The Homo naledi announcement in September 2015 dominated the news and headlines for months internationally. The public reaction to the find clearly indicated a fascination in the search for human origins, and that the concept of race and human evolution are linked in many people's minds.
Christa Kuljian traces the history of South African palaeoanthropology and looks into more current genetics research in order to make sense of science and race in the quest to understand human origins. Are we all from one after all?
Darwin's hunch was that humans evolved in Africa, but very few European scientists agreed. Raymond Dart wrote in Nature in February 1925 that the Taung Child Skull supported Darwin's theory. Dart believed he had found the "missing link" between apes and humans. Again no one agreed, except Robert Broom, a Scottish scientist interested in palaeontology.
Over the past century, the search for human origins has been shaped by the changing social and political context. Reflecting colonial thinking at the time, Raymond Dart characterised human skeletons into racial types. He thought that there was a Bushman racial type that might provide a clue to human evolution. In 1936, he led a Wits expedition to the Kalahari to study people there in order to better understand these imaginary racial types. One of the young people he met and measured, /Keri-/Keri, died two years later. Her body was embalmed and taken to Wits where her skeleton became part of the Raymond Dart Skeleton Collection. Darwin's Hunch follows the sad story of what happened to her remains. In addition to /Keri-/Keri, Kuljian introduces us to a range of black technicians and assistants who were in the shadows of the well-known scientists.
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Christa Kuljian is a Writing Fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER). She studied with palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould for her BA in the History of Science at Harvard (1984), which provided inspiration for Darwin's Hunch. Kuljian's first book was Sanctuary (Jacana 2013). In addition to her BA, she also holds a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton (1989) and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand (2007).