One of the theories that remains widely accepted amongst modern scientists is that Africa was the very origin of mankind as we know the species to be. As it is the second largest and most populous continent in the world, in addition to the fact that Africa is home to over 14% of the entire human population (which is equal to approximately 980 000 000, or almost 1 billion, people), this theory certainly bears a weighty significance on modern science, history and anthropology. This has sparked massive debates across many spectra of research – including science, anthropology, politics, history, and even religion – as different enthusiasts and experts voice their opinions and hypotheses based on evidence discovered. Some hold that human beings have a shared origin; one physical and geographical point of beginning, from which they branched out and populated the surface of the earth. Others, though, feel that it is a more feasible concept that the earth’s various human populations began simultaneously and in a number of different locations, thus giving rise to the many completely different physical characteristics of people (facial structure, skin colour, hair make-up, and so on).
The first Homo sapiens (the scientific name for a human being) was originally found in Ethiopia, situated in the Horn of Africa on the east of the continent, and is believed to have lived on the earth some 200 000 years ago. Other hominids (defined as a primate of a family – Hominidae – that includes human beings) and their earliest ancestors were also discovered in Africa and have been dated to as far back as 7 million years. These include Australopithecus Aricanus, H. Ergaster, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis, A. Afarensis, Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis. For a very long time, Africa was known as the “Dark Continent”; as being a place of mysterious inactivity and eerie dormancy, and where explorers would disappear into an evil blackness for good. Historians and explorers of generations ago regarded this continent with trepidation and perceived it as a mysterious land of incomprehensible magic and evil curses. This prevented (almost entirely, in fact) widespread exploration of any kind for many decades, even centuries. This meant that the “Dark Continent” of Africa remained relatively untouched for all this time, allowing the people, fauna and flora to develop undisturbed. The very fact that Africa was not inhabited, colonised and developed for so much longer than most other countries and continents in the world only reinforced its mysterious reputation and allowed for a magnificent development within its secretive borders.
This complete isolation and the sense of historical mystery was partly due to the fact that the African inhabitants of that time relied heavily on an oral means of communicating stories, tales, myths and legends to the younger generations, rather than on more formal written means, which would have preserved the memories more effectively and shed some light on the beliefs, ideas and concepts of these people, particularly to outsiders looking in. This implied that there was little or no reliable scientific evidence of any of the happenings being spoken of in the tales that were being passed from one person to another. It also meant that stories were being changed slightly as they were borne from one generation to the next, each adding their own twist or changing the story to suit their own context, preferences and memories. Another reason that the history of Africa remains, to say the very least, somewhat blurred is that, as a result of decades upon decades of slavery and the abuse of the indigenous African people, the gory details have been omitted and softened over the years to protect those inflicting such suffering on the locals. This did not allow for the recording of accurate accounts of the goings on, travels and discoveries of that period as it would have exposed too much of the abuse that went along with it. Therefore, any historical records of this period are gleaned from unreliable sources or from the folktales and legends that wound their ways through the generations.
There are several locations scattered throughout Africa that are recognised for their rich historical and even pre-historical existence based on scientific and archaeological findings in these particular places. The United Republic of Tanzania in East Africa is home to the Olduvai Gorge, one of the areas believed to be the residence of the very first human beings from ancient times. This stark gorge is flanked by the ravine walls of the Great Rift Valley on the eastern side of Africa. It stretches through the magnificent Serengeti Plains, occupied by some of Africa’s most exquisite fauna and flora, for nearly 50 km. It is in the Olduvai Gorge that prehistoric tools and artefacts were discovered, along with fossils of ancient human beings and animals, which lived side by side in this beautiful part of the African continent. British paleoanthropologist (paleoanthropology is the study of humans based on the findings and studies of fossilised hominids), Mary Leakey, even discovered footsteps that are believed to have belonged to the first Homo sapiens to have existed anywhere on the earth.
