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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In 1913, Hans Reck realized he'd found something big in East Africa, perhaps the oldest human remains ever. He named him for the place he found him, the Olduvai Gorge, and took the skull of Olduvai Man to Germany, along with a rash idea: Humans were significantly older than previously though.

Outraged scholars scoffed, and by the time Reck returned to East Africa, World War I was underway. That part of Africa came under British control, and decades would pass before scientists returned to the place that would eventually surrender key secrets of our origins.

And that's just one of the many stories of cutthroat competition, fraud, misfortune, dedication and brilliance that Martin Meredith recounts in a new book. If you're a student of the history of mankind, who inspired you? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Ruben Navarrette argues that it's time for a new political force, the Tequila Party. But first, historian and journalist But first, historian and journalist Martin Meredith joins us from BBC Studios in Oxford. His new book is "Born In Africa: The Quest For The Origins Of Human Life." Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. MARTIN MEREDITH (Author, "Born In Africa: The Quest For The Origins Of Human Life"): It's good to be with you.

CONAN: And it's interesting to go through the stories. The first to posit that mankind developed in Africa was Charles Darwin.

Mr. MEREDITH: Well, he was speculating. He didn't really have any evidence for that. But he worked out that according to him, our nearest relatives were chimpanzees and gorillas. And it was their ancestors were - or the ancestors of gorillas and chimpanzees were more likely to be found in Africa. And as they were our nearest relatives, then he speculated that the origins of human life would be found in Africa.

But it was an idea that was dismissed for about half a century. And it was only during the 20th century that the evidence on the ground began to emerge, that this piece of Darwin's speculation was likely to prove to be accurate.

CONAN: That evidence emerging in fits and starts, to be kind to a process that seemed to be pretty random at various places and disputed at various times by those who argued that mankind had its origins in Asia, and also by some fraud, the famous hoax Piltdown Man.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes, there was - at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a huge gap, really, in knowledge about human origins. And everybody was looking for what was called, at the time, missing link.

This was an idea that a German biologist had drawn up that he expected to find, between ape populations and the human population, a missing link. His scheme of things was that there couldn't have just been a singular move from being an ape to a human. There had to be somebody who occurred in between.

And so at the beginning of the - end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, a huge amount of effort went into finding the missing link, and the - one possibility was of a group called the Neanderthals, who had been found in Europe. There were other possibilities thought to exist in Asia.

But at a time when, more or less, all a blank had been drawn, the way was open for fraudsters to claim having found elements of bones and tools and evidence of ancient humans to have been found in southern England.

It - the people who committed the hoax certainly knew what they were talking about because they constructed the hopes the hoax to accord with what scientists believed, at the time, represented the missing link. That is that it was someone who had a fairly large brain but an ape-like jaw. So there was a mixture of ingredients.

And so the perpetrators of the hoax constructed this so-called missing link, and it more or less distorted science, science in Britain, for a period of 40 years.

The scientific establishment in Britain took the hoax for being