Africa is, in every sense, one of the most intriguing and impressive continents. The fascination is multi-faceted as this is a land of diversity in every sense. When considering the historical, cultural and social origins of the continent and its people, one is presented with a mosaic of theories, evidence and unavoidable truths. One theory that remains widely accepted amongst modern scientists is that Africa was the origin of mankind as we know it. Being the second largest and most populous continent in the world, and home to over 14% of the entire human population, this theory certainly bears a weighty significance on science, history and anthropology.
The first Homo sapiens (human being) was originally found in Ethiopia, situated in the Horn of Africa, and is believed to have lived on the earth some 200 000 years ago. Other hominids and their earliest ancestors were also discovered in Africa and have been dated to as far back as 7 million years. These include Australopithecus Aricanus, H. Ergaster, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis, A. Afarensis, Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis.
For a long time, Africa was known as the “Dark Continent”; a place of inactivity and dormancy. Historians and explorers regarded it with trepidation and perceived it as a mysterious land of magic and curses. This prevented widespread exploration for many decades, even centuries, leaving Africa relatively untouched.
This isolation and sense of historical mystery was partly due to the fact that the African inhabitants relied on word-of-mouth to communicate stories and legends to the young, rather than on more formal written means. This implied that there was little or no scientific evidence of any of the happenings being spoken of in these tales. It also meant that stories changed slightly as they were borne from one generation to the next, each adding their own twist. Another reason that the history of Africa remains, at the very least, somewhat blurred is that, as a result of decades of slavery and the abuse of the African people, the details have been omitted and softened over the years to protect those inflicting such suffering on the locals. This did not allow for accurate records of the goings on, travels and discoveries of that period. Therefore, any history of this period is gleaned from unreliable records or from folktales and legends.
There are several locations scattered throughout Africa that are recognised for their rich historical and even pre-historical existence based on findings in these places. Tanzania is home to the Olduvai Gorge, one of the areas thought to be the first site of human beings from ancient times. This gorge is flanked by the ravine walls of the Great Rift Valley on the eastern side of Africa. It stretches through the Serengeti Plains for nearly 50 km. It is in the Olduvai Gorge that prehistoric tools and artefacts were discovered, along with fossils of ancient human beings and animals. British paleoanthropologist, Mary Leakey, even discovered footsteps that are believed to have belonged to the first Homo sapiens to have existed on earth.
Kenya is also recognised as the Cradle of Mankind as it is the site at which Dr Richard Leakey discovered the bones of human beings dating back to the beginning of mankind’s existence. These bones were found on Kenya’s Lake Turkana coastline, at Koobi Fora, now the territory of the nomadic tribe of Gabbra. Kariandusi and Ololgesailie are other sites that have become known for their historical and archaeological wealth. Many of the caves in Kenya are home to ancient rock paintings that bear evidence of a prehistoric civilisation in this area.
South Africa is home to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Krugersdorp, near Johannesburg. This site includes Sterkfontein, Swratkrans, Kromdraai and Environs and stretches for 47 000 hectares, or over 180 square miles. This site was deemed to be a World Heritage Site due to its palaeo-anthropological significance. Some of the world’s most valuable information in terms of the origin of man has been discovered in this area. The site comprises an excess of 200 caves, 13 fossil sites and different stone tools and implements that are typical of those used by ancient human beings. The prehistoric animal remains include those of sabre-toothed felines, giant hyenas and short-necked giraffes.
Societies of Homo sapiens were not always considered to be civilisations because of their nomadic lifestyle and their lack of a structured language or written history. However, it is from these human beings that current civilisations exist. They formed the basis of the current population and, no doubt, shared the core values and emotions that human beings today experience. As these, our ancestors, congregated around water sources and plains that were rich in wildlife, they began to form communities of families. Cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships made transport and trade easier and better for the entire community. Their nomadic way of life also led to the development of civilisations, as each group of prehistoric men brought their own unique customs and traditions with them to new territories.
Being such an integral pillar of the current human society, it is no wonder that these predecessors and Africa’s status as the Cradle of Humanity intrigues scientists and explorers right up to our modern day.