South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other British Museum shows

The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer (2011)

This is a very demanding and scholarly book. In the last thirty years major leaps forward in DNA science, the technology of dating fossils, our ability to CT scan and analyse old bones and skulls right down to atomic level and other impressive techniques, as well as a steady stream of new finds of the remains of our prehistoric ancestors, have hugely deepened and complicated our knowledge of human ancestry, of the lineage which stretches back 6 million years to when our ancestors split from the ancestors of modern apes. It’s a massive, complicated and ever-changing field of knowledge.

As the blurb on the back points out, Chris Stringer has been closely involved in much of the crucial research into the origins of humankind and sets out in this book to explain all the latest research, techniques, discoveries and theories in the area, which he does comprehensively and thoroughly.

However, the patchiness of the evidence, the changing results given by evolving techniques, the legacy of sharply conflicting theories and interpretations etc, take a lot of explaining and putting into context. As well as the actual finds and the science we use to interpret them, the book slowly opens up a jungle of differences and debate between archaeologists, paleo-anthropologists, psychologists, DNA researchers, ancient historians and so on, at numerous levels, from large-scale over-arching theories to the interpretation of almost every single find and specimen.

Chapter by chapter, Stringer introduces us to all the evidence and all the techniques and all the controversies – but it is a lot to take in. It doesn’t help that the same theories, techniques and finds recur in different chapters, but in the context of different approaches or discussion of different theories or ideas. You need your wits about you. It’s a book to be read at least twice.

Two theories of human origins

In 1988 Stringer co-wrote an article titled Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans. This sketched out the two main theories about human origins: Recent African Origin (RAO) and Multiregional Evolution.

1. The multi-regional theory dates from the 1930s and believes that Homo erectus (himself descended from Homo habilis and a distinct species by about 2 million years ago) spread out from Africa over 1 million years ago, settling across Eurasia and Africa, and it was these scattered populations who all transitioned to modern man, Homo sapiens, although with variations which explain the different appearance of modern ‘races’.

2. Recent African Origin (also known as the ‘Out of Africa’ theory) agrees that Homo erectus spread across Eurasia by around 1 million years ago (the original or ‘Out of Africa 1’ scenario), but then postulates the separate development of ‘modern’ man (Homo sapiens) around 100,000 years ago, probably in East Africa. These modern humans also spread out beyond Africa (in so-called ‘Out of Africa 2’), superseding (overwhelming, conquering, killing?) their more primitive cousins wherever the two came into contact.

But a) there are numerous other theories which conflict with both the above, starting with an ‘Assimilationist’ theory, e.g. that Homo sapiens bred with Homo erectus rather than wiping them out; and b) almost every year brings new discoveries which throw up new puzzles and complicate the picture. Also c) Homo sapiens himself seems to have undergone a sudden burst of technological, cultural and social complexity around 50,000 years ago, when better tools, cave art, necklaces etc suddenly appear in the fossil record. It was this new, improved Homo sapiens who appears in Europe from 35,000 years ago. How does that fit into the timeline?

Neanderthal Man In Europe a distinct branch of humans was named Neanderthal Man (after the first specimen whose skull and bones were found in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856). Neanderthal bodies were bigger, more muscly than ours, they had significantly larger brain cases (as Stringer humorously points out, in brains as with other things, size is not everything) but their most notable feature was really thick, heavy, threatening brow ridges over the eye sockets. Neanderthals are generally considered a distinct species, Homo neanderthalensis, and are thought to be descended from a more primitive species, Homo heidelbergensis, itself a branch of Homo erectus. Nenaderthal man became distinct from Heidelberg man around 600,000 years ago. (Typically, some paleoanthropologists disagree with the whole notion of defining these different specimens as distinct species, and consider Neanderthals and all the other ‘types’ which have been found in the past 150 years to be subspecies of Homo sapiens – thus Neanderthals would be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

One of the most intriguing questions remains what it was when I was a boy: We have evidence that modern man (often called Cro-Magnon Man in his European incarnation, after the cave in south-west France where the first specimen was found in 1868) and Neanderthal man both inhabited Europe at the same period, around 40,000 years ago (the Neanderthals having been around in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, modern man being a new thing, fresh out of Africa). Shortly after the arrival of modern man, records of Neanderthals come to an end; there are no specimens more recent than 30,000 years ago.

So, did we wipe Neanderthals out? Archaeologist Nicolas Teyssandier has noted the period of overlap of the last Neanderthals and the first Moderns is characterised by a profusion of different types of spear tip – was there a stone age arms race? Or did ‘we’ interbreed with Neanderthals to become a cross-breed, Neanderthal records stopping because they had been ‘assimilated’ into our line – so that each of us has a little Neanderthal blood in us? Or did Neanderthals die out due to climate or other changes which they were too dim to adapt to, but which we with our super-smart brains managed to survive? The theories have become more intricate as new DNA evidence has emerged – but to this day, no-one knows.

