IIt All Begins with Crocodiles

My smallest crocodile is golden and only 13 millimeters long. It is actually a pin on the head of a Zairean fetish, holding together a piece of real leopard skin with a synthetic ancillary. I was in Zaïre, today the Congo, in 1981/82. I had passed the diplomatic examination of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs the year before. My father who was a career diplomat and, at that time Ambassador of Switzerland to Tunisia, asked me, “Are you sure?”, my brother said, “You’re crazy”, but I still became a diplomat and Kinshasa was my first posting abroad. After

King Kong Meets Tarzan

The film ‘King Kong’ was shot in 1933, sixty years before ‘Jurassic Park’, but has a much more refined plot. It plays between the Great Depression in New York and a mysterious island with the life of 200 million years ago, a Jurassic park. Adventurers travel to this island to film and capture an oversized ape named Kong. Kong falls in love with a woman amongst the adventurers, Ann, and abducts her. The group searches the jungle for her and is attacked and decimated by vicious dinosaurs. They find Ann and rescue her. On their way back, Kong pursues

At age nineteen, after I had finished high school and enrolled at the University of Bern for my studies of law, my parents left Switzerland. My father had become the Swiss Ambassador to Ethiopia. 1974 was not only the year of my last visit to them there, two other events drew the world’s attention to Ethiopia: Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, was removed from his throne in a communist coup d’état. And in the northern end of the Ethiopian Great Rift Valley, the Awash, the bone fossils of a female hominid were found. Worldwide, this lady became known as

Throughout her history, the Earth’s climate has been fluctuating between hot and cold, ‘greenhouse’ Earth and ‘icehouse’ Earth. When the asteroid hit our planet 65 million years ago, Earth was in a greenhouse period but with the continents moving into their current positions, it started cooling. A new geological era opened. Flowering plants evolved. The main new feature, however, appeared in the fauna: After the Age of Reptiles with its dinosaurs and crocodiles, the Age of Mammals began. – That’s us. And 36 million years ago, the Earth slipped into an icehouse period with the Arctic and Antarctic ice

As a student of law in the 1970s, I had a lot of free time on my hand. This allowed me to visit the countries where my father was the Swiss Ambassador in that time, Ethiopia, China, and Tunisia. After my visits to Ethiopia and leaving Switzerland for Tunisia, it would never have occurred to me to say that I was going to ‘Africa’. Once in Tabarka, the Tunisian wine region, I was surprised by snowfall in spring. Tunisia and Morocco are both fully in the northern temperate climate zone. In Morocco I was only once, for a seminar

South of the Sahel comes the open range of the tropical savanna, one of the defining landscapes of Africa and, of what I have seen of the vast continent, my favorite. Add to an endless plain of grassland a lone acacia tree and a sunset. Or add a giraffe or one of the ‘Big Five’ – a lion, a leopard, an elephant, a rhino, or a buffalo – and you have the perfect advertisement for a photo safari in the savanna of East and southern Africa. In some countries, for a lot of money, you can shoot these animals

The coastline embracing the vast land of Africa and holding together the Arab North and the Sub-Saharan South, the East and the West, measures something over 30’000 kilometers and defines the shape of Africa. The distinct and clear-cut form of Africa has become a recognizable logo for the continent itself. It is printed on tee-shirts, artisans sell it as keyring and necklace pendants, and tourists buy its replica in leather, wood or gold and silver in any African country they visit. Geologically, the shape of Africa shows us what a continent is meant to be: A discrete landmass separated

I am a baby-boomer and a rock’n’roller. In 1951, my year of birth, Ike Turner and his ‘Kings of Rhythm’, a rhythm and blues band, recorded ‘Rocket 88’. Nobody really knows why, but today, Rocket 88 is said to have been the first rock’n’roll song. It does have that back beat but so did other songs of that time. In the sixties, the Rolling Stones picked up that beat and I grew up singing and dancing with them, “I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it”. Ike Turner became the husband of Tina Turner and together they were

The circumstances under which I got posted to Madagascar were a little bit special. But then, when we talk about Africa, Madagascar will also take a special place. Returning to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs after my tour of duty as the UN Coordinator for Somalia at the end of 1999, I had missed the round of ambassadorial appointments for the following year and found my name in seventeenth position for a possible future appointment. That would normally not bring me out of Bern before at least three years. And above that, I was made the coordinator of

