Draft – Work-in-Progress –
This is a study about paleoanthropological knowledge production, mainly in English, and for the larger public. One major focus is on how the scientific telling of human evolution is blended with spatial/ideological categories of national territory (here Ethiopia and Georgia) and continental terrain (Africa, Europe, Eurasia, and Asia). Another related emphasis is on the role of museums, particularly national museums, in human evolution knowledge production.
Key Words: Human Evolution, Space, Time, Movement, Ritual, Narrative, Identity, Museum, National Territory, Continental Terrain
The first draft of this study was written in 2012, after I took the Dmanisi Summer School. I would like to thank those at the Georgian National Museum who made it possible.
Prologue: A Background Narrative to Writing This Study
I started studying representation of the hominids/hominins of Dmanisi in 2012. In order to provide a background and a parallel to discussing the Dmanisi case, I decided to a discus the famous case of Lucy first. These are the two cases that I am more familiar with.
My interest in sociology of knowledge dates back to my undergraduate years in the early 1970s, when I studies at Shiraz (then Pahlavi) University. I was introduced to the subject by a couple of social science faculty who did their studies at the University of Chicago, were doing their doctoral dissertation research in the region, and teaching at our university. Bruce Livingston, my first anthropology professor, not only introduced me to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but recruited me as his research assistant in a project at the university hospital which studied medical conditions and “beliefs and practices” of selected rural and pastoral nomadic communities in the region. Their bodies were sites for producing a blend of different forms of medical, or health/illnes-related knowledge systems: biomedical, humoral, and “supernatural.”
My interest in paleoanthropology dates back to the early 1970s, when I participated in a masters degree program in anthropology at Portland State University. The graduates were expected to be able to teach introductory four-field anthropology courses. My focus was cultural anthropology, but I had the opportunity of having the late linguistic and ecological anthropologist Wayne Suttles as my advisor.
I followed my interest in history, sociology, and philosophy of science during the seventies at the University of Washington in Seattle while studying for a degree in cultural anthropology. Feyerabend’s Against Method, like Kuhn’s book some years earlier, was creating much debate in the field.
For my formal studies, I took classes by Simon Ottenberg, Steven Harrell, Charles Keyes, and Arthur Klienman, and focused on ritual, communal identity, ecology, political economy, and medical anthropology.
Later, in mid-1990s, I started teaching introductory anthropology courses on a part-time basis, and thus followed advances in the human evolution over the coming years, including those related to the “Out-of-Africa” research and debates.
The Human Evolution Narrative
The story of bovine evolution is not told with the same glamour as the story of human evolution. The narrative of human evolution is about “us, the humans.”
The early human evolution story is impregnated with two kinds of celebrities: (1) paleoanthropological fossilized bodies, and (2) paleoanthropologists who are associated with them. Segments of the evolutionary narrative juxtaposed with discovery narratives of major paleoanthropological celebrities or “personas” are especially popular. These personas come with semi-complete skeletal remains, and each is a somewhat “sacred scientific body.”
Each important discovery makes a new telling of the human evolution narrative possible. To become well-known, a new narrative, based on representation and interpretation of material proof, should question or disqualify the previous dominant narrative or narratives.
A famous example for such a juxtaposition of discovery and evolution narratives is Lucy, a paleoanthropological celebrity, and Don Johanson, a paleoanthropologist who has also become a “celebrity.” Lucy was discovered in the present-day country of Ethiopia in 1974. In this case a scientific narrative of human evolution, or rather one of its important chapters, is popularly told in conjunction with her the narrative of her discovery.
The factor of chance, or accidental discovery, plays an important role in telling about how Lucy was found, as well as in the Dmanisi case, as we will see.
This is how Johanson narrates Lucy’s discovery in the field, in the Hadar region.
