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Crediting Africa as the 'Human Homeland'

November 23, 1990

Bettyann Kevles, in reviewing the book "Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery" (Nov. 6), describes anthropologists early in this century as "racist--eager to discount Africa as the place to look for human beginnings."

Actually, Africa was discounted for a very good reason. Until well into this century, there were no fossils of ancestral humans from that continent. Nor were there fossils of primitive African apes, from which humans might have evolved.

However, there never was any serious speculation that Europe had been the site of human origin. Instead, the focus was on Asia. Java Man, an early hominid, was found there late in the 19th Century. Peking Man, of comparable antiquity, was discovered not long afterward.

The emergence of Africa as the accepted human homeland did not come about because of political enlightenment, but through discoveries of fossils. These included the ancestral ape Proconsul, which provided a very credible evolutionary background. Even more significant was the work of South African paleontologists, who found fossils of early hominids that were far more ancient than those of Asia.

Then, beginning in the late 1950s, Britain's Louis Leakey wrapped things up with his excavations in Kenya's Olduvai Gorge, often called "the Grand Canyon of human evolution."


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