Birds evolved from the dinosaurs in the Jurassic period and the ancestors of the ostrich were already running around in Gondwana, the supercontinent comprising all of today’s continents of the southern hemisphere, plus India. And when Gondwana broke up 180 million years ago, the ostrich rode across the world: On the Indian plate the ostrich moved to Asia, on the South American one to South America, there it took the name of rhea. Down under in Australia, the ostrich became the emu. In neighboring Africa, the ostrich roamed the vast continent and evolved into four different subspecies: The North

2.6 million years ago, the cortex which had started engulfing their reptilian and mammalian brains, brought our ancestors to using crude stone tools. They had become Homo habilis and had thereby opened the Stone Age. Although it has ‘stone’ in its name, this is not a geological designation but rather an archeological and anthropological one. It relates to us humans, to what we did and how we lived. 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus stood up, but he kept on using stone tools. Then 200’000 years ago, was the end of an interglacial period and its warm and comfortable

Nowhere has human evolution left more traces than in the northern Great Rift Valley. There, we have the fossils of Lucy, there we have fossils and tools of Homo habilis, and there we have fossils, fireplaces, tools and the first footprints of Homo erectus. And nowhere do we have more fossils, settlements, tools, and artifacts of Homo sapiens. This is a region of Africa I know particularly well. I have crisscrossed it on many long and short safaris. From Djibouti, where I first put foot on African soil as a boy, through Ethiopia and Kenya, where at Lake Turkana

There is no knowing exactly where in East Africa Homo sapiens evolved because ever since Homo erectus, our ancestors were moving around. Fossils of early modern humans have also been found in Morocco and South Africa. Morocco being an outlier, this leaves the three countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley, and – to a lesser degree – South Africa as possible homes to the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. In these four countries, UNESCO has recognized five World Heritage Sites of importance for the evolution of mankind: The Lower Valley of the Awash and the Lower

Geographically, the Lower Omo River Valley and the Lake Turkana Basin are one area. The reason for which UNESCO lists it as two World Heritage Sites has nothing to do with human evolution. It is due to those virtual lines drawn on the maps in the capitals of countries: Borders. To the East of the northern tip of Lake Turkana, the border between Ethiopia and Kenya is defined. But to the West, it is not clear where the South-West of Ethiopia, the North of Kenya and the South of South Sudan meet. The area is called ‘Ilemi Triangle’, and,

The ‘Oasis Lodge’ in Loiyangalani became my favorite destination on Lake Turkana, for relaxation, well-being, and dreaming – let’s just say, for my soul. Loiyangalani lies on the southeastern shore of the lake, on the foot of Mt Kulal. The first time I stayed there, I had that magical past-life experience again. It was that same feeling I had on the Djibouti train as a young man when, on the way down into the Awash, I conceived Lucy’s call to Africa. And the Oasis Lodge may be the reason for which I decided that the Cradle of Mankind is

My friend in Eliye Springs on the western shore of Lake Turkana, built his lodge in 2007. When we were there in 2013, the most forward palm trees of his beach were standing in the water, and he had to protect the cottages behind them with sandbags. Since he had built, the lake had risen significantly. After the heavy rains of late 2019 and the first half of 2020, he had to give the cottages up and build new ones land inward, up toward the hill behind the lodge. Even the catchment of the Eliye Springs, a cemented pool,

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

Wherever his ancestors came from, I imagine Homo sapiens in East Africa would have been part of an ecosystem as the one of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti. ‘Serengeti’ evokes the migration of over a million wildebeests following the rain and resulting green pastures on their annual round trip through the northern plains of Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. The wildebeests do not migrate alone, they come in the company of some hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras and thousands of eland antelopes. All together they are an annual feast for the predators of the

Evolution is all about the fitness of an individual – and species – to survive and reproduce in a given environment. And survival is successfully navigating the world in search of food, drink, and mates, and avoiding or overcoming danger. In many ways, it’s like football. Your aim is to be at the top of the league and to be there, your team has to be fitter than your competitors and win games. The main difference is that if you are unfit in football, you fall to the bottom of the table and then get relegated to the next

Since a few weeks, I am conducting a private survey. In noncommittal conversation, I start talking about human evolution and then I raise the question of the smartest animal. Many would name the chimpanzee, another ape, or monkeys. Some mention elephants, pigs, and octopuses. The rats are there, the crow, and the dolphins. To a friend who mentioned her cat, I replied that our dog Blacky was smarter. As to the qualities that made these animals so smart, we would mostly dwell on very human ones: Intelligence, emotion, using tools, playfulness, social behavior, communication. Then, after a while, I