Don Johanson with Maurice Taieb
“When I found Lucy in 1974, I was walking in a very desolate, remote part of Ethiopia known as Hadar. At the site we had found fossilized remains of all kinds of animals. But our main goal, of course, was to find as many human ancestor fossils as we could. One day, I was heading back to my Land Rover to drive back to camp, I happened to look over my right shoulder. I saw a fragment of a bone which I recognized as coming from the elbow region in a skeleton. There was a piece of a leg, there was a piece of a pelvis, there was a piece of a jaw, there was a piece of a skull. And I realized almost instantaneously that we had part of a skeleton. I realized that no matter what it was, even if it was from a creature that we already knew about, it was going to be important because so few discoveries had arms associated with legs, bits of skull associated with a pelvis. I realized immediately that this was a terribly important find, but I didn’t realize at the moment how important it would be until we had spent a lot of time in the laboratory studying her.”
A main element of Lucy’s discovery narrative is the celebration that occurred the evening after the discovery. It was a once-acted ritualized event, a ceremony conducted in the camp, with drinking, dancing, and singing, during which the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was played over and over, and this gave birth to the hominid’s nick name.
Besides her nickname, Lucy’s popularity was based on her semi-complete skeleton that told about her size, and, more important in this narrative, her bipedalism, or how she and other members of her species moved about.
Lucy’s bipedalism was associated with the genesis of being human, as distinguished from quadrupedal apes. Lucy was dated around 3.2 millions years ago. Present-day estimates of emergence of bipedalism have pushed it back to between 4.2 and 3.9 years ago, and even 4.4 millions years ago.
Sites of Paleoanthropological Knowledge Production
In knowledge production about paleoanthropological persona, there are three valued, revered, sacred, or sanctified “sites” or “places” that are usually separated, temporally and spatially, from each other. These are:
(1) the field,where the bodily remains are discovered. There is a camp associated with any discovery field.
(2) the lab, where the remains are studied
(3) the museum (and other sites of representation for the public, different forms of media are also used in this process).
Because Ethiopia had no sophisticated labs, the Ethiopian government agreed to let Johanson borrow the fossils. To get her to the United States, he wrapped Lucy in toilet paper, packed her in a yellow, foam-lined suitcase, and carried her aboard a plane. Studying Lucy took some years. But finally, Johanson and his colleagues reached the conclusion that the species had walked upright and had a brain no bigger than a grapefruit. Its estimated size ranged from 3 feet to 5 feet tall and about 60 pounds to 100 pounds. The resulting 1979 paper in the journal Science challenged prevailing evidence that walking upright evolved along with an enlarged brain.
Museums as (Semi-)Sacred Sites
Major or national museums, are among scared, venerated, or revered sites of modern societies. This sacredness is not confined to just religious sites that become “reluctant museums” by becoming part of the national heritage museum. Such sacredness is also not just because of the dominant discourse on museum visits in the “Western museum culture” as a quasi-religious, even transcendent, aesthetic encounter with objects of art and architecture.
Museums came with modernity, and represent much that is associated with modernity, like modern forms of scientific knowledge, and modern forms of communal belonging, such as nationalism. Museums are sites of collected sacred objects and sacred knowledge, including knowledge of the past (particularly the “nation’s past”), displayed for, and represented to the public.
Museums are sacred sites because they are places of strategic rhetorical activity. They shape collective values and social understandings in powerful ways. There are normative and ethical dimensions behind the design of museum displays.
Lucy’s bodily remains are preserved at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. A plaster replica is displayed instead of the original skeleton for the public. Lucy is both a national and an international celebrity. As a sacred paleoanthropological persona, she is much more than her species name, Australopithecus afarensis, or her discovery tag, AL 288-1. In the US, Lucy’s reconstructions are displayed in some major museums. These include a cast of the original skeleton at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, a diorama of Lucy at the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and a reconstruction of Lucy at The Field Museum in Chicago in their Evolving Planet exhibition.
Selam, Lucy’s Baby
Zeresenay Alemseged is an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist (now at the California Academy of Sciences), and the head of the team that, in 2000, discovered another almost complete fossil of the same species as Lucy. It is named Selam, and referred to as Lucy’s Baby.
