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
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
- 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.
- 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
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
"erosion" nor "the action of burrowing animals" will
apparently work any longer as excuses to prop up a theory of white
At least in this
archeological corner of the world, some of the underpinnings of white racism
have been knocked out.