For survival and reproduction in the Middle Stone Age, Homo sapiens was still following his biological program. He was the ‘naked ape’, an animal. And his chimpanzee ancestors had inscribed in his genome some features that made him very successful: Male aggression, patriarchy, and promiscuity. Africa is big and I know that between the East, Central Africa and the West, there are different kinds of chimpanzees. But the West African chimpanzees I visited in the National Park of Taï in the tropical rainforest of Côte d’Ivoire were presented to me as omnivores and hunters. They prey on monkeys, mongooses,

Our human ancestors had long decided to leave the chimps and gorillas behind and were busy progressing from Homo habilis to Homo erectus, when around 2 million years ago, another ape branched off the line of the chimpanzees: Our cousin, the bonobo. Bonobos look like small and slender chimpanzees and live in groups comparable to them. They were, in fact, held to be chimpanzees until the early 20th Century. Also stemming from the chimpanzee, the bonobos share 98.5 of their DNA with us. But of their genome, only something over one percent is closer to ours than to the

The three foremost reasons that people give for having sex are love, pleasure, and babies. No one ever mentions the survival of the species, or evolution. What they fail to see is that the fitness for survival of an individual – eat, drink, sleep; fight or flee – only makes sense if this fitness is passed on to the next generation. And the link between fit genes of a man and a woman and the next generation is making babies. In this process, the genes are not only passed on but also reshuffled, duplicated, and altered. Biology has programmed

A few years ago, I was still a frequent flyer and thus a frequent reader of ‘airport books’. Once in an airport bookshop, I could not resist when I fell upon a paperback with the subtitle, ‘The Real Science behind Sex Differences’. When I entered the diplomatic service in 1980, we still received two years of training, the first of which was at the ‘Graduate Institute for International Studies’, in Geneva. There, I learnt diplomatic correspondence and the redaction of a ‘Note Verbale’. A note verbale is a formal instrument of official inter-governmental communication with legal force. It has

Recap: 3.2 million years ago, Lucy took us down from the trees. She was a hominin, no longer ape but not yet human. Other hominin fossils date up to a million years further back but Lucy’s skeleton is 60% complete and gives us the greatest possible insight into her intermediary species of the hominins. The first human, Homo habilis, dates back to 2.6 million years ago. Like the chimpanzees, hominins had for ages used sticks and stones as tools. What promoted them to becoming human was that they now started designing and producing their tools, most famously and out

When I started my mandate as the UN Coordinator for Somalia in the second half of the 1990s, my security advisor, a colonel of the American Army, introduced me to some important features of the Somali way of life. Along the way, he forewarned me that Somalis were afraid of sundry things, but death was not one of them. Okay, I took note of that. For someone who is not afraid of death for himself, taking the life of someone else will come more easily. When I asked the colonel what then the thing was, that Somalis were most

The mental sense of community and self-domestication made humans more friendly, trusting, and moral. Their social behavior started forming cultures and values. They were entering the courtyard but still had a long way to go to the edifice of civilization. And let’s not get carried away: As social, as reliable, and as virtuous as they had become, at no time in evolution was Homo sapiens a ‘Noble Savage’. The primitive human, inherently peaceful and free, living in harmony with nature, uncorrupted by civilization, lives only in Western philosophy, literature, and arts. And there still today, the Noble Savage is

So, humans are primarily driven by their physical instincts of survival and procreation, by some aggression, and by the mental sense of community, and morality. But there is more to human life than that, again a human feature that by far surpasses what we find in any animal regarding its intelligence, cognition and consciousness: The metaphysical sense of spirituality.Beyond the plant and animal life of the environment, Homo sapiens observed the movements, the vibrations, and the flow of the world around him: The infinite ether of the universe with the interchange of the sun and the moon and the

As their union with nature and the gods and spirits was broken, humans continued roaming the forests and plains, hunting and gathering. But something essential, a sacred dimension of their life and the world around them, was missing: That spiritual sense of being part something bigger than just the here and now. Humans felt that the spirits were still there, they were powerful and beyond the humans’ known and observable world, they were running the universe. Homo sapiens had to find a way to reconnect with the gods and the spirits. This was in their interest because there were

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