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Racist Assumptions Explain Why an Archeological Find Is Considered a Big Surprise in Search for Origins of Humanity

December 4, 2001

The conventional wisdom in archeological circles has been that modern man in an anatomical sense emerged in Africa, but that it was not until sometime later in Europe that modern human behavior arose.  There, the theory went, there was a "creative explosion" involving abstract thought, communication through speech, tool-making and artistic expression.

But new discoveries in a cave near Cape Town, South Africa show that such uniquely human behavior began in Africa, not Europe.

Why did the archeological world assume that humanity could become modern in body while in Africa, but that it wasn't until a part of humanity became European that a modern mental capacity could develop?  Let's see how The New York Times puts it:

Archaeologists had spent little time digging African sites... while every year in Europe they seemed to find more cavern walls adorned with painted deer, horses and wild bulls. Enthralled, scholars perhaps could not bring themselves to look for earlier and more distant origins of modern behavior.

The scholars were "enthralled" and "could not bring themselves" to dig in Africa.  What does that even mean on its own terms?

Beyond that, I believe one or both of the following strains of racist thought underlie the failure to dig in Africa:

  1. An assumption that mankind's modern mental capacity of course arose in Europe, not among the savages of Africa, so searching for contrary evidence in Africa would be a waste of time.
  2. A desire to maintain the theory of white superiority, so don't dig in Africa so as to ensure that the only evidence would support the European creative explosion theory.

To the argument that it was simply more convenient to dig and search in Europe, where the researchers lived, one has only to point out that when there was something in Africa that Europeans did want -- slaves, gold, diamonds, land -- they had no trouble finding their way there in large numbers.

Indeed, the evidence for an African origin of modern human mental functioning arose about ten years ago, but was greeted with skepticism and attempts to explain it away.  The artifacts had

been excavated and argued about since some of the first pieces were collected in 1992. Skeptics had suspected that artifacts of more recent vintage had somehow intruded into the cave's lower and thus older sediments.

[T]he new research seemed to dispel previous doubts about the antiquity of the artifacts...

[T]he new research... produced "unquestionable evidence" that the artifacts were found in the layer of sediment in which they originated; they had not migrated there, through erosion or the action of burrowing animals, from higher and more recent strata.

No, neither "erosion" nor "the action of burrowing animals" will apparently work any longer as excuses to prop up a theory of white superiority. 

At least in this archeological corner of the world, some of the underpinnings of white racism have been knocked out.

This was a selection from The Daily Diatribe

More related to Racism

African artifactsEuropean caves

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