This is how this find was described in the National Geographic: “The world’s oldest known child has been discovered in East Africa in an area known appropriately as the Cradle of Humanity, The toddler was uncovered in north Ethiopia’s badlands along the Great Rift Valley. The skeleton, belonging to the primitive human species Australopithecus afarensis, is remarkable for its age and completeness. The new find may even trump the superstar fossil of the same species: Lucy.“ In a ritualized event with a potential global audience, a TED talk titled The Search for Humanity’s Roots, Alemseghed, tells about the finding and its importance.
About the Name: “Salem means peace, and in many Ethiopian languages we use that word to celebrate peace in the region and on the planet.” Given the history of modern conflicts and wars that have occurred in the region (during the colonial, the Cold War, and recent decades), choosing the name by Alemseged is important. About the Field Site: “Finding hard evidence is for human evolution is a very complicated systematic scientific endeavor, and usually takes us to places that are remote, hot, hostile and often with no access, 500 km from the capital. You are expected to find something in the middle of nowhere.”
About the Lab Site: “It was like a second birth for the child after 3.3 million years, but the labor was very long, it took 5 years to clear up and study the skull.”
About the Museum Site: “And here (showing a picture) is the minister of tourism of Ethiopia who came to visit the skull in the National Museum of Ethiopia, and you see I am worried trying to protect my child, and you see you can’t trust anybody with this kind of child, even a minister.”
About Common Genealogy and Salem’s Importance Today: “So the most important question is what do we learn from specimens like this. Are we up to the challenge of deciding about the future of the planet? Can we really do better than this primitive small brain ancestor? We, the Homo sapiens, are in a position to decide about the future of the planet.”
Lucy’s (Contested) Tour of US Museums
Lucy’s actual bodily presence in the US (not its replicas or high-tech images), her sacred body’s movement across the country, and its displays at various museums was particularly significant, given widespread contestation of evolution in the American past and present-day society.
Before the US tour Lucy’s body was never exhibited abroad. The tour was approved by the Ethiopian government and organized in collaboration with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. A proportion of the proceeds from the tour went toward modernizing Ethiopia’s museums. The U.S. Department of State also approved the tour. There was controversy in advance of the tour over concerns the fragility of the specimens, with various experts, including prominent paleoanthropologists, like Richard Leakey, publicly stated their opposition. For Leaky, speaking in Kenya, “Ethiopia’s decision to send the Lucy skeleton on a tour of the United States was akin to prostituting the fragile, 3.2 million year-old fossil.”
The Smithsonian Institution and Cleveland Museum of Natural History were among museums that declined to host the exhibits. The director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, for instance, stated that “due to her completeness as a 3.2-million-year-old skeleton, Lucy is a truly exceptional, irreplaceable discovery. Any risk of damage or removal from scientific study, especially when exact replicas of the fossils are indistinguishable for display purposes, seems unnecessary and, in this particular case, not well conceived.”
But, the head of the Houston museum, which was actively involved in Lucy’s US tour, pointed out that his museum has displayed original objects from other museums abroad and in the country, “objects such as the Fabergé eggs from Russia’s treasury, the original Dead Sea scrolls from Israel, and the original U.S. Declaration of Independence, on loan from the American Philosophical Society based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” Because of what they are, and what they represent in terms of communal identity,the objects mentioned by the head of the Houston museum have strong “sacred” attributes. For the curator of the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York Lucy’s US tour was not in the best interest of science: “It would unacceptably increase the risk to the specimen, and even in the best of scenarios would take it out of the scientific arena for an extended period. It is active science that gives Lucy her true value.”
But, it was the possibility of high-tech imaging of Lucy’s body in the US that was provided as scientific justification for bringing her to the US. As a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where imaging was performed, put it, “Lucy almost certainly stood upright and walked on two feet. But scientists differ on how she moved and whether she would have retained apelike climbing abilities. Some of the things that have never been studied on Lucy are her trabecular bone [a spongy type of bone found at the ends of long bones], which informs us about her mode of locomotion—how she used her arms, how she used her legs.”
