It wasn’t until my visit to the Olduvai Gorge in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania that I fully understood where humans really came from and began to contemplate the two remaining questions in the famous three-part phrase: “Who are we? Where did we come from? And where are we going?”
We are ‘the wise man’ — feverishly punching keys and touching buttons, armed with devices that answer questions to our deepest navigational questions. We are an entire race of people peering into the faraway lands of miniature screens. We are as accomplished and adept as a race as we have ever been and the progression is gaining force like a Frankenstorm. The question of who we are changes as quickly as that which is trending in the Twitterverse.
I had gone to Africa to learn about the origin of human beings under the guidance Dr. Donald Johanson, the man who found “Lucy.” We retraced the steps of the hominids—the bipedal ancestors who spawned our evolution. I traveled to the Gombe Stream Reserve, where Primatologist Jane Goodall lived and studied for decades the similarities—and differences—of humans and our closest living ancestor, the wild chimpanzee. Don and Jane are alike in many ways. They are both anthropologists studying the evolution of man from primate, they are both grantees of the National Geographic Society. The one glaring difference, though, is that one spends her life looking up into the trees while the other spends his looking down, deep into the surface beneath the earth. Turns out that the answer to the question, ‘where did we come from?’ is at every level of eyesight.
To tell this story, it is important to first explain what a hominid is exactly, and yes, what you are about to read is a wild oversimplification. Roughly 3-4 million years ago lived a species of genus called Australopithecus afarensis (also called hominids or hominins.) Hominids had teeth much smaller and sharper than the apes they evolved from, allowing them to chew meat proteins. This was the beginning of carnivorous function, and for all of you carnivores out there, you can now successfully argue to your vegetarian friends that it is the consumption of meat proteins that spawned the human race. Their skull capacity was small (like apes,) but like humans, they were bipedal (walked upright on two legs.) As the race evolved, so did their skull capacity and brain activity. It is such brain activity that allows us to, for example, store the computer login information for all of those pesky social sites we adoringly devote so much of our time to. From hominids came the common chimp, the bonobo (also known as the pygmy chimp,) and the human being.
A Hominid named “Lucy”
“I think that many of my ideas are correct, but I’ll bet you, before my death other discoveries will be made that will prompt me to alter various ideas I have about human evolution”. — Dr. Donald Johanson, 1991, the Academy of Achievement:
There is no dispute that the first discovery of a hominid fossil occurred in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974 by Dr. Donald Johanson. (I know him as “Don.”) This find would change the human tree as we know it. But paleoanthropology is a very competitive field, and a handful of well-known places in south and east Africa provide incredible views of this.
In a small room at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, Dr. Lee Berger stood among a collection of armored suitcases. There was no special lighting, there were no guards, just a small team of fossil fanatics excitedly looking on as Berger prepared to speak. He started in slowly, sharing the tale of how his young son, Matthew, tripped over a fossil of a clavicle sticking out of the ground. That fossil was later determined to be a hominid fossil of about 1.9 million years and would be named Australopithecus ediba (ediba meaning “the spring.”)
As a father, Dr. Berger was captivated with pride and excitement that his young son found a fossil of a hominid. As a Paleoanthropologist he was obsessed by the promise of finding more … for he knew that when you find one fossil, there are usually more nearby. And sure enough, a miraculous find was simmering just beneath the protruding clavicle, ready to shake the Paleo-world: two complete skeletons resting completely intact, side by side. Theoretically, the two hominids were taken on the whim of a natural disaster—a flood maybe—that swept them below ground where they would rest for millions of years before being excavated by Berger and his team.
“We have found the transitional species between Australopithecus and Homo,” Dr. Berger said. I pondered. If this is true, the discovery would add a new limb at the base of the human family tree. And there you have it – the ‘competition’ I mentioned earlier! At the end of the presentation, Don and Lee shook hands and posed together for a few photos as we surveyed the fossils which were indeed miraculous. (It would later be reported in Scientific American that Don “Raises Questions” about Lee’s 2010 find In South Africa.)
The next day we traveled to the caves at Sterkfontein for a visit with veteran British Paleoanthropologist, Dr. Ron Clarke, most notably known for the find of the first complete skeleton of the Australopithecus, otherwise known as “Little Foot.” His shed sat among miles of surrounding caves that weren’t visible unless you were standing directly above them, digging your toe into the rabbit hole. The door was pulled open by two local field workers, and as far as the eyes could see, were fossils. On shelves and on tables—hominids, Neanderthal, the great apes, and more; hundreds of thousands of millions-of-year-old fossils—they were everywhere. It was like stepping into a madman’s workshop. We proceeded to the back where Ron would tell us his story. He picked up fossils and smiled at them, he pointed out the differences between the mandible of an Australopithecus (hominid) and of a H. erectus (a species of hominid living just before the first Homo sapiens [human beings]). He was fabulously passionate about fossils!
Ron asked the group about what we had been up to thus far on our trip. “We visited Lee Berger yesterday at Witwatersrand,” Don said. Ron gave a nod. (Everybody in the field of Paleoanthropology knows each other.) Turns out that Berger was Don’s apprentice at the age of 17 in the US — just after Don announced to the world that he had found the “missing link.” At the time, Don was Berger’s scientific idol. Now they were competitors in a very competitive field. Ron and Don were the veterans; Lee was energetic newcomer with only 20 years in the field. Only.
The Paleoanthropologist’s went on their way and I went on mine – left with the imprint of my conversations with the world’s leading experts on human origins. After my return to America, it occurred to me that whether we are millenials, field workers, scholars, travelers, or just simple people — every human essentially comes from, lives in, and is headed in the same direction. And suddenly my past, present and future didn’t matter because it already seemed laid out. We are Homo ego-centricist. We come from Australopithecus afarensis. “Where are we going?” For this I look to Dr. Don Johanson, a man who has spent the majority of his life answering each part of the famous three part question. And he left us with this:
“If Homo sapiens, supposedly ‘wise man,’ does not begin to respect the very natural world that created us we will face extinction and vanish forever.”
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