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo heidelbergensis This is another distinct form of human, that lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago (and named after the first specimen, discovered in 1907 near the German town of Heidelberg). Some paleoanthropologists think that a population of heidelbergensis migrated into Europe and western Asia between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago and evolved into Neanderthal man. A later branch of the same family had evolved into Homo sapiens in Africa by around 130,000 years ago and then also spread into south-west Asia and Europe where, for 100,000 years, both related species lived alongside each other.

Periods

The Pleistocene period is said to date from 2.5 million years ago (Ma) to 12,000 years ago.

The Stone Age or Paleolithic period period lasted roughly 3.4 million years and ended between 8700 BC and 2000 BC, with the advent of metalworking (the date varying according to location, since different human groups developed metal work at different dates).

The Lower Paleolithic Period is 2,500,000 to 200,000 years ago. The Middle Paleolithic is the era during which the Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Near East, c. 300,000–28,000 years ago. The Upper Paleolithic dates from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago in Europe, ending with the end of the Pleistocene Era and onset of the Holocene Era at the end of the last ice age.

The Holocene Era is marked by the end of the ice ages around 13,000 years ago, followed swiftly (in the Fertile Crescent of modern Iraq) by the birth of agriculture, in what Jared Diamond calls ‘the Neolithic Revolution’. This saw humans transition from a life of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, a transition whose causes and implicatoins Diamond deals with at length in his classic book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

Dating technologies

The modern technology used to date fossils and ancient remains is now bewilderingly complex and dauntingly sophisticated. Here are some terms; if you’re interested, you’ll have to google them for full accounts.

  • ABOX Acid Base Oxidation-Stepped Combustion pretreatment methods for dating charcoal thought to be over 30,000 years old
  • AMS accelerator mass spectrometry – a technique for measuring long-lived radionuclides that occur naturally in our environment
  • CT computerised tomography X-ray scan
  • ESR electronic spin resonance, method of dating
  • OSL – optically stimulated luminescence
  • TL thermoluminscence dating technique

New words and acronyms

I’m a humanities graduate, not a scientist; I get pleasure from new words and from new concepts (even ones I don’t fully understand).

  • Allen’s Law – animals in cold climates have low surface-to-volume ratios; animals in hot climates, the reverse.
  • atlatl – a spear thrower.
  • Biological Species Concept – the notion that species are defined as groups which can interbreed
  • burins – engraving tools.
  • CI Campanian Ignimbrite – debris from a huge volcanic explosion which took place in Campania, central Italy, 39,000 years ago.
  • Doggerland – the area of land that connected Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age until it was flooded by rising sea levels around 6,500–6,200 BC.
  • Dunbar’s Number – after researching primate brain size against the size of their social groups British anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated that humans can only form meaningful relationships with a maximum of 148 (generally rounded up to 150) other individuals.
  • EQ – encephalisation quotient, the ratio of brain volume to body mass.
  • glottology – the history or science of language.
  • Heinrich Event – brief but severe cold events when icebergs break off from northern ice caps and float south chilling the ocean and surrounding lands (pp.93-94)
  • microtephra – dust from a volcanic explosion which is invisible to the eye.
  • morphometrics – measuring shapes.
  • sapropels – dark layers of sediment laid down where the Nile reaches the Mediterranean.
  • survivorship – the proportion of a population surviving to a given age.
  • tang – edge or shoulder of a triangular stone point used to mount it as a projectile on a wooden handle.
  • varves – annually deposited layers in the bottom of deep lakes.

Snippets

  • Anthropologist Grover Krantz strapped on a fake thick protruding ‘brow ridge’ from a Homo erectus skull, and wore it for months (!) to see what advantages it brought. He discovered that it kept his hair out of his eyes, shielded his eyes from the sun – and scared the daylights out of people he met on dark nights. Stringer takes this last point seriously, saying the heavy brows of our ancestors possibly accentuated their stare, giving them an aggressive attitude which helped them intimidate other males and woo females, in the struggle for existence. (p.32)
  • Apparently, there are rumours in the paleoanthropology world that either the Americans or the Russians or both, in the 1940s and 50s, experimented by injecting human sperm into female chimps, bringing the resulting creatures to birth and experimenting on them. (p.33)
  • Male baboons gently fondle each other’s scrotums as a sign of friendship and trust – a defeated chimpanzee makes submissive noises and holds out its hand to the victor – if accepted the victor will embrace and kiss the supplicant, if rejected, he’ll bite it. (p.131)
  • Fire dates to around 1.6 million years ago in Africa, 800,000 years ago in Israel, 400,000 years ago in Britain. (p.140)
  • The Grandmother Hypothesis developed by James O’Connell and Kristen Hawkes proposes that human evolution favoured older women who lived on after the menopause (something which doesn’t happen in primates) who can help their daughters with child-rearing and food-gathering. (p.141)

