Yesterday we ventured about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg to visit the Maropeng Visitor Center, part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site where some of the earliest human remains have been discovered.
The visitor center tells the story of the evolution of human beings through interpretive and interactive displays, a short indoor boat ride, and a small museum of fossilized remains.
I was fascinated by the natural history. The last time I dug into the origins of man, I was an eleventh-grader — and since I was in a public high school, my materials weren’t exactly the latest — so I was close to a half-century behind in my knowledge. For example, I was aware of Australopithecus, Homo habilis and Homo erectus, but since then new intermediate species have been identified. I was also surprised how relatively recently the scientific consensus had arrived at Africa as the birthplace of humankind. As little as sixty years ago, man was believed to have originated in Asia or Europe.
Unfortunately, the science was somewhat tarnished by propaganda — a common problem with interpretive sites like this. For example, did you know some scientists believe we’re in the midst of a sixth mass extinction caused by man? I do, because I was told it in three different displays. The biggest problem facing mankind is depletion of natural resources and destruction of the environment resulting from over-consumption, according to one set of displays. The biggest problem facing mankind is also income disparity, according to another set of displays not more than a few yards away. No suggestion was offered for how we get the whole world at the same level of income without dramatically increasing global consumption — unless the idea is to make the whole world equally poor. Oh, and did you know mankind could buy its way out of global hunger for what the developed world spends on pet food? Because, you know, the global price of food won’t change with billions of new consumers and no new supply.
Luckily, I was able to separate the science and natural history from the political propaganda and appreciate the site for the former.