In 1925, Jan Smuts was both a prominent politician and an advocate for science. Just after the first of his two terms as prime minister of the Union of South Africa, Smuts served as president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science. It was in this capacity that he spoke out about Raymond Dart's discovery of Australopithecus africanus and his theories about the Taung skull, saying these ideas meant that
South Africa may yet figure as the cradle of mankind, or shall I rather, say, one of the cradles?
He remained in government at the time and actively supported the emerging discipline of paleontology - not just in speeches but in personalised contacts with the scientists who were birthing it. And so, as Christa Kuljan points out in her new book Darwin's Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins, from the beginning of the search for the "cradle" the role of state support - or lack thereof - was essential to how scientific research was conducted in South Africa.
In the book, Kuljan examines the history of South African palaeoanthropology and genetics research as she tries to make sense of science, race and their links to the hunt for human origins. The "hunch" she refers to was Darwin's idea, from 1871, that humans evolved in Africa. He was later proved right. But for a long time European scientists rejected his thesis.
As an intellectual history of the disciplines of paleontology and paleoanthropology, Kuljan's book is especially adept at narrating the interwoven connections between science and power. There are shortcomings, too; she doesn't really grapple with ideas around identity, and could have explored some scientists' bizarre preoccupation with Spiritualism in more depth.
The victory of the National Party (NP) in 1948's elections, as Kuljan shows, threw paleontology into a crisis. This wasn't only because the effusive support shown by Smuts was lost, but also because the meaning of the word "race" changed to suit the ideological ambitions of apartheid's advocates.
The fate of race
Suspicion and complicity were united under the NP's rule. Religion rather than science was used as the foundation of race thinking. But at the same time individual scientists - paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias being the most prominent - were repeatedly asked to endorse the existence of "race" and "races".
Tobias' behaviour when it came to race was ambiguous.
In 1961 he published a paper titled "The Meaning of Race" in which he questioned the academic usefulness of the category of race. But at the same time he was leading the "Campbell Griqua Expedition" which exhumed 35 skeletons of people identified as Griqua. This was one instance of blatant and criminal "grave digging" by anatomists and paleoanthropologists.
The exhumations reveal a blind spot of the era's paleontologists, like Tobias - one that even Kuljan does not observe. As far as we know the word "Griqua" is an invention. The people identified by the name are the epitome of hybridity in South Africa. Tobias and his team were looking for "pure Koranna" and "pure Bushman". They were looking at the "Bushman" once again as the "missing link" - but that's exactly the opposite of what the Griqua were: from their first appearance on the frontier, they were understood to be a cultural melange of indigenous and enslaved forefathers.
The failure to really dig into the question of "Griqua" identity is, I think, one of the glaring absences in Kuljan's account. She could have simply asked the question: what does it mean to erase "hybridity" and replace it with "purity"? By missing this step, the apartheid mania for racial purity is once again left untouched.
Without this acknowledgement of the irrational, "science" remains "rational" - even while "race" seems to derail its assumptions and unhinge even the most talented minds.
The metaphysics of science
This derangement is also evident in the frequency with which believers in the "science of Man" - author J.M. Coetzee's term for the ethnological disciplines - resorted to Spiritualism.
The collision of science and religion caused Robinson to cleave them apart, Kuljan explains, since he saw
science as explaining the material world, but he looked to his spiritual side to explore non-material aspects of the universe (page 127).
He went even further by inviting a clairvoyant from New Zealand, Geoffrey Hodson, to Sterkfontein near Johannesburg to channel the life of the "ape-man" via fossils. The Sterkfontein caves were quickly becoming the most attractive site for finding fossils. Colloquially, even scientists referred to these fossils as a confirmation of an ancestor who was an "ape-man".
Robinson invited Hodson to conjure the life of an "ape-man" since this was presumed to be the main characteristic of the human ancestor who became known as Australopithecus africanus.
These and other resorts to metaphysics are not as well explored in the book as they could have been.
It's not surprising that as human beings scientists can entertain crystal ball visions and table-tapping seances even while claiming to be materialists. The most enduring legacy of these vacillations is that it has bequeathed to us a rather conflicted image of our hominid ancestors.
African Genesis goes viral
In Kuljan's book this conflict revolves around the place of violence in the emergence of homo sapiens. The scientists are not entirely at fault here since it was the sensationalism of Robert Ardrey's book African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man (1961) that catapulted the fragmentary bones and skulls of southern Africa into a full-blown technicolour picture of a hominid ancestor who was a "killer ape".
This reimagined violent ancestor is still with us not only in the continuing endeavour to "humanise" hominids - the liberal reaction - but also in the visceral attack on the recently discovered Homo naledi by those who think of hominids as "apes".
Somewhere in between lies the truth of our ancestors. Kuljan's book is a brave attempt to make this search for our ancestry a recuperable enterprise even while the "killer ape" keeps escaping her scientific confines and invading the imagination of the popular "scientist" and naysayer.
Hlonipha Mokoena does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.