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Archive for September, 2015

In Sesotho, the native language of South Africa, Naledi means the rising star but the cave named Naledi, tucked in the depth of earth, is almost a black hole. Millions of years ago, it had devoured many dead, though the exact date is yet to be established. Since last week so much of this dark chamber has been exposed in the media that my blog is not going to reveal anything new. But, still, since it has sparked some memories or thoughts in many of us, I would like to share mine.

To begin with, the news of the discovery of a new species of Hominin in South Africa has taken us back to the 1950s to East Africa, to Tanzania and the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey discovered hominin fossils and reconstructed a part of the human family tree. In September 1960, the National Geographic magazine covered their story and made Leakeys a household name and Africa the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. In 1999 another site, rich in fossils and located in South Africa, in the northwest of Johannesburg was declared ‘Cradle of Humankind’  by UNESCO, this is where Naledi is located.

Africa is also known to the world for its most precious animal bones. In the ‘Heart of Darkness,’ Joseph Conrad reveals their value through his protagonist Charles Marlow. As a child, Marlow had a passion for maps and he remembers several blank spaces – South America, Africa, and Australia. These changed as Marlow reached boyhood: “the map began to fill up with lakes, rivers and names…Congo appeared like a huge snake.” And the fascination of that great river leads him to Africa. What follows in the novella are the atrocities of colonialism and sufferings of humans and animals marked with the dreadful ivory trade. The legacy is not lost and elephants have become one of the most endangered species. This year, after an absence of three decades, Richard Leakey has made a comeback to head the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). An anthropologist and a son of Mary and Louis he is also known to be a strong voice against the poaching of elephants and other wildlife in Kenya.

While Leakeys’ research was building an impressive image of the African continent, Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian writer, was preparing a native’s response to Conrad’s fiction. In 1958, just a year before Mary Leakey discovered and reconstructed a 1.75 million years old skull, Achebe published “Things Fall Apart.” In this masterpiece of postcolonial literature while showcasing the Igbo culture, Achebe actually proves that before the emergence of imperialism an indigenous civilization existed on his land. These are but a few examples of individuals who have explored Africa in different ways and who came to mind as I read the discovery of Naledi cave. Perhaps, it is the ancient most cemetery on planet earth where dead were neither buried nor cremated, just thrown from above or pushed through a very narrow chute into the cave. Though Richard Leakey feels “there has to be another entrance” but others suggest that these “early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber.” If that is true, it will be very hard to conceive that Homo Naledi, with a brain which was half the size of modern humans, were capable of thinking and choosing a site of no return for their dead.

Regardless of all the argument, what is encouraging is the existence of a little window which allows a peep in our ancient past. When Lee R. Bergen first spotted the trove of bones through it, I am sure the moment for him was no less than Howard Carter’s lighting upon the treasures of Tutankhamon. There is no comparison between the two sites, but then from Naledi to Nile is a long journey in time. The good news is that many young men and women are still willing to explore that journey; Naledi expedition constituted a significant number of women in the position of ‘underground astronauts.’ Still  there remains a lot more to be explored in the land strewn with fossils and diamonds below and the rising stars above, Nelson Mandela being above all.

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