“Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.” –Charles Darwin
After arriving in South Africa my feet were so swollen I wasn’t really fit for far travel yet. Joan took me to nearby Maropeng, ‘returning to the place of our origins’, to explore the Cradle of Humankind Museum where I learned about our ancestry.
The Tumulus Building looks like a burial mound
This paleo-anthropological site was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 and covers an area of around 116,000 acres (47000 hectares) including at least 40 fossil humanoid sites and over 200 caves.
We stuck to the museum with a short walk back in time.
Charles Darwin first articulated the theory of evolution through natural selection which requires adaptation to changing environments. (Hmmm, does that last part ring any bells?) The fossilized remains of hominids, plants and other animals embedded in the cave rocks provide a history of evolution dating back over 3 million years.
The path of humanity suggests that no matter what color, culture or creed every person in the world descends from a small group of ancestors on the African continent.
2 billion year old stramotolite fossils
In fact all of life, plants, animals, fungi, protists and bacteria evolved from a common ancestor, probably a bacterium.
The 7-8 million year old hominid family tree has many branches, several of which broke off as species became extinct. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged only about 200,000 years ago.
About 7-million years ago, early hominids began to adapt to a climate that was cooling globally. This meant tree-climbing apes had to become more adept at walking on land. Bipedalism allowed hominids to free their arms, enabling them to make and use tools, stretch for fruit in trees and use their hands to communicate.
Our ancestors’ diet changed over time. From eating mostly plants, they began to eat a mixture of meat and protein along with plant matter. This helped their brains to develop, and in turn altered the shape of their jaws.
One of the defining characteristics of becoming human has been the growth and development of our brains. But bigger brains don’t necessarily mean a species will survive. Neanderthals had brains on average between about 5% and 10% bigger than ours, and they became extinct about 20,000 years ago.
The ability to harness and use fire was a major technological step in human development.
Most paleoanthropologists believe that our ancestors first left Africa about 2-million years ago and moved into Asia and Europe. This theory is known as “Out of Africa I” and is strongly supported by fossil evidence. “Out of Africa II” refers to the movement of modern humans out of Africa within the past 100,000 years.
Two hundred thousand years ago, when Homo sapiens first emerged, there were probably at first only a few hundred of us. Now, in the 21st Century, the global population is fast approaching 10-billion people. While we can propel ourselves into space, millions of people starve to death each year, are illiterate and have no access to basic healthcare or clean water.
The Cradle of Humankind Museum may also have to evolve if Homo sapiens don’t.
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