Martin Meredith’s “Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life”

Correction: Earlier versions of this book review incorrectly identified Kenya as the country in which the Olduvai Gorge is located. The Olduvai Gorge, a site of significant fossil discoveries, is in Tanzania. This version has been corrected.

July 14, 2011

In 1924, anatomy professor Raymond Dart came across an unusual skull that a mining company had inadvertently blasted out of a hillside in a South African village. Despite its small brain size, the Taung Child, as the skull was to be named, had distinctively human features, including signs that its owner walked upright. But Dart’s finding contradicted prevailing scientific opinion, which held that the evolution of a large brain preceded other human adaptations, such as walking. Confirming this belief was the 1912 discovery of Piltdown Man, a skull found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, England. With its large cranium but otherwise apelike features, Piltdown Man supposedly represented the missing link between primates and humans, proving that humans came out of Asia and not Africa.

Dart disagreed, and he enthusiastically published his findings. Yet the conservative scientific establishment savaged him, arguing that he had misidentified a mere primate. Among Dart’s other crimes were failing to follow proper research protocol and using “a ‘barbarous’ combination of Latin and Greek in naming the specimen Australopithecus.” After this professional drubbing, Dart suffered a nervous breakdown, and the Taung skull languished for years as a paperweight on the desk of a colleague.

Twenty-three years later, Robert Broom, a maverick fossil hunter and physician who conducted his South African excavations under the blazing sun dressed “in a dark suit and waistcoat, long-sleeved white shirt, stiff butterfly collar and somber tie,” made his own discovery of an australopithecine, finally vindicating Dart. In 1953, scientists confirmed that Piltdown Man had been an elaborate 40-year hoax, a skull patched together from a combination of human and orangutan remains and artificially distressed to appear ancient. The Piltdown skull was only a few hundred years old; the Taung Child, however, was eventually dated at 2.7 million years.

Broom’s discoveries finally turned the tide of scientific opinion toward accepting humanity’s origins in Africa. A gold rush of anthropological exploration in Africa followed, its history marked by bitter rivalries, brash pronouncements and breathtaking discoveries. In “Born in Africa,” journalist and historian Martin Meredith has compiled a satisfying account of this quest. The author of numerous historical books on Africa, Meredith here offers a social history of 20th-century anthropological exploration in Africa, one that gives flavor to both the significance of new discoveries and the charismatic personalities who made them.

In 1926, Louis Leakey began what became a successful, multi-generational research enterprise in Kenya. Leakey, his wife, Mary, and son, Richard, went on to make some of the most significant hominid discoveries of the past century. Sites in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa yielded spectacular specimens, particularly in landscapes whose exploration demanded stamina and persistence. In Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, where Mary Leakey first spotted the 1.75 million-year-old skull she referred to affectionately as “Dear Boy,” researchers battled black dust clouds, drought conditions and incessant sun while also having “to contend with marauding lions, rhinoceroses and hyenas.” Later, Richard Leakey’s team found a 1.6 million-year-old, nearly complete skeleton in Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which “resembled a lunar landscape, a boundless expanse of lava and sand littered with the wrecks of ancient volcanoes. The winds and the heat were ferocious.”


‘Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life’ by Martin Meredith. PublicAffairs. 230 pp. $26.99 (PublicAffairs)

Fossil hunting was an arduous and frequently unrewarding business. Sometimes years would pass with no discoveries at all as researchers scrambled to acquire funding and government permits. Although Meredith gives credit to native fossil hunters who unearthed noteworthy finds, the scientists, many of whom were skilled at self-promotion, take center stage. At the start of new fieldwork in Koobi Fora, Kenya, for example, Richard Leakey, “with romantic notions of himself as a heroic explorer riding across the African desert,” hired camels and let the cameras roll. In 1974, when Leakey’s American rival Donald Johanson announced his discovery of the 3.2 million-year-old australopithecine known as Lucy, he shouted on camera, “I’ve got you now, Richard!”

Outsized personalities, turf wars, public insults and heated debates were the order of the day. Meredith outlines these scientific disputes in a clear and accessible manner, and presents a lucid summary of the current scientific thinking on the origins of humanity, with a narrative timeline that traces the chronology of human migration out of Africa. Much like the fossil hunters themselves, Meredith manages to assemble a cogent and compelling narrative from the occasionally messy history of paleoanthropology. “Born In Africa” pays tribute to those intrepid scientists who dedicated their lives to finding the fragments of bone that would illuminate the story of our common humanity in Africa.

Rachel Newcomb is an associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.”

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