Before I continue with our quest for the Cradle of Mankind, I have to put right a few misunderstandings about human evolution. First, over most of the Stone Age, the humans I have been referring to were actually closer to being animals. To be precise, chimpanzees. In the late sixties, I saw the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It was more about the human condition than human evolution. And as a devotee of rock’n’roll and coming to be blues and jazz fan, I didn’t like the opening scene of the film, ‘The Dawn of Man’, because of its classical music. I found that Chuck Berry’s advice to ‘Roll over Beethoven’ also applied to Richard Strauss. But the horde of ape-men and their reaction to the Black Monolith, the use of a femur to smash the skull of an animal, is very much as I imagine our ancestors would have lived, then. That’s how we overtook the crocodile and became ourselves the super predator in the animal world. And I know that the use of the word ‘horde’ sounds derogatory. We normally use it for a disorderly crowd of rowdy people, like beer drinking football fans, or unruly militia fighters. For zoologists and anthropologists, however, a horde is defined as a loosely knit social group consisting of several families.

Second, evolution has no specific plan for humans. In particular, humans are not the pinnacle of evolution. Evolution does not create inferior and superior organisms, it creates diversity. Divergence of features, not accumulation of them. In this respect, humans are certainly more recent and different from others, but not better. Greek philosophy and Christianity would have us believe that evolution is a ladder – with Homo sapiens on the top rung, of course. That’s wrong. In fact, you have to imagine evolution as a tree with branches growing in all directions off its stem. And on this tree, Homo sapiens is only a twig on the 50 million years old branch of the primates. Evolution doesn’t care about humans and wouldn’t bother if Homo sapiens disappeared. For life on Earth, it would only be that unsustainable twig falling off the tree of evolution. Actually, I could imagine a sigh of relief.

And third, the evolutionary process that led to Homo sapiens was not a local, continuous, and uniform affair. Over the vast time and space that it happened, it was full of diverging, parallel and converging developments among many groups of early humans. These groups were moving around and in reaction to their environment, evolved ever more specific features. What triggered their migrations is not certain. They were hunter-gatherers, roaming around and camping in suitable places. Most likely, climate change and its impact on available food played the biggest role, and maybe, their growing brainpower made them more curious and restless.

And like Homo sapiens’ evolution, also his migrations into Africa were a messy, long, slow process. It was a generational, basically aimless movement in groups. It took place in stages, with lasting stops and reversals, with remaining behind and moving on. A group would be relatively small. Humans are designed to live in groups of a few dozen. Four dozen already make forty-eight individuals, seven dozen eighty-four. Forget anything above one hundred. That’s when groups split up. And forget seeing a group in your friends and followers on social media. A Twitter chat group has a maximum of 50 members for a reason. WhatsApp has just doubled the admittable size of its groups to 1’024 and on Facebook, it’s only at 5’000 that some restrictions begin to apply. However, all these groups remain abstractions of your mind and have nothing to do with a group of real people migrating through wild, vast Africa, in the Stone Age. Life was about providing and defending food, mates, and shelter, survival and procreation. This is how Homo sapiens diversified to become Khoisan, Pygmy, Niger-Congo, or Nilo-Saharan peoples and not by talking about diversity in chat rooms.

Being born to a father who was a diplomat, I got used to the migrants’ way of life from birth on. I was born in Berlin, on my father’s diplomatic migration to Germany. From Europe, he led our family’s migrations to New York in North America and then Bangkok in Asia. Leading for the first time my own diplomatic migration to Africa twenty years later, I was excited and a little bit nervous: I drove to Antwerp and there took a boat, upon arriving in Zaïre, I drove up along the Congo River to Kinshasa. I loved it! That sense of adventure, being on the move and not knowing what lies ahead. And I wanted more of it. From Abidjan to Ouagadougou, I once took the train. From Addis Ababa to Djibouti, I once travelled by car. But only once. It was suicidal between all those heavy trucks, the ones creeping up into the Ethiopian highlands, overloaded and trying to overtake each other, and the others, often empty, rattling down to Djibouti. Those last two movements were business trips and, strictly speaking, do not qualify as migration. They fall under mobility. Migrants move to live in new places, not to just stay there for a while. Still, just to get that sensation of being on the move, I would sometimes pack my Toyota Land Cruiser and do round trips through one or several countries from where I was. From Côte d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and back to Abidjan. Or from Abidjan to Mali and back. Or from Nairobi to Tanzania and Uganda around Lake Victoria. To Tanzania to visit the Hadza. Or just around Mt Kenya. But tourism and my cruising through Africa are also just another form of modern mobility.

Still searching for the Cradle of Mankind, as we leave the East African Rift Valley, the contenders come in: Based on footprints from a bipedal ape, a German paleoanthropologist has recently advanced that our oldest human ancestor lived in Greece six million years ago, and thus in accordance with other fossil fragments found, it was to be assumed that humans evolved in Eurasia rather than in Africa. In the scientific community, this new theory was met with stunned silence. As a generalist, I add that no one will deny Greece’s contribution to the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens. But let’s wait until civilization, philosophy and eurocentrism start affecting the behavior of ‘modern’ modern humans.

