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Scientists Fight To Prove Humanity 'Born In Africa'

May 12, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Fossil remains of Australopithecus afarensi, known as "Lucy," were first discovered in Ethiopia and Tanzania in the 1970s.

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For years, anthropologists and archeologists believed that Asia held the answers to their questions about the origins of mankind. So when a set of controversial hominid remains was discovered in Africa in the early 20th century, it took a while for scholars to accept that they may have been wrong.

In Born in Africa, author Martin Meredith details the battles, contempt and fraud of the search for the origins of human life.

Meredith tells NPR's Neal Conan that Charles Darwin was the first to speculate that mankind actually evolved in Africa.

"[Darwin] didn't really have any evidence for that," Meredith says, but he figured that since gorillas and chimpanzees were humans' nearest known relatives at the time, and they're most likely to be found in Africa, so too should early humans.

Still, for about 50 years, Darwin's idea was summarily dismissed.

"It was only during the 20th century that the evidence on the ground began to emerge that this piece of Darwin's speculation was likely to prove to be accurate," Meredith says.

The evidence emerged in fits and starts, and was often disputed by those who still believed Asia was the key to the origin of mankind.

"Everybody was looking for what was called at the time [the] 'missing link,'" Meredith says.

In the late 19th century, German biologist Ernst Haeckel theorized that the missing link lay between ape and human populations.

"His scheme of things was that there couldn't have been just a singular move from being an ape to a human, there had to be somebody who occurred in between," Meredith says.

So at the turn of the 20th century, he says, there was a huge, frenzied effort to find the missing link.

"The way was open for fraudsters to claim having found elements of bones and tools, and evidence of ancient humans ... in Southern England," Meredith says.

One so-called discovery became known as the Piltdown Man hoax and, according to Meredith, the people behind it were students of the going theories about what the missing link might look like. Their specimen had a fairly large brain and an ape-like jaw - essentially a mixture of ingredients.

"[They] constructed this so-called missing link and it more or less distorted science in Britain for a period of 40 years," Meredith says.

And because scientists believed it, they dismissed any evidence that didn't fall in line.

"It's extraordinary the way in which a whole scientific endeavor can be manipulated in such a way that the real truth, as it were, is hidden for decades," Meredith says.

So when Raymond Dart discovered a small-brained early hominid, Australopithecus Africanis, in South Africa in 1924, he brought it to England expecting to make a significant contribution to science. But that's not exactly how it worked out.

According to Meredith, Dart's hominid discovery "was laughed out of court."

"The scientific establishment believed that the key element in any human ancestor must have been a large brain — they believed that the brain led the way in human evolution," Meredith says.

Dart's discovery went unvalidated until the 1950s.

"It's an example [of how] scientists cling on to a particular school of thought," Meredith says, "even though there is evidence which is beginning to contradict them."

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Born In Africa: The Quest For The Origins Of Human Life
By Martin Meredith
Hardcover, 288 pages
PublicAffairs
List Price: $26.99
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