On origins, Africa, and the novelty of knowledge

On origins, Africa, and the novelty of knowledge

By Jonathan Kingdon

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Every living being has origins. Yes, plural, because living organisms adapt and change over time. Along the way, they also shift and colonize new ground, new islands, new continents, new waters, new oceans—always adapting to ever-renewed, ever-transformed conditions. The living beings that call themselves “human” also have plural origins because their ancestral stocks have made several significant safaris and intercontinental exchanges between Africa and Eurasia. The timing, the extent, and the nature of these exchanges, these comings and goings, are still imperfectly understood. Nonetheless, it is clear that humanity’s prehistory is predominantly African. Yet to assert that human ancestors have been predominantly African for the last ten million years flies in the face of most people’s assumptions. The very idea that everywhere that is not Africa is territory colonized by Africans inverts the bland assumptions of many, perhaps most, of our contemporaries. 

The emergence of modern humans is an extremely complex and still imperfectly understood story, spanning some one million years. Compared to most other organisms, we are novices on this planet. As for our invention and development of science, especially evolutionary biology and ecology, these disciplines span but four or five generations! Despite our biological novelty and still newer invention of science, we find, embedded in our genes, entombed in African soils, and manifest in an ecology of unequalled complexity and diversity, the grand theater of human origins, newly informed by the extraordinary science of genetics. The molecules of genes, themselves coded messages, offer us new grammars, a new syntax that is embedded in all living beings. It is a language that was decoded while I was in my teens by men I have met. The modern science of biology came into being during my grandfather’s lifetime with the publication of a book entitled “On the Origin of Species.” I and all my readers belong to just one of the species to which Charles Darwin referred. For the human species, origin means Africa. 

These languages and their messages are new. Yet the lessons we must learn require a complete reframing of knowledge itself. Knowingly or not, we have entered an age of learning in which everyone’s lifelong commitment to ever-expanding knowledge has become the defining quest of contemporary culture. Furthermore, we must act on this always imperfect but always growing knowledge, not only for ourselves but for our children’s children. Defiant, willful ignorance threatened civilization twice in the last century, while new disciplines of thought predict that all organisms, including us, will soon suffer unimaginable consequences from today’s feckless industries and still worse politics. 

The wide Boreal Africa lies north of the equator, while the long, slimmer eastern half of Africa stretches way down south. Here are two continent-spanning archipelagos separated by a snake of aridity that, to my great surprise, has acquired a biogeographic title—the Kingdon Line. Each of these two divisions sub-divides further into island-like compartments. Together with a pendulum of climatic swings, these “islands” have mediated the evolution of many species of animals and plants. A large part of the world’s biodiversity has evolved in Africa, where a great number of plants and animals, especially large mammals, still survive, albeit precariously. I have written and illustrated field guides and handbooks that feature inclusive lists of the continent’s mammals. Reacting against just one more list, I turn to my senses for a less categorical appreciation of nature’s diversity. 

The sound of biodiversity is the song of every bird, the sonic boom of every whale, the vibration of every insect, feather, or vocal chord that ever evolved, the sound of every coming and of every going. 

The smell of biodiversity wafts from every flower, every gland, and, yes, every female mammal as she comes into season and the scent of her newborn baby. It is also the miasma of every corpse and the potential punishment stored in every skunk’s or zorilla’s anus. The shape of biodiversity is manifest in the architecture of a giraffe or the empires of underground tree roots, in the geometry of diatoms and the symmetry of spiders, deep-sea fish, and peacocks’ tails. The color of biodiversity flashes from the sides of every courting bird or flirting female, from the petals of every plant, and from the changing tints of chameleons as they ponder their next moves.

Living beings have untangled and reassembled light itself. Sunbirds, frenetic at midday, throw back restructured reflections of sunlight in all manner of ostentatious feathering. Moonlight off the metallic tips of bronze-winged courser wings divert gnu and topi traffic around the birds’ precious clutch of eggs as surely as a cop’s illuminated batons at a midnight roadblock. The same feather tips can flutter in the nose of a foraging jackal to distract from newly hatched chicks as they crouch in the burnt stubble. 

To return to the giant Boreal/Austral bisection of Africa, here lie clues to the very earliest emergence of the bipedal lineage that led to us. The last ancestor shared by today’s humans and today’s chimpanzees probably ranged over the tropics of both archipelagos some eight or nine million years ago. The Austral population became ground apes that eventually generated several lineages of bipeds, one of which became us. 

The fount of our intellect, our creativity, our curiosity, our capacity for inspiration, even our sense of humor and rhythm arose in Africa, probably before we became sapient. All need cultivation. Integral to that end, we must acknowledge our mother continent’s nurture of our species and make the continent what it has always been: nursery, school, and university of human origins. In our children’s hands, armed with an ever-expanding knowledge that can be tested for its truthfulness, Africa becomes the true primary source of our natural history, our origins—the ultimate setting for future universities of creative thinking, creative making, and creative living. 

Jonathan Kingdon is an award-winning evolutionary biologist and artist, and a research associate at the University of Oxford. His many books include Lowly Origin: Why, When, and Where Our Ancestors First Stood Up and The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (both Princeton).