Conclusion

The ninth and final chapter presents a conclusion of sorts – which is that, having extensively reviewed the current evidence, Stringer has modified his lifelong adherence to the Recent African Origin thesis in several ways:

  1. The one that surprised me the most has to do with the size of the communities we’re talking about. Up-to-date genetic evidence suggests that the groups which left Africa and moved out to populate Arabia and around the Indian coast, might have numbered in the hundreds. Even within Africa the various species may at any one time have only numbered in the thousands. (‘The long-term effective size of the ancestral population for modern humans might have been only about 10,000 breeding individuals’, p.175, whereas the number of breeding Neanderthal females in Europe might have been as little as 3,500). Given these numbers, the extinction of the Neanderthals is changed from being some kind of war of extermination (as it is sometimes painted) into the dwindling and going defunct of already tiny scattered communities (and the most attractive interpretation Stringer gives for this is the notion that Neanderthals were just bigger, heavier and needed more food than the lighter, nimbler Home sapiens – maybe in the unstable climatic situation in Europe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, small and clever was simply more adaptable).
  2. The last two chapters bring together evidence which Stringer says can be interpreted, in light of these small numbers, to suggest a new hypothesis – that there were, at any given time, multiple human species living in Africa (he repeats several times that modern-day Africans show vastly more genetic diversity than any other continent – modern DNA evidence suggesting that the populations of Asia, the Far East, the Americas, Australia derive from very small bands of ancestors populations with the genetic diversity of modern populations dropping the further you go from the African source). In other words, the linear model of one species evolving into another species has been replaced by a much more complex scene of multiple species or sub-species flourishing in different places at different times. ‘100,000 years ago Africa may have comprised a collection of separate sub-groups’ (p.244). The evidence now suggests ‘that Africa contained archaic-looking people in some areas when, and even long after, the first modern-looking humans had appeared’ (p.255). In other words, the multiregion theory could be true within Africa, where multiple species, sub-species, varieties and groups of humans evolved along separate lines, developing widely different levels of tools, some isolated, some inter-breeding and leaving behind a patchwork of random relics to puzzle and confuse 21st century paleoanthropologists trying to create one continuous narrative.
  3. A recurrent problem in this new, more complex picture is that ‘superior’ technologies or skills seem sometimes, in some areas, to be replaced by inferior ones. Stringer uses the analogy of fires or beacons flaring up in the immense darkness of Africa for a millennium or so, then going out. Why? The brief answer, as with so much paleoanthropology, is that no-one knows. Climate change? Genetic drift? Drought, famine, conflict? But the stops and starts certainly fit with the newish idea of much greater diversity, variation, and contingency in our evolution than had previously been suspected.
  4. All of which brings Stringer to modify his initial RAO thesis: maybe there wasn’t one, but multiple out-of-Africa events. To me, as a layman, this doesn’t seem that surprising. Pre-human species didn’t have maps: they didn’t know they were ‘leaving’ Africa; they were just roaming, hunting and gathering wherever food could be found. It makes more sense to think there would have been multiple ‘exits’ from Africa. If our theories only posited two until recently, that could be because the archaeological record is so thin and patchy as not to spot the others – or it could be that numerous other ‘exit’ populations went extinct leaving no fossil or genetic trace. We think the exit event which led to us is important because it led to us; but it might have been just one among many, and its survival down to pure chance.
  5. And this leads to perhaps the most unsettling thought, which is all these theories tend to undermine our specialness. Even within scientific communities there has been a consensus that Homo sapiens is special because ‘we’ ended up inventing agriculture, cities, religion, states, navies, trains, rockets and all the rest of it – and therefore a tendency to try and identify the reason for that specialness and the moment when that specialness took hold. (Stringer thinks something happened around 50,000 years ago to change human behaviour, nudging it towards greater inventiveness – climate, size of social groups, who knows; but there are scores of other theories – he mentions the ‘Broad Spectrum Revolution’ theory proposed by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, a coming-together of climate, population size and innovation which they date to 20,000 years ago). But what if we’re not that special. What if Neanderthal man or some of the more obscure relics, such as Homo floriensis (the so-called ‘Hobbit’, a short version of modern humans found only in East Asia) or other sub-species and hominins as yet undiscovered, had just as much potential to develop and ‘succeed’ – but existed in such small populations that fairly limited events (drought, volcanic eruption, sudden chilling in an ice age) wiped them out and happened, just happened, to leave the field open to us? What if ‘we’ are only here by the merest luck or fluke but – with the arrogance typical of our species – have taken this as giving us an entirely spurious specialness, giving us the right to lord it over the earth and all the other species, when in fact our lucky ancestors just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

Credit

The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer was published by Allen Lane in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Penguin paperback edition.

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