Back in Africa, we have that outlier of the Moroccan Homo sapiens fossil dating 100’000 years earlier than the East African one and suggesting that modern humans didn’t only evolve in East Africa. Scientists on both sides of the argument now await with anticipation a DNA probe of the scull.

Then, there is a recent study of combined ‘genetic ancestry tracing’ with ‘climate change modeling’ that brings the mother of all living modern humans – the famous Mitochondrial Eve – to Botswana, where the Khoisan live. And from there, the study concludes, climate change driven migration took Homo sapiens north, into East Africa. Anthropologists and archaeologists disagree: There are absolutely no fossils and artifacts to support this theory.

Finally, I invite you to do a Google search for ‘cradle of mankind’ on the internet. Google will ask you back: “Did you mean ‘cradle of humankind’” and take you directly to the home page of the Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves’ Visitor Centre, in South Africa. In a combination of political gender correctness and commercial interest, Google has suppressed the ‘cradle of mankind’ and replaced it by ‘cradle of humankind’. This allows South Africa to present to the world the UNESCO ‘Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa’ as the – self-proclaimed – ‘Cradle of Humankind’.

The heart of the Fossil Hominid Sites is a complex of limestone caves north of Johannesburg. Its fossils date back to two and three million years. They boast fossils of the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans and of one of the earliest Homo erectus. One – South African – theory has it that Homo erectus evolved in South Africa, migrated north into East Africa, and there, became Homo sapiens. Thus, the argument goes, the Cradle of Mankind was actually in South Africa. Skulls from that early time found in the Hominid Sites show that several species of Homo erectus lived in the same place, at the same time, and in evolutionary competition with each other. And the fossils teach us modern humans a lesson: Like for all other animals, the bedrock of survival for humans is getting enough energy intake. This means getting enough food, water, and sleep. When it comes to the food of this trinity, however, most people have lost their understanding for its fundamental relation to survival. Today for humans, food comes without any physical effort and far too abundantly, to the point of endangering our health.

Myself I am more of a gourmand than gourmet. I like stew, casserole, and one-pots. I smile at fancy food decorated with blossoms and I frown at the extravagance of serving hay as a vegetable. Humans cannot digest grass, even when it’s dried. And the same applies to the dregs of soil at the bottom of an ‘Earth soup’. Catering for food has become ‘eatertainment’ and one TV celebrity chef has declared that cooking is the new rock’n’roll, an artistic performance, and the food we eat a piece of art. And another advertises his recipe, ‘this 15-minute pasta will make you feel like an Italian millionaire’: Food reflects your social standing. Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.

One particular faction of post-modern humans who have lost their understanding for the tie between food and survival are the vegetarians. Their claim of leading a healthy and moral life by not eating meat or fish – and vegans all other animal products as well – is biased. Their idea of saving the animals, the climate, and the world may make them feel good, in terms of human evolution, however, they are committing an elementary error: One of the species of Homo erectus found in South Africa’s Fossil Hominid Sites had strong jawbones and large teeth but small brains. They had strong teeth because they ate fruits, tough plants, roots, tubers, and bark. But keeping to this vegetarian diet was not smart. They never put the necessary distance between themselves and their chimpanzee ancestors – who themselves occasionally engage in hunting and have up to 5% meat in their diet. The vegetal food of the earliest known vegetarians could not generate enough energy for them to develop their brainpower, they never became predators and hunters and never put themselves on top of the food chain. They went extinct.

Concurring species of Homo erectus found in South Africa had small teeth and large brains. They were hunter-gatherers and ate a balanced diet of both plants and meat. They survived and, maybe, they migrated into East Africa and there became Homo sapiens. Like the Hadza, for instance. When the studies of the diet and the microbiota of the guts of the Hadza became public, this triggered a Hadza diet brouhaha. But the food behind their health and strong immune system was mostly presented in a biased way: It was all about the fruits and berries, nuts and seeds, roots and tubers. Fiber foods. And of course, the magical, mystical, medical powers of the Baobab fruit. Barely a mention that the Hadza are also hunters, predators, who eat meat. This unsettled me a little bit. So, on a recent trip to Tanzania, I went to visit a group of them in their camp, at sunset. I was reassured to see that they had a monkey on the fire. For health freaks I will mention that this was fresh unprocessed meat which they ate saltless. And the day before, they told us, they had eaten a python, a big one, and to prove it, they showed us the skin. With seasonal fluctuations, 35% of the diet of the Hadza consists of meat.

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  • Merci, Dominik, you are becoming a professional on human evolution and its consequences. What I like is your critical reading and use of scientific evidence. Looking forward to receiving more of this stuff!

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