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Alan Paton Awards shortlist: Christa Kuljian talks about her book Darwin's Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins

Published in the Sunday Times

Christa Kuljian discusses her Alan Paton Award shortlisted book Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins, the impact colonialism had on studying human evolution, the latest developments in science and the controversy surrounding the Out of Africa theory.

Why this book, and why now?
In the early 1980s, I studied the history of science at Harvard with palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It was then that I learned how science is shaped by its social and political context and how racism affected the work of certain scientists in the past. Building on these interests and given South Africa’s role in human origins research over the past century, I put together a book proposal in 2013 that asked questions such as: What impact did colonialism have on the views of scientists studying human evolution? What influence did apartheid have on the search? How have the changing scientific views about race, and racism, affected the efforts to understand human evolution? As I began my research, I saw that the stories I was unearthing were of relevance to all of us today.

Can you describe your process of research?
In addition to reading books, journal articles, newspaper clippings and online sources, and watching films and videos, I conducted interviews and had personal correspondence with many people in the fields of palaeoanthropology and genetics, here in South Africa and around the world. I made numerous site visits to the Cradle of Humankind and delved into the archives at Wits University, UCT, in Pretoria and in the U.S. My research and writing continued for three years.

Why did scientists reject Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa?
When Darwin wrote about this theory in 1871, European scientists had just begun the search for ancient fossils in an effort to understand human evolution. They had found Neanderthal fossils in Germany in 1856 and later in Belgium, France and Croatia. Many European scientists saw Europeans as “civilised” and perceived societies outside of Europe as less evolved. The concepts of a hierarchy of race, and white superiority were at play. These assumptions affected where they focused the search. While some explorers started in England, and others headed to Asia, none of them were looking in Africa.

Charles Darwin

 

The book shows that science is often shaped by the social and political context of the time. How has it shaped the search for human origins in South Africa?
This is really, at its core, what the book is about. Part One explores the ways in which colonial thinking affected scientists in the late 1800s through to the 1930s. What influenced Robert Broom? What decisions and choices did Raymond Dart make at the time? Part Two reveals some of the ways in which the impact of World War II and the imposition of apartheid shaped thinking in the 1940s through to the 1980s and introduces Dart’s successor, Phillip Tobias. Part Three follows scientists who have been influenced by some of the social and political changes underway in South Africa in the 1990s up to the present.

Raymond Dart believed that humans are naturally violent, but the thinking around this has changed, hasn’t it?
This is one example of how new research and a changing social context can result in completely different scientific conclusions and a very different public response. Dart believed, based on his research, that the bones he saw represented weapons and that human ancestors were naturally violent. The concept of humans as a “killer ape” became hugely popular. However, years later, another South African scientist, Bob Brain conducted similar research and concluded that the bones he saw were not weapons but that they remained because they were dense and hard to chew.

Raymond Dart

 

What was the most disturbing thing you uncovered in your research?
The most disturbing result of my research was finding out about the life and death of a woman named /Keri-/Keri who lived with her family in the Kalahari in the 1920s and 30s. Raymond Dart led a Wits expedition to the Kalahari in 1936 and met /Keri-/Keri as part of his research to understand the “Bushman” anatomy which he believed would provide him with a clue toward understanding human evolution. He referred to them as “living fossils.” Even before /Keri-/Keri passed away in 1939, Dart arranged for her skeleton to be brought to Wits to become part of the Raymond Dart Human Skeleton Collection. I tried to find out more about /Keri-/Keri and her family, her life and death. The entire painful story conveyed that Dart, and other scientists at the time, treated human beings as specimens. For 50 years, while /Keri-/Keri’s family and community were decimated and dispersed, /Keri-/Keri’s skeleton remained on a shelf in the human skeleton collection. In the late 1980s or early 90s, her skeleton went missing. It is not clear if it was stolen, or misplaced. For over six decades, at the Department of Anatomy at Wits Medical School, /Keri-/Keri’s body cast stood on display.

What were your biggest challenges in writing the book?
One major challenge was the absence of information in the archives. There are a number of people that I read about – Saul Sithole, Daniel Mosehle and George Moenda for example – who were technicians working in the field of palaeoanthropology in South Africa who were largely unacknowledged for their contributions, and never had the opportunity to study formally in the sciences. I wanted to share with the reader about their lives and their perspectives on the science of human origins. However, in most cases, I found dead ends and very little documentation. This is part of the process of how stories are told often from the perspective of people with power, and I found this frustrating.

What are the latest developments in this field of science?
Scientific knowledge is changing and growing so quickly, and advances are being made in so many inter-related scientific fields, it is difficult to keep pace with new information. The ability to extract DNA from ancient bones, for example, is one new area of science that is having an impact on the field of human origins, which brings together the work of archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists and geneticists. Many fossil finds in the last decade from around the world and right here in South Africa, with the Homo naledi find in September 2015 and last week’s announcement regarding further finds in the Cradle of Humankind, raise new questions about our past.

