Out of Africa: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory shines his unique torch on another murky corner of Buxton Museum’s collections:

In 1921, miners working at Broken Hill, Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) discovered the skull of an ancestor of humanity. Reports of this discovery came into the collections at Buxton Museum, via the geologists William Boyd Dawkins and J.W. Jackson. Both men took a keen interest in scientific discoveries outside of as well as within the British Isles and in many different fields.

DERSB-71609-Primative Skull from Rhodesia

It is interesting to compare scientific knowledge from the 1920s with that of the time of writing. Experts compared the skull from Zambia with the remains from Piltdown in Britain in the hope of shedding some light on it. They were wasting their time; the fossils from Piltdown were later exposed as a hoax. One expert lacking the benefit of hindsight, found the Zambian skull was less important than Piltdown in our understanding of early humans. Radiocarbon dating had not been developed so there were arguments over the African fossil’s age. Since it was buried under layers of stones and animal bones it was certainly old, but no one could be sure how ancient.

DERSB-71616

Despite all that, I was struck by how contemporary some of the comments were. One report said that Charles Darwin had predicted that Africa would yield important fossil humans, indeed might be the cradle of humanity. This was a minority opinion until the 1950s but clearly not unheard of before then. Experts also deduced that the skull’s owner had walked upright as well as modern humans can. Comparisons were made with a fossil called Pithecanthropus which came from Java. This has then been re-classified as Homo Erectus but unlike Piltdown man, it is still accepted as a genuine prehistoric material. Remains of European Neanderthals were also used for comparison. One writer says “the Rhodesian man has one of the links in the chain of which many species would be found.” That turned out to be correct.

Today the fossil from Zambia is classified as Homo Heidelbergensis a probable ancestor of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that lived in Europe and Africa from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago. Scientists have dated their bones, measured their brain cases and collected their stone tools. Yet questions remain: Did they have language? If not, how close to it did they come? Did they bury their dead? Or tell stories? Or paint themselves with ochre? Many believe that they did but can we be sure? Even in 2019, we don’t know everything about our ancestors.

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