To those who are following the continuing genocide in Darfur, every day brings grim headlines:
Fighting has prompted thousands of people in the southern part of Sudan’s Darfur region to seek security and shelter at a refugee camp in the northern part of the war-torn area, according to the United Nations.
…An estimated 300,000 people in the western Sudanese region have been killed through combat, disease or malnutrition, according to the United Nations. An additional 2.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes because of fighting among rebels, government forces and the violent Janjaweed militias.
Though its plight has attracted the most attention, Darfur is far from the only troubled region of Africa. There’s the failed state of Somalia, now a haven for terrorism and piracy, and the outbreaks of famine and cholera brought on by the near-total collapse of Zimbabwe in the face of dictator Robert Mugabe’s refusal to surrender power, to name just the two most prominent examples from recent headlines. How did we let this happen?
Africa was the human race’s first home. It is our birthplace, our cradle. The continent should be a sacred place to all of us, a living temple of memory reminding us of our origins. Instead, it’s poverty-stricken, politically fractured, still laboring under corrupt autocracies and mired in backwardness and superstition. The picture is not all bleak – there are success stories, and notable bright spots – but even so, Africa as a whole lags behind the rest of the world, and still struggles with the legacy of imperialism and the unbridged chasms of its own political divides.
And yet, there was a time when all humans were Africans. Though we’ve spread all over the world in successive waves of migration, our genes have not forgotten the past. Whether you’re European or Asian, from the Arctic or from Polynesia, your heritage can be traced back to families that lived in Africa millions of years ago. If you care to categorize on the basis of something as superficial as skin color, then you can know to a certainty that the blood of black men and women flows in your veins.
It was Charles Darwin who ventured the bold guess that the human race evolved in Africa, and the evidence has vindicated him. It’s in Africa that we find the bones of our earliest known ancestors and our close cousins in the human family tree: species like Lucy’s, Australopithecus afarensis, small hominids who had the heavy brows and brain size of chimpanzees but stood and walked upright like us. It’s in Africa, in Laetoli, that we find the oldest trace evidence of human bipedalism: two trails of footprints frozen in stone, four million years old, where three people – perhaps a family of man, woman and child – walked together across a field of new-fallen volcanic ash. It’s in Africa, in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, that we find the earliest stone tools. And more controversially, it’s in Africa, at sites like Kenya’s Koobi Fora, that we find possibly the earliest evidence for the domestication of fire.
Of course, we did not stay in our birthplace forever. As the population grew and wanderlust took the human spirit, we flowed out in successive waves of settlement and conquest. We spread north into the fertile crescent of the Middle East, where we first domesticated animals and plants and built the world’s oldest cities, and into Ice Age Europe, where we eradicated our brothers – the stocky, heavy-browed Neanderthals, who had lived and thrived in the frozen landscape for tens of thousands of years until we arrived. We walked across the Bering Strait into the Americas and fanned out across the Pacific by raft and canoe. We spread over the face of the earth, building mighty civilizations and forging empires in battle and conquest. And, in due time, the conquerors returned – to their own birthplace, had they but known it – and put it under their heel as well.
It took centuries for Africa to throw off that yoke, and the injuries that it suffered still are not fully healed. Its people still grapple with endemic disease, with political corruption and with their own tribalisms, all of which are exacerbated by poverty and international neglect. But still and all, Africa is a noble continent, not in the condescending caricature of the “noble savage”, but nobility in the true sense of the word: those whose blood is purest, whose lineage traces back longest. It is still the home of the most deeply rooted branches of the human family tree: as Richard Dawkins writes in The Ancestor’s Tale, the disappearance of everyone outside Africa would decrease human genetic diversity only slightly, while the disappearance of everyone in that continent would mean the loss of most of our species’ gene pool. Compared to Africa, all the rest of humanity is a prodigal son, descended from a relatively small number of restless wanderers who left a great and ancient family to seek their fortunes in the world.
In the slow ascent of human progress, we have many milestones left to reach. There are ancient trouble spots throughout the world, and we can count ourselves more advanced as we overcome each of them. But the turmoil of Africa is our species’ greatest shame. I can imagine an Earth where Africa takes its rightful place among the pantheon of peoples; an Africa where the archaeological sites of humanity’s origin are sites of pilgrimage, sacred places preserved for all to see and walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. I can imagine an Africa that’s peaceful and prosperous, where gleaming cities exist alongside the simple beauty and grandeur of the savannahs and rainforests that were our childhood home. We may, perhaps, have no right to call ourselves truly advanced until that world is a reality.