Homo naledi

 

Zwelinzima Vavi and ANC MP Mathole Motshekga accused Professor Lee Berger of suggesting that black people were descended from baboons. What was your response to the controversy?
Many South Africans question the concept of human evolution. I believe that Vavi’s comment came from the impact of South Africa’s colonial and racist past. Vavi said that over many generations, the racist insult comparing black people to baboons has resulted in people questioning the validity of science. “It’s in insults like this that make some of us to question the whole thing,” said Vavi.
One possible factor that could have contributed to the controversy was the artistic reconstruction of what Homo naledi might have looked like. Created by palaeo-artist John Gurche, the image was presented as part of the announcement in September 2015 and flooded the media. In some cases, the image was used in social media alongside insults to black people so many people found it offensive.
All living humans are members of the same species Homo sapiens. The Out of Africa theory, and the genetic evidence that underpins it, shows that all seven billion people on earth have common origins in Africa, from as recently as 100,000 years ago. There are always dangers in terms of how information can be used and abused. But in conducting research about human evolution, there is the potential to draw lessons from our past, and develop a new vision for the future that recognises the dignity of all human beings.
 

Darwin's Hunch

Book details

WiSER discussion: Christa Kuljian on the case of human origins

Christa Kuljian, the author of the acclaimed Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins will be in discussion with Hlonipha Mokoena on Wednesday 17 May, at Wits University’s WiSER Seminar Room. The discussion will be chaired by Sarah Nutall.

Scientists and their research are often shaped by the prevailing social and political context. Darwin’s Hunch, recently shortlisted for the prestigious 2017 Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction, explores this trend, and provides fresh insight on the search for human origins in South Africa over the past century.

Kuljian asks “What impact did colonialism have on the views of scientists studying human evolution in the early twentieth century? What influence did apartheid have on the search? How have the changing scientific views about race, and racism, affected efforts to understand human evolution?”

Darwin’s Hunch was published in November 2016. We will take a close and sustained look at the arguments Kuljian makes, the pressures that her book puts on the scientific community in South Africa, the implications of publishing this book at this time, and the outcomes and challenges, political and social, of what we now know, through this detailed and meticulous research.

Professor Mokoena will engage Christa Kuljian in bold, outspoken and forthright discussion on this complicated and contested topic.

Event Details

2017 Alan Paton shortlist

 
 
It is finally time to reveal the shortlist for South Africa’s most prestigious book award, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The winner, who will receive R100 000, will be announced on Saturday June 24.
 
 

The Alan Paton Award
The shortlist for the 2017 Alan Paton Award reflects a diverse range of subjects and historical eras: from human origins to the Marikana of just three years ago, from Cape Town today to wartime Berlin. “These are books that raise critical questions about our past, present and future,” says chairperson Pippa Green. “The big question being asked is who are we?”

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways, Sean Christie (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
This is the fascinating account of journalist Sean Christie’s time spent amongst the Tanzanian stowaways who live rough under the Nelson Mandela Boulevard flyover in Cape Town. The judges commented on his “brilliant eye” and sympathetic treatment of this subculture. “He’s something of an anti-hero, not the usual macho observer. It is heartbreaking.”

Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins, Christa Kuljian (Jacana Media)
Wits academic Christa Kuljian studied the History of Science at Harvard some years ago, and has turned her eye to the search for human origins in SA, and the contemporary context that sullied it. She examines how the thinking on race blighted science for centuries, setting up stereotypes that survive today, “This is the best science and sociology book I’ve read in a long time,” commented one judge. “This book should be taught in high schools.”

Murder at Small Koppie: The Real Story of the Marikana Massacre by Greg Marinovich
The judging panel was united in its admiration of Greg Marinovich’s account of the Marikana massacre. Drawing on his own exhaustive investigations, eyewitness accounts and the findings of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry set up by President Jacob Zuma, he reconstructs that fateful day as well as the events leading up to it. It is damning, gripping reportage, the best book by far, said the judges, on this most diabolical event in our recent history.

My Own Liberator: A Memoir, Dikgang Moseneke (Picador Africa)
The autobiography of South Africa’s retired Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Dikgang Moseneke is an impressive book, explaining how his life was shaped. He recounts the history of his forebears and pays homage to the many communities that played a role in his development. “He is a great figure,” said one judge, “this is a very moving story.”

Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa, Steven Robins (Penguin Books)
In this gutting, deeply personal book, sociologist Steven Robins chronicles his search for the members of his family who died in Germany during the war. His father had fled the Nazis and found shelter in Port Elizabeth, but never spoke a word about the family he left there. When Robins stumbles upon a hidden collection of letters he is able to “hear” those people for the first time. “What is also fascinating is that Robins writes of the Basters in Nambia and the eugenic experiments on indigenous people there which was the starting point for Nazi horrors.”
 

View the 2017 longlist here.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard - Life In Cape Town's Stowaway Underground

Book details

 

Darwin's Hunch

 
 
 
 

Murder at Small Koppie

 
 

My Own Liberator

 
 

Letters of Stone

Wildlife at War in Angola examines the post-colonial tragedy of one of Africa's most biologically diverse countries

Wildlife at War in Angola: The Rise and Fall of an African Eden describes in fascinating detail the wildlife, wild places and wild personalities that occupied Angola’s conservation landscape through four decades of war and a decade of peace.

