Darwin was the first to argue that our ancestors evolved in Africa and time has shown him to be right. And so this last epistle before we travel is about books that give us a Darwinian perspective on East Africa.
First and foremost when we contemplate prehistoric people we should never forget that modern evolutionary psychologists believe that our basic instincts are hunter gatherer. That is to say our basic emotions evolved during the last million years, until a mere 12,000 years ago, when agriculture began. Underneath all that civilization lies our "Stone Age Minds" best outlined in the book by William F. Allman called The Stone Age Present and which I have read with great interest. Here is the link:
Then there is Meredith who is an unstoppable journalist of things Africa. His ability to read through vast amounts of paleoanthropological publications and then make sense of it all, is phenomenal. In this short book he explains to us that we are the descendants of competing and overlapping species who once roamed up and down the African rift valley where we will travel.
A Safari to East Africa is also a journey to explore human origins. Two books which give us great insight about this very modern search are described here:
The first is about the Leakey family and the search for the fossil origins of humans. It is called Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings. Here is the link.
This book is about Louis Leakey, his son Richard, his second wife Mary and the entire social and psychological history of the search for human origins in East Africa.
In a sense it is a social history of prehistoric archaeology in East Africa during the last one hundred years, from the time that Louis Leakey, who was raised by his missionary father and mother just outside of Nairobi, during the days when the Kikuyu tribe of that area were just beginning to convert to Christianity and still followed many of the aspects of their tribal way of life, from just a few years earlier.
Louis soon found that he belonged to two cultures, the first was that of his English speaking Christian missionary parents and the second, perhaps the more important, his Kikuyu age mates who treated them like just another warrior. With them, Louis learned firsthand the natural bush lore of an African tribe, their language, ways of thought and relationship to the land and animals. It is the kind of thing that only a few decades later got a name attached to it. We now call it ethnoarchaeology, when a field worker lives among a non-industrial people, in order to get insights about how older archaeological sites might have functioned, way back when. At the same time, Louis read books about natural history and evolution, especially Darwin, and eventually ended up at Cambridge University studying biology and archaeology.
Although Darwin had written that humans probably evolved in East Africa from ape like creatures, a long time ago, when Leakey studied, one of the greatest hoaxes of the day was considered archaeological orthodoxy. Piltdown Man had been "discovered" in Britain at the turn of the century and the entire British scientific establishment believed it to be true. It was the "missing link" they thought that linked prehistoric creatures to modern man. It also fit into their Social Darwinistic prejudice, rampant at the time, that the British nation were biologically destined to rule the world, so why should not the oldest human specimen, or even pre human specimen, not come from the same land?
Louis was inclined to take Darwin at his word. He believed that he would eventually find evidence of early man in East Africa, thus triggering a series of excavations which eventually led to his and his second wife Mary's long term exploration of Olduvai Gorge in present day Tanzania, just south of the Kenyan border and where I will visit once again this January.
Louis, Mary and their growing number of almost Robin Hood and his merry men like colleagues, included one Joy Adamson of later Born Free fame (the first to rehabilitate lions and leopards to the wilderness) and many, many others who would make a name for themselves in prehistory or, the study of African wildlife. The Leakey's dug at Olduvai for decades and found abundant ancient tools but, when they eventually started finding prehistoric skulls, their super star status began.
Never one to shun the limelight, Leakey also knew how to manage the press. After WWII he got the blessing (and the money) of the National Geographic Society and the rest is history. I certainly remember reading all about it when my parents almost religiously subscribed to National Geographic magazine in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The book also describes how Louis found Jane Goodall and Dianne Fossey, and facilitated their careers, for he believed that only through the additional study of surviving primates on site in East Africa would we ever be able to piece together the behaviour of our hominid ancestors-Australopithecus, Home Habilis, Erectus and the others. That projects is ongoing.
The book also well describes his son Richard's talented and driven desire to outdo his father's fossil collecting luck (alongside his wife who is also a British imported paleontologist, like his Mom was) and the titanic conflict between Richard, Johanson and his mother.
Don Johanson is the American discoverer of the Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia and the book describes how he eventually turned on his Leakey benefactors, thus creating a real personal and intellectual feud that was taken up by the world press. It is the stuff of Greek tragedy at times, but no one dies. So when we go to visit Olduvai we are visiting a site made famous by the Leakey phenomena.
Following in the footsteps of Jane Goodall came Shirley Strum, a behavioural ecologist who has spent years watching and conserving a troop of baboons in the drylands of Kenya. In her book Almost Human, A Journey Into the World of Baboons, http://www.amazon.com/Almost-Human-Journey-World-Baboons/dp/0226777561 Strum gives us a blow by blow description of what it was and is like to study the social behaviour of primates such as the Baboons.
Strum's research turned most of the scientific consensus on Baboon behaviour on its head, as she found that these animals were much more thoughtful, emotional and social than anyone had ever thought. She also showed that male aggression was not the dominant theme of their life and, in a very touching few chapters she describes her successful relocation of her troupe to a safer location in the drylands of northern Kenya.
The relevance of Baboons to human evolution and imagining the life style of our ancestors at Olduvai, is that they live outside of the forest in open areas. Although they are not as genetically close to us as Chimpanzees are (2% genetic difference between Chimps and Humans) they do inhabit the kind of landscape that our ancestors did when they moved from the forest into the open grassland. Therefore, their social organization and family structure, foraging styles, bonding and conflict give us profound hints of what our ancestors' lives might have been like, when we left the life of the forest behind, so long ago.
Today's Serengeti is Yesteryear's Olduvai
The most important thing about the trip and most of the places we visit is that we need to remember, when traveling across the rivers and lush grasslands of the Serengeti and then visiting the semi arid, desert like sites like Olduvai, that Olduvai once looked like the Serengeti today, if even wetter. It was an area of small lakes and rivers, with forest and grasslands that moved away from the water points. Some ancestral species of ours, in between the behaviour of modern hunter gatherers (who we will visit), and primates such as the Baboons, must have formed the template of early human behaviour. If the evolutionary psychologists are to be believed, much of our behavior (but not all) is driven by these same biological templates.
For better or for worse, it is from this combination of evidence from which we must imagine and reconstruct the behaviour of our ancestors. And, it is for that reason that ongoing research in the Serengeti and at Olduvai Gorge, are just two parts of a ongoing and wider "thought experiment," one that is continuously modified by new discoveries in these two places of the world that are so fascinating in and of themselves.