He also took issue with scientists who have accused organizers of using Lucy’s body as a tourist attraction. “There are lots of informed people out there who would love to see this specimen. “The term ‘tourist’ is a very unfair way of categorizing them.”Lucy has the potential to educate people about human evolution like no other single specimen in the world could. I think it’s going to get people excited about the science.” Tourism is not necessarily a mis-characterization of visits to Lucy’s fossilized body in museums, including those by informed individuals. Various ethnographic studies have shown similarities between modern tourism and pilgrimage, particularly in terms of their involvement of a quest for meaning, or for negotiation of meanings. These are meanings that are larger than those of individual tourists or pilgrims. Pilgrimage and tourism inspire a sense of community.
Visiting Lucy was a pilgrimage, a meaning-creating tour for visiting a sacred body in a sacred site. The movement of Lucy’s body (and other artifacts brought from Ethiopia) happened in a neoclassical capitalist global economy and its crisis cycles. Profits made from the pilgrimage commodity of visiting Lucy also depended on its promotion. Lucy’s displays in different American museums during the tour years attracted different number of visitors. Lucy’s tour of Seattle, in 2009, just after the 2008 economic crisis, for instance, did not attract as many visitors as estimated for planning purposes: “Few lining up to see famous fossil at Pacific Science Center – Lucy traveled across 3.2 million years and thousands of miles to get to Seattle, but officials at the Pacific Science Center say few folks have turned out to see the world’s most famous fossil. Facing up to a half-million-dollar loss on the exhibit, the center laid off 8 percent of its staff and froze wages.”
Campaigns are symbolic or meaning crating movements in space. Lucy’s body was represented as a good-will ambassador, as in a campaign, or a meaning-creating movement across national and international (continental) spaces, and repose or placement in museums across the US. This is how Johanson talks about Lucy for the public in an interview during Lucy’s tour in the U.S.: “Q: As a spokeswoman for human evolution, what does she say? A: (Johanson) Well, I think the major message she brings to all the people who have an opportunity to see her or understand who she was is that the evidence for human evolution is irrefutable. She broadcasts that loud and clear. And not only Lucy, but many of the other fossils that have been found since, that we are all united by our past, that we all have a common history and though we may be vastly different, our origins all lead back to the crucible of human evolution that is Africa. She’s announcing: “You are all my descendants and regardless of who we are, we are all, in fact today, Africans.”
Lucy’s American tour, the movement of her body out of her place of origin in “Africa” to the US, and across the US to be displayed at museums, was represented as humanity’s (particularly Americans’) symbolic reverse movement, in time, and in thought, back to “Africa.”
Africa and Out-of-Africa Exodus in Human Evoution Discourse
“Africa,” as a continent, or a very large constructed spatial-ideological category, plays a major role in the scientific discourse on human evolution. Human evolution, like all forms of evolution, is a process related to climates, so to speak (or, better, climate pulses, and a species ability to adapt to climate change), and not to continents.
Yet, Africa, in this scientific narrative, is a place of origin, with a somewhat taken-for-granted primordial presence. Of course, Johanson is aware of, and is contributing to the body of current research and debates indicating that all of the major events in early hominin evolution have occurred in a segment of that part of Africa referred to as East Africa.
Such recent studies look at human evolution in a larger context of geological, environmental, and climatic changes.
A collection of articles, co-edited by Alemseghed, for example, presents the results of work by many researchers at many sites spanning the East African Pliocene. “The authors take a broad approach that seeks to compare paleoenvironmental and paleoecological patterns across localities and among various taxonomic groups. The aim is to synthesize large amounts of faunal data, and to present the evolution of East African vertebrates in the context of environmental and climatic changes during the Pliocene.”
Over the last two decades, there has been intensive work undertaken to understand this region’s “palaeoclimate and tectonics in order to put together a coherent picture of how the environment of East Africa has varied in the past.
The landscape of East Africa has altered dramatically over the last 10 million years. It has changed from a relatively flat, homogenous region covered with mixed tropical forest, to a varied and heterogeneous environment, with mountains over 4 km high and vegetation ranging from desert to cloud forest.
