Wednesday, September 29, 2010

African Exodus

African Exodus: the Origins of Modern Humanity
© 1996 Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie
282 pages

"Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history..."

Ever since Charles Darwin made that first and solitary reference to human evolution in The Origin of Species, people have wondered at our history as a species. It is a history that began not by the banks of the Tigris, with the use of writing and agriculture, but elsewhere and much earlier, when creatures who were human-like became human. Who where those ancestors, and when did we become human? These are questions which have spawned contesting ideas, two of which are discussed at length in this book: the multiregional hypothesis, which posits that humanity evolved in five distinct places throughout the globe and merged into a larger combined family with distinct 'races'; and the Out of Africa theory, which holds that humanity evolved in Africa, expanding from there throughout the globe and diversifying in various ethnic groups. Stringer advocates the later in African Exodus, a history of human evolution and an examination of evolution's consequences for humans living in the 21st century.

After an opening chapter focused on Stringer's graduate work (helping to establish that humans did not evolve from Neanderthals), he launches into a study of where both originated. After piecing together a history of human evolution beginning with the first hominid who took to walking upright in Africa's savannahs, Stringer uses on fossils, DNA (particularly mitochondrial), and language studies to confirm that the epicenter of human expansion began in Africa. Time and again in reading this book, I was impressed by our species' sheer virility. We are a people forged by hardship, who have spread across the globe so quickly that individuals from far-flung parts of the world are more genetically similar than two gorillas living in the same hundred--square-mile patch of forest. The three species of chimpanzees are ten times as genetically diverse compared to one another as all of our ethnic groups, despite the fact that we see the chimps as identical to each other and ourselves as radically different.

The ending chapters were a pleasant surprise, as Stringer wrote of the merits of evolutionary psychology. Although we continually imagine ourselves as distinct from the animal kingdom, we are animals even to our bones -- and our evolutionary heritage continues to shape our behavior and our bodies' response to living in the 21st century.  The book as a whole is quite a treat: Stringer and McKie have produced a book comprehensible to the lay reader which will undoubtedly enrich our understanding and appreciation for the history of our species. Especially interesting for me was the treatment of Neanderthals, who were as intelligent and cultured as early humans. They appear to have taken to the sedentary lifestyle before their sapiens contemporaries, but they were out-circled by the aggressive lightweights who were modern Europeans' ancestors.



  • Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade
  • The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond
  • The Naked Ape, Desmond Seward

I haven't read the latter two, but I've read their authors and intend to get around to those works.

And we are scatterlings of Africa, both you and I
We're on the road to Pheleamunga, beneath a copper sky
And we are scatterlings of Africa, on a journey to the stars
Far below we leave forever dreams of what we were.
(Johnny Clegg, "Scatterlings of Africa")

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