Book Review: Born In Africa

Martin Meredith has become synonymous with great books on Africa. His style of writing is easy to read and he manages to make complicated issues accessible to layman audiences.  His two previous books The State of Africa and Diamonds, Gold and War were critically acclaimed.

In Born in Africa he takes a big step back from his usual topics of modern African history, 4 million years back to be precise. As a novice to pre-history, I expected to struggle a bit with the idea of fossils and apes, but Meredith tells the story in the form of the 20th century competition to unearth the oldest fossil and piece it into the ever-changing puzzle of our family tree.

It had been long accepted that Asia was the birthplace of modern man, when we dropped our ape-like tendencies and started walking on our back legs.  But fossil discoveries made in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa in the 20th century completely rewrote this theory, accompanied by some ferocious fighting between the different groups of paleoanthropologists and academics which makes for compelling reading.

Meredith spends the first part of the book following well-known names like the Leakey family in Kenya and their three generational contribution to the Australopithecus saga. It struck me how an incidental stumbling upon a small tooth in the ground would later lead to a complete rearrangement of our family tree, only to be undone a few years later by another groundbreaking discovery.

The devil is in the detail, as a small difference in a shin bone or jaw size could have massive ramifications to the age and development of each fossil. The debate over whether brain size or walking ability was the precursor to our advancement winds its way through the book.

The second half of the book sees Meredith recap on the discoveries made during the 20th century and the last few years, and where it leaves us now. Based on what we currently know, he declares how human life as we know it was born in Africa and we all probably come from one of the larger families that was in East Africa 200,000 years ago. From there they move forward, into the Middle East, Europe and Asia, leaving behind small traces of DNA to help us map their route.

It is difficult not to be mesmerised by the 4 million year journey our species has taken, and how our development is so closely linked to the earth and the constantly changing climate. It is not unimaginable that our entire history could also be rewritten again based on further discoveries they are bound to make in coming years.

This book is a must for anyone with an interest in Africa, it just might completely change the way you view this amazing continent.

Published in: on January 8, 2015 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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