The progressive rifting of East Africa has also generated numerous lake basins, which are highly sensitive to changes in the local precipitation-evaporation regime, There is now evidence that the presence of deep-water lakes in East Africa were concurrent with major events in hominin evolution. It seems the unusual geology and climate of East Africa created periods of highly variable local climate, which, it has been suggested could have driven hominin speciation, encephalization and dispersal. It is clear that an understanding of East African lakes and their palaeoclimate history is required to understand the context within which humans evolved and eventually left East Africa.
National Territory in the Human Evolution Discourse
Besides the continental terrain, another smaller, and more modern spatial-ideological construct, the national territory, also plays an important role in the human evolutionary narrative.
The modern idea of a territory as a bounded space under the control of a group of people, with fixed boundaries, exclusive internal sovereignty, and equal external status has its history. As shown in The Birth of Territory, the relations between land and power have been understood in a very wide range of texts from the period of classical Greece to seventeenth-century western Europe. The modern concept of territory, as a particular technology of sovereignty, and the sovereign as the master of a territory, was a fundamental, though late moment in the development of Western political thought (17th century). Ethiopia, as represented by the Smithsonian, is an example.
California was Lucy’s last US stop. This is how the California exhibition was described for the public: “It gives the visitors the opportunity of furthering their understanding and place in the human family. Ethiopia is presented as the cradle of mankind, the birthplace of coffee, the purported resting place of the Ark of the Covenant—and home to Lucy, the world’s most famous fossil.“
Lucy’s Return Back (to Africa/Ethiopia)
Lucy’s return back to Ethiopia was welcomed in a ritualized event. This is how her return was described by the Africa Report: “Lucy, or Dinknesh (meaning ‘you are amazing’ in Amharic), had returned from a tour of the United States. The diminutive Lucy showed that Ethiopia was the cradle of mankind. Thousands of visitors, including residents, schoolchildren and tourists, queued to get a glimpse of the fabled Lucy, who returned to her resting place in the basement of the national museum. Lucy is well-loved throughout Ethiopia, so much so that the women’s football team is nicknamed Lucy in her honor. The director of the national museum told The Africa Report that public interest in Lucy was such that the organisers had to extend the exhibition’s duration. “We have had so many visitors, including the prime minister of Ethiopia. He was very happy to see Lucy, and he gave a good message that Africa is the origin of all humankind and that everyone has roots in Ethiopia.”
In an article titled “Lucy Earns $1.5 Million On Tour” in the Ethiopian publication Addis Fortune, the economic, political, and symbolic or identity aspects of the tour are pointed to: “It was a big success for the Ethiopian tourism sector,” said minister of Culture and Tourism, at the press conference held at the National Museum. Ethiopian scientist Alemseged, who accompanied Lucy during her trip, said that the fossil sent a message for the rest of the world that Ethiopia is the foundation of human evolution and the place where human history can be traced to its very beginnings. “Lucy’s massage to humanity is really that we all have common origins,” said Johanson, who also participated in Lucy’s return events. “The original Lucy fossil was put on display at the National Museum for a week then it was put on display at the African Union Summit, after which time, she was returned to the safety of the vaults inside the National Museum.”
Below are some of the main points made during this interview:
Johanson and Alemseged: Lucy and Salem both belong to the same species, Australopithecus afarensis, addition to these two, now we have a store-house of evidence from this species in other places in Africa. So, at so we can also look at changes over time, in different locations, and sexual dimorphosim. Lucy’s pivotal role was to change what we knew by pushing backwards upward walking to over one million years. Salem tells us how that species grew, how they stood when they were 3 years old. Salem existed some 150,000 years before Lucy.
“Their species was around some 800,000 years, our species has been around for a much shorter time. As opposed to other Australopithecus species that were rather localized, besides Ethiopia, it has been in different places like Chade, and Kenya, and Tanzania. Members of Lucy’s species exhibited plasticity, they were able to adapt to many different ecological niches.”
