‘Garden of Eden’ discovered in Botswana
Are we all Africans? New research suggests that all humans alive today are descended from people living in southern Africa, 200,000 years ago. But are they right? And does it matter?
About 200,000 years ago, in a massive wetland in southern Africa, a group of creatures, about four-feet tall, walking on two legs, left their home to set off on an adventure.
Up close, they look familiar. Distinctly human.
“These were the first human explorers,” Professor Vanessa Hayes says, introducing a new study claiming to have found the cradle of humanity in Botswana.
Why did they leave? For thousands of years, the first humans had been cut off from the rest of the world in a fertile wetland surrounded by dry uninhabitable land. But about 130,000 years ago, climate change and increased rainfall created “green corridors” (fertile bridges) for our brave early humans to travel to new lands.
The fossil record shows that the first ‘anatomically modern humans’ appeared in Africa before spreading across the world. This is called the ‘out-of-Africa’ theory of human evolution.
Now, geneticists are able to study variations in DNA to find exactly where humanity began. Our common ‘ancestral homeland’.
But some are not impressed by the latest research.
Professor Mark Thomas calls the study “fundamentally flawed”. Its focus is too narrow, ignoring the evidence of the mixing of many different groups of archaic humans across Africa and beyond. The bigger picture is much more complex.
The idea of one single ‘Garden of Eden’ is too simple. It is, Thomas concludes, just “storytelling”.
But we like a good story. And the out-of-Africa story has shaped the way we understand our history, and how we talk about being human in the 21st century.
In 2013, the biologist Richard Dawkins tweeted himself wearing a t-shirt with the words: “We are all Africans”. He argued that this common heritage is more important than our home town, our country, religion or ethnicity.
But confusing our evolutionary history and the identity of modern Africans can land you in hot water. When the actor Meryl Streep was asked about the lack of ethnic minorities in the film industry, she was heavily criticised for replying, “After all, we’re all from Africa originally.”
So, are we all African?
The geneticist Spencer Wells argues that that our African-ness is scientifically true: that we are all “brothers and sisters, separated by a mere two thousand generations”. As a species, we have been always on the move, always exploring, never settling down for long. We are citizens of the world, not bound by race, nationality or religion. We have one common history that links us back to Africa.
Critics argue that this kind of belonging is too vague to have meaning. The former Prime Minister Theresa May summed this up by saying if “you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. At heart, we are not explorers, but home-makers. We make our homes where we live and work, with the people and things close to us. We have nothing in common with humans living 200,000 years ago in Africa.
- What is more important: making a home or exploring the world?
- Is it helpful to use science to make political statements?
- Think about all the people, places and things that are important to you. Create a map to show how they are linked.
- Using the Expert Links, research the reasons for and against the argument: “We are all Africans”. List the top three on each side on a piece of paper.
Some People Say...
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”Socrates (469-399 BC), classical Athenian and Greek philosopher
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The first human species to leave Africa was homo erectus, two million years ago. Our own species, homo sapiens, appeared 350,000 years ago and evolved into ‘anatomically modern humans’ with a skeleton like our own, around 200,000 years ago. Modern humans spread across the world, interbred with archaic humans (such as the Neanderthals), and drove them and the older homo erectus to extinction.
- What do we not know?
- Where the first ‘anatomically modern humans’ lived. Some scientists think that humans originated in one region of Africa and spread outwards (the out-of-Africa theory). Others believe that modern humans are descended from the interbreeding of several groups inside and outside Africa (multiregional theory).
- Fossil record
- The placement of fossils in the layers of the Earth. Older fossils are found below younger ones, allowing scientists to work out when life forms existed and how they evolved.
- Anatomically modern humans
- Us, the most recent variation of homo sapiens.
- A biologist who studies the science of genes (genetics).
- A molecule that contains the genetic information for the production of life.