For Christmas, I received a copy of Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins by Christa Kuljian, and boy, did it keep me riveted – for days. It’s the story of the hunt for our human ancestors over the past 100 years or so. While it contains all the necessary science-y stuff about the fossil specimens that define our evolution as a species, it’s also a swashbuckling tale of the politics, back-stabbing and, erm, skullduggery involved in the discoveries.
Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins by Christa Kuljian
Author Christa Kuljian, a research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), makes the story of paleoanthropology a decidedly entertaining read. The book is filled with anecdotes from the lives of the main players in the field – Robert Broom, Raymond Dart, Phillip Tobias, Ron Clarke and Lee Berger – and also attempts to include the voices of some female and black people involved, whose contributions were largely written out of the history.
Apart from reading like a good detective novel, Darwin’s Hunch is great because the action mostly happens right on our doorstep, at Wits University’s anatomy department, and about 40km away at the complex of caves now known as the Cradle of Humankind. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with good reason: some of the most important human fossil finds have happened here, from Mrs Ples to Little Foot and the most recent Homo Naledi discoveries.
Maropeng makes for a really good weekend outing. Head to the visitor centre, where you can take a boat ride through our prehistory. Currently, you can see the Homo Naledi fossils on display, and from there you can go on a tour of the Sterkfontein caves. The caves are dark, damp and very narrow in places, so not recommended for very young kids or if you’re claustrophobic.
If you do go, make sure to rub the nose on the bronze bust of Robert Broom at the exit, as generations of school kids have done over the years.