Interviewer: Lucy and Salem also defined you two as scientists. How do you interpret it?
Interviewer: Lucy and Salem also defined you two as scientists. How do you interpret it?
Johanson: When Lucy was discovered, I was a gust, a foreign scientist. That time the field was dominated by foreign scientists. But it is different now. Salem is the most important discovery ever made by an Ethiopian. It is good to see that the feild is not just dominated by foreign scientists.
Alemseged: We both share the same passion about origin of humans, we were blessed by these discoveries when we were both youg. Alemseged about Johanson and Lucy: Don has not only contributed to the scientific community, but also to the public by writing popular books. Lucy has become an ambassodor. Don has used Lucy to tell to the public about human evolution. It is a big challenge in the US and its the educational system. Lucy became a benchmark for future discoveries, not as a species, but as an individual.
Johanson: The people at the hotel all so trilled that Lucy is back. Many ordianry Ethiopians thought that America is going to keep Lucy.
Alemseged: We Ethiopians deeply care about our heritage, a civilization that has 3000 years history. But Lucy is a gift to the whole word. It has helped them to establish their place in time.
Johanson about Lucy’s Home Return Ritualized Event: It was more emotional for me to be present among the crowd waiting at the airport to welcome Lucy. An overwhelming number of people were present. Lucy, somebody I knew, was coming back home. Zeresenay was carrying half of Lucy in a suitcase. It was a second coming back home for her. That moment was priceless. Lucy unites people. Here I was in Ethipia, waiting for Ethiopians bring Lucy bakc, the reverse of what happend in 1978.
Johanson about Lab and Museum: The first time Lucy left home, she was for five years in Cleveland to be studied. Now you have great labs here, and qualified people to do it here in Ethiopia. Six years ago, the museum was a modest building. Now, with the money generated by the tour, Lucy will be in a very large 4 story building with her friends. Nothing was damaged, stolen, or manipulated. Now everything is back at the museum, where they belong.
Obama Meets Lucy
The US president even touched a vertebra from Lucy’s torso after being encouraged by Dr Zeresenay Alemseged, senior curator of anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.
Alemseged said Lucy demonstrated how all human beings are connected, joking: “Every single person, even Donald Trump.”
Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia, commented: “That’s amazing. So Lucy was on the chain to homo sapiens.” He asked “how many jumps” there were between Lucy and homo sapiens.
Alemseged said there were multiple generations in between. Referring to later discoveries, he added, “we have the evidence that homo sapiens indeed emerged in Ethiopia.”
Obama was so fascinated that he came back later with some of the members of Congress who made the trip to Africa. Alemseged explained: “It means he had fun here, and he wanted to share that excitement.”
Scientists present could not recall a time when the bones of Lucy were displayed uncovered. The last time they were displayed outside the museum was two years ago, during the 50th anniversary celebration of the African Union, whose headquarters are in Addis Ababa.
Dr Berhane Asfaw said the bones of Lucy were transported in a group of “multiple cars so people don’t know which one the fossils are in – as you are protecting your president”.
Later, Obama told the Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, and other guests at a state dinner that Lucy is a reminder that the world’s people are part of the same human family.
“You know Ethiopians are an ancient people in an ancient land,” he said. “We honour Ethiopia as the birthplace of humankind. In fact, I just met Lucy, our oldest ancestor. As your great poet laureate wrote, ‘Here is the land where the first harmony in the rainbow was born … Here is the root of the Genesis of Life; the human family was first planted here.’”
Seeing this ancestor, he added, “we are reminded that Ethiopians, Americans, all the people of the world are part of the same human family, the same chain. And as one of the professors who was describing the artifacts correctly pointed out, so much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact. We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.”
Lucy is placed in the Australopithecus “genus” category or branch in the human evolutionary genealogical tree by paleoanthropologists, while the Dmanisi fossils are placed in the Homo genus category. A genus is the next larger branch/category than species, it is composed of a group of closely related “species.” Dmanisi’s case will be discussed in the next post.