Estate Living Magazine Estate Living Issue 28 April - Page 24

Let’s visit the cousins Jennifer Stern 1912) of the ‘missing link’ near But, just as the world was starting to accept that Africa might Piltdown in Sussex in England. be the home of human ancestors, two things happened. The This ‘fossil’ was clearly a link first was that, as apartheid started approaching its zenith, between humans, much of the rest of the world started realising it was not such as it had a large brain, and apes and a good thing. So South African palaeontologists were like the associated bones and artefacts unpopular kid at the party – it doesn’t matter if you have the indicated that it used tools, but best toys, you still can’t play with us. The fiercely Calvinist did not walk upright – pretty apartheid government also didn’t really like the idea that we much exactly what the experts of were all evolved from apes in the first place, and African apes the day had predicted. The creature in the second, so the research was not given much support either at home or abroad. And secondly, the Leakeys and others Often we spend a fortune travelling overseas, and we ignore the fabulous destinations right on our doorstep. And – especially for Gautengers – one of those is the Cradle of Humankind. Evolution is not a planned, purposeful progress. was called Eoanthropus dawsoni, Giraffes did not develop longer necks by Dawn man of Dawson, which gave working in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania were uncovering stretching to reach higher branches. The ones its discoverer Charles Dawson his fossil sites that were almost as rich as those in the Cradle – But if you’ve never visited there, you may be wondering what w ith longer necks managed to survive better 15 minutes of fame. It was more and they weren’t tainted by apartheid – so international all the fuss is about – after all, it’s just a bunch of old bones, when food became scarce because they could familiarly known as Piltdown Man. academics could study African fossils without running foul of isn’t it? Well, yes. And no. The whole Cradle of Humankind area reach the food others couldn’t – and they bred is a series of limestone caves with quite possibly the richest with equally tall giraffes, so their offspring were assemblage of hominin fossils in the world. With the stunningly taller … and their offspring were taller … until informative but also fun and funky Maropeng Visitor’s Centre, the shorties starved and died out. Evolution restaurant, adjacent hotel, huge interactive displays and guided is fuelled by extremes – extreme cold, extreme tours, it’s easy to think this is just another piece of tourist hype, heat, drought, ice ages, famine – not by average but there is more to it than that. This area holds one of the keys conditions. to understanding human evolution – or at least getting closer to understanding it. And, in the same way, human evolution is not a purposeful progression towards a big brain, Dart was less egotistic in naming Australopithecus But, since 1994, attitudes have changed. We are proud africanus, the southern ape of of our African origins, and we celebrate the richness of Africa, but it is usually called the our palaeontological heritage. A visit to Maropeng is a life- Taung Child, after the quarry where changing experience – it contextualises and emphasises the it was found. And when, in 1936, fragile implausibility of our existence, and then culminates in Robert Broom from the Transvaal an eye-opening exploration of how we are changing the world, Museum found another A. africanus and where that’s likely to take us. It’s a wild ride for kids of all his discovery fossil at Sterkfontein, it, too, was ages, and you can combine it with a tour through Sterkfontein and a fab lunch somewhere nearby, so make a day of it. Or a weekend. We have a pretty good idea how we evolved in broad general which we tend to think of as the ultimate adaptation. In the largely ignored by the international scientific community. A whole terms but the details are sketchy, and they’ve been the subject process of evolving from whatever our common ancestor with slew of fossil discoveries followed, including the exhumation of of not a few academic spats that have – so far – fortunately chimps actually looked like, we’ve tried out many mutations, everyone’s favourite not-even-remotely-great-granny, Mrs Ples. not come to blows. The first thing to realise is that, despite taken many diversions, many wrong turns … and many dead the great marketing-speak, the fossils displayed at Maropeng ends. And the fossils at Maropeng are the remains of some of are not those of our direct ancestors. At best, they’re distant those. cousins. But we are programmed to think of human evolution as a neat, linear progression ‘from monkey to man’ – largely due to that lovely ‘March of Progress’ illustration by Rudolph Zallinger that we’ve all seen on a hundred T-shirts – usually parodied to represent humans evolving into surfers, or regressing into hunched-over computer nerds. But it didn’t happen that way. 24 | the academic boycott. By the late 1940s, scientists were starting to doubt the authenticity of Piltdown Man because, unlike the South African fossils, which seemed to be plentiful, there was only one In 1924, when Raymond Dart identified the fossil that came to be Piltdown Man, and no-one else had found anything in the same known as the Taung Child, the international scientific community area. By 1953, a combination of modern dating techniques and ganged up on him, claiming it was a chimp fossil, because – at clever detective work revealed Piltdown Man as an elaborate that stage – everyone ‘knew’ that humans evolved in Europe, hoax consisting of a well-constructed melange of human, orang- or possibly Asia, but definitely not Africa. That ‘knowledge’ was utan and chimpanzee parts. And only then was the scientific fuelled largely by the discovery just over a decade earlier (in world ready to consider Australopithecus. Unusual suspects For years, scientists tried to figure out who had actually created Piltdown Man (as Dawson was considered too dim to have done it himself) and the most noteworthy of the unusual suspects was Arthur Conan Doyle – the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was posthumously cleared of all suspicion in 1983, when it was figured out that the rogue lone wolf pseudo-scientist Dawson actually did do it all himself. Pathetic, really. It wouldn’t have taken Sherlock Holmes seventy years to solve the case. Pity he was just as fictional as Piltdown Man – but far more entertaining. | 25