we come from, but recognition of what we all are, and, are all capable of.  While this acknowledgment may not undo the damage that colonialism, neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism, and indeed a myriad of other ism’s, have caused internationally, it would be a gesture, in the very least, toward embracing both the wonderful diversity and essential sameness of our human race.

And while I know some of you may shrug, smirk, or scowl at the unabashed idealism of this post (which is quite rare for a self-proclaimed pseudo-pragmatist), I firmly believe that change must begin with how one thinks, not only about themselves, but in the context of their relationship to all other people, and their environment.   All else will follow.

Sala sentle, au reviour, an-beng, bessalama, teanastellen, mah krow, sai wani lookachi, kwaheri, tsamaea hantle, veloma, pitani bwino, harr  sad, totsiens, !gaise hare’!gure, kay may see ah, oh dah-boh, nalleen e jamm, ukatura, ba beneen, we go si bak, sala kahle, sala kakuhle, shalapo, chisarai zvakanak, Lisale kuhle, adeus, tchau and goodbye!

For more information on early human evolution, genetics, or the Cradle of Humankind, check out the following links:

Human Evolution – Wikipedia

Cradle of Humankind – Wikipedia

Cradle of Humankind – Maropeng Visitor Center

Squidoo Blog Post: A Brief Meditation on Humanity’s Spread (and Why I Think it’s a Worthy Subject for a T-Shirt Design)

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Categories: Editorials and Reports

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2 Comments on “We are all African”

  1. Neil
    June 11, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    I loved this JP and great pictures too. Thinking about our shared history and even our emergence out of the earth’s organic processes is an extraordinary and unifying experience. You’re right, it’s something we can intellectually know all our lives but we need those moments where we really reflect and conceptualize the chain of life to which we belong. I remember going to a large exhibit downtown Mexico City which showcased some of the origins of life and had a large display of reconstructed dinosaurs, and after enjoying the displays I just looked at the faces of people coming in and looking up in wonderment at relics of the past.
    Also… FOOTBALL!!!

  2. Henk
    June 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    Hello again JP! I’m glad to be right back to your blog, and I am happy to see another entry. Thanks for this posting. Your perspective about our common humanity through the development of time is very fundamental and important. I also appreciate moreso the pictures you have provided with the related context. Thanks for taking your blog readers along with you.
    I should get back to work, so all the best to you…
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon again,
    Henk

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