Intrigues, assassinations, corruption, greed and incompetence ‒ during the colonial era, through the horrific war and most especially throughout the crony-capitalist kleptocracy of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos ‒ have resulted in the extinction of most of its formerly abundant wildlife populations and the decay and erosion of a once endless Eden.

This is the first book to integrate the political, economic and environmental threads that account for the post-colonial tragedy of one of Africa’s most biologically diverse countries. A corrupt government has robbed the country of its vast oil and diamond wealth, of its environmental health, of its morality and of its soul. It was not always so.

Brian J. Huntley was appointed ecologist to Angola’s National Parks in 1971. But the vast open spaces, peaceful stillness and tropical luxuriance that he found during the four years they spent exploring and developing the country’s wildlife reserves was not to last. The powder keg of anger against centuries of colonial exploitation ‒ of slavery, of forced labour and of an abusive system of penal settlement ‒ could not be contained. Bloody nationalist uprisings led to the abandonment of Angola by Portugal and the transition from random guerrilla skirmishes with a colonial army into a brutal civil war that cost over one million lives. Despite its scarred history, the author believes the country can still rebuild its national parks and save much of its wildlife and wilderness. But this can only happen if the current ageing autocracy makes space for a new generation of Angolan conservationists.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian J. Huntley is an internationally respected conservationist with over 50 years of field research and management experience in many African countries and sub-Antarctic islands. He has initiated and led to successful conclusion several major inter-disciplinary cooperative research and institutional development projects from the Cape to the Congo. Following retirement in 2009 as CEO of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, he is currently engaged as an independent consultant on conservation research and implementation projects in many African countries and for various United Nations agencies.
 
 

Book details

2017 Alan Paton non-fiction longlist

Published in the Sunday Times


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Announcing the longlists for the most prestigious annual literary awards, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The shortlists will be announced in May.

This is the 28th year the Alan Paton Award will be bestowed on a book that presents “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, and that demonstrates “compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

This year’s Alan Paton Award judging panel is Pippa Green (chair), Tinyiko Maluleke and Johann Kriegler.

2017 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award Judges

Pippa Green (chair) Green is communications and media manager of the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth. Head of the journalism programme at the University of Pretoria from 2009 to 2014, she was educated at the University of Cape Town and Columbia University in New York City, where she earned an MSc in journalism. She is the author of Choice, not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel (2008). Green is a recipient of many awards such as the Nieman Fellowship.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tinyiko Maluleke Maluleke serves as adviser to the principal and vice-chancellor at the University of Pretoria, and is an extraordinary professor at the University of South Africa. He has been a visiting professor at various universities, including Hamburg University in Germany and Duke University in the US. He is an elected member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a columnist for the Mail & Guardian and Sunday Independent newspapers, and reviews books for the Sunday Times.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Johann Kriegler After 25 years at the bar and 20 on the bench, when Kriegler’s term as a Constitutional Court judge ended he looked forward to sitting on the stoep and catching up on all the books he’d missed out on. It didn’t work out like that. Having chaired the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 elections, he has been engaged by the African Union, the UN and a variety of NGOs in a range of electoral and judicial activities across the world. At home, arbitrations, advocacy training and his activities in human-rights and rule-of-law organisations occupy much of his time.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Chairperson Pippa Green’s remarks on the Alan Paton Award longlist:

There are 27 books on the longlist. This is more than usual but reflects the excellence and originality of many of the non-fiction books published in 2016. They include a number of memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, which tell the stories of intimate family relationships against a backdrop of the huge historical forces that have swept the last century. There are books about and by key public figures; there are those that focus on fascinating people who are not well known, such as stowaways, gangsters, police officers, miners, transgender people, and foot soldiers. There are important topics covered too: the history of the independent trade union movement, of science, of African languages, as well as key moments of disjuncture in our current society. The books raise critical questions about our past, present and future. Together they tell a story of our fractured and bound humanity, not only in South Africa but around the world and through time. — Pippa Green

Last year’s Alan Paton Award winner was Pumla Dineo Gqola for her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, published by MF Books Joburg. The winners of the 2017 Alan Paton Award and Barry Ronge Fiction Prize will each receive R100 000.

Read:

Entomology enthusiasts, this one's for you - Insectopedia: The Secret World of Southern African Insects

Insectopedia

Insectopedia uncovers the fascinating and infinitely varied world of insects. It explores their intriguing behaviour and biology – from mating and breeding, metamorphosis and movement to sight, smell, hearing and their adaptations to heat and cold.

A chapter on superorganisms probes the curious phenomenon of social communities among insects; another covers the critical role that these creatures play in maintaining the fragile balance of life on our planet.

The book concludes with a 60-page illustrated field guide, describing most insect orders and their main families. Previously published as Insectlopedia of Southern Africa, this fully revised and redesigned edition includes up-to-date information throughout, an expanded ID section, and several hundred new photographs.

Book details