New beginnings

Nothing like the beginnings of humankind to mark the beginning of my blog! A paper published on 10 September describing Homo naledi, a previously-unknown hominid, created quite a stir here in South Africa.

The potentially new species was aptly discovered in the Cradle of Humankind, where at least 15 skeletons unearthed from the Dinaledi Chamber in an underground cave system. (Fun fact: ‘naledi’ means ‘star’ in Sotho, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.) Duke’s very own Dr. Steven E Churchill from the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology was involved in the discovery as well.

The fossils were much like the small modern human in terms of weight and stature, with human-like hands and feet. While similar in size to early Homo species, the skull of the Homo naledi had a unique structure. However, the team has not yet been able to accurately date the specimens. So as the discovery sheds more light on the evolution of modern humans, it also raises more questions: Where does the Homo naledi fit in the lineage of our extinct ancestors? Did they co-exist with other hominins? How did they live, what was their culture like?

1,500 km away from the dig site, I was visiting Langebaan Lagoon in the Western Cape National Park, where Eve’s Footprints were found back in 1995 by the same lead researcher, Dr. Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand at Johannesburg. The fossilized footprints were thought to belong to a female from 117,000 years ago, where a perfect chance of rain and sand preserved the oldest set of footprints belonging to a modern human.

While the prints allowed paleoanthropologists to determine ancient anatomy, what happened to it speaks more to present human nature. The site was vandalized by visitors and had to be moved to the South African Museum in Cape Town for protection, leaving only a concrete replica in its place.

Walking along the beautiful shores, I couldn’t help but contrast the excitement over the Homo naledi with how Eve’s Footprints were treated. Personally, I feel that the lives of hominids extend such an air of mystery. The fossil revelations are precious pieces of the puzzle that is the story of humankind. To treat the remnants of our human ancestors with anything but wonder and reverence for the history it encapsulates seems unthinkable to me.

And yet, on the next weekend, I visited many rock art sites that were expected to naturally fade away as the lichen grows over the enigmatic drawings. On the Selvilla hiking trail at Cederberg, the red imprints of the past were exposed to the elements in a deliberate move to allow history to remain where it always was instead of preserving it behind glass. After all, everything is ephemeral in the dredges of time. Perhaps a San (native inhabitants of the area) poem says it best:

The day we die

A soft wind will blow away our footprints in the sand.

When the wind has gone,

Who will tell the timelessness

That once we walked this way in the dawn of time?