Tuesday, July 22, 2008
MR. MEAVE LEAKEY'S latest findings on man's evolution should further add to the reputation which the distinguished Leakey family had earlier won for itself for the light it had thrown with its sustained anthropological research in Kenya. At a time when the British rulers of Kenya had a rough time with their efforts to suppress the deadly Mau Mau rebellion in the mid- Fifties, the celebrated anthropologist, Dr. L.S.B. Leakey (1903- 1972), decided that it would be worthwhile to explore the origins of the Kikyus of the country and their traditions. His fossil discoveries were published in The Mau Mau and the Kikiyu along with a number of other seminal works on the Kenyan tribes, one of which is the revealing White African. While it would be far- fetched to imagine that research on African tribes and their origins initiated and sustained by anthropologists and the better understanding it had led to brought down the racial barriers in Africa and elsewhere, the scene today in that multi-racial continent is one of greater tolerance and understanding than in the earlier decades of the last century.
The older Dr. Leakey had established that the evolution of man had taken much earlier than had been previously believed and that it was centred in Africa and not in Asia. His son, Richard Leakey, carried the research further and if the present findings of Mr. Meave Leakey throw more light on a subject of unflagging interest, they could call for a fresh assessment of earlier data. The earliest fossil remains of the anthropoid ape dating back to over 30 million years had long been supposed to be very closely related to man while the skull fragments of the Neanderthal man indicated that the evolution of humans should have taken place much later at around 150,000 years ago. A distinction was also made between homo sapiens and homo erectus, the latter being regarded as the forerunners of the earlier species of Neanderthal man. The latest fossilised discoveries by paleontologists of a battered but complete skull estimated to be 3.5 million years old, suggesting a different breed of early humans, should add to the uncertainty about the evolution of man. The questions which they might throw up would hinge upon whether in the course of its evolution, the human race had looked very different and even unrecognisable from how it had been during the last few thousand years of recorded history. It might have taken anywhere between several thousands and millions of years for the fossilised remains scattered across this millennia to bring about an evolving resemblance to the human being. Obviously the humans did not arrive as the finished product which the non-anthropologists might presume it to be. The evolutionary conveyor belt on which the human race was placed should have been moving slowly to accommodate mutations. The latest discovery of a complete skull and face of an entirely new breed of early humans dating back to 3.5 million years suggests how the human anatomy was responding to changes across time.
The evolution of man could not have been in a straight line placing him in succession to the earlier species which were going to perish. The rest of the pre-historic creatures amidst whom he had to take his place should have found him easy prey and it was going to take a long time for him to emerge from being the hunted to become the hunter. The crucial role which the evolving human race was going to acquire for itself was determined by the special qualities of the brain enclosed by the cranium, the earlier shape of which has now been discovered. It should probably tell us a great deal more about how the human head mentioned by Mr. Leakey played a crucial role in the evolutionary process heading towards the ascendancy of man over other species.