Kenya (officially the Republic of Kenya), again in East Africa, is also recognised by many as The Cradle of Mankind as it is the site at which Dr Richard Leakey discovered the bones of human beings, which he dated back to the beginning of mankind’s existence as he understood it. These bones were found on Kenya’s Lake Turkana coastline, at Koobi Fora, now the territory of the nomadic tribe of Gabbra. Koobi Fora is the area around the Koobi Fora Ridge on the eastern shore of the beautiful Lake Turkana. Kariandusi and Ololgesailie are other sites that have become known for their historical and archaeological wealth. Many of the caves in this country are home to ancient rock paintings, images captured on the rock faces, which bear evidence of a prehistoric civilisation in this very area. The Republic of South Africa is home to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Krugersdorp, near the urban epicentre of Johannesburg in the province of Gauteng. This site includes Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs and stretches for 47 000 hectares, or over 180 square miles. This site was deemed to be a World Heritage Site due to its palaeo-anthropological significance and its contribution to this area of study. Some of the world’s most valuable information in terms of the origin of man, his physical make-up, cultural norms and development has been discovered in this area. The site comprises an excess of 200 individual caves, 13 fossil sites and a variety of different stone tools and implements that are typical of those used by ancient human beings. The prehistoric animal remains include those of sabre-toothed felines, giant hyenas and short-necked giraffes. This provides fascinating insights into the lives of these ancient people, giving scientists important clues regarding the possible origins of modern mankind.
Societies of Homo sapiens were not always considered to be formal civilisations because of their nomadic lifestyle (meaning that they travelled across the landscape and settled in various places, depending on their needs for food, water and shelter, rather than staying in one area and establishing a permanent settlement there) and their relative lack of a structured language or written history. They were hunter-gatherers that lived off the fertility and abundance of the land. They would grow crops, hunt small animals and find important sources of water as they travelled through the African landscapes as a way of life. As they lived and developed over time, they created their own customs, formulated their own beliefs and implemented their own justice systems. Along the way, they left remnants of their lives (whether fossilised bones and teeth or preserved tools and implements) that have provided clues about their genetic make-up and physiological structure.
Although they were not considered to be formal human civilisations, there is no doubting that it is from these human beings that current civilisations exist. Indeed, they formed the basis of the current population and, certainly, shared the core values and emotions that human beings today experience. As these, our early ancestors, congregated around valuable water sources and lush plains that were rich in wildlife and vegetation, they began to form communities of families. Cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships made transport and trade easier, better and more lucrative for the entire community as well as their neighbours. Their nomadic way of life also led to the development of other civilisations further afield. As each group of prehistoric men brought their own unique customs and traditions with them to new territories, other cultures developed over the centuries. This has ultimately resulted in the very varied cultures, languages, religions and customs of the African continent today.
The import of discovering the true origin of mankind is different for different fields of science, history, archaeology and anthropology. Establishing the original roots of human beings as we know them will reveal many secrets pertaining to the migratory patterns, weather patterns, biological and physiological adaptations (the darkening or lightening of pigmentation, for example) of ancient societies. However, it will also provide a clue regarding the long term changes that we may expect in our future. Therefore, these studies are relevant to all human beings today, and not just to the researchers that have made this their life passion.
Of course, such studies necessitate a disregard for the teachings of the Christian Bible to a large degree, which teaches that the first human couple, named Adam and Eve in English, were 1) created by an Almighty spirit being (who may have different names and / or identities from one religion to the next, such as Allah, God or Jah), 2) in the Garden of Eden, which was situated (according to the official Biblical description in the book of Genesis) in Assyria, which is in the northern part of the modern country of Iraq. The evidence that implies that human life began in Africa is, therefore, not reconciliatory with traditional Christian teachings or the Holy Scriptures. Of course, the fossilised remains of plants, animals and human beings provide concrete evidence to these lives, dating back millions of years. However, it is the belief in the evolution of mankind (and animal species) from one form to another that is not in line with the Christian Bible’s teachings, and not the actual existence of prehistoric animals.
Of course, there is the other side of the coin, which indicates, by advanced scientific methods, that it is possible to date these bones and remnants back millions and millions of years; long before there were any signs of a human race as we know it today. Bones, jaws and teeth have been discovered that seem to bear the implicit indication that these beings were the precursor to man. So similar are they to us that only slight changes needed to occur over the many generations to evolve these beings into Homo sapiens. Simply said, they are hung, like the link in a chain, between a prehistoric ape-like being and a more easily identifiable human. There is little doubt in the mind of many scientists that these could only have been the ancestors of the modern human population.
Being such an integral pillar of the current human society, it is no wonder that these predecessors and Africa’s status as The Cradle of Humanity continues to intrigue scientists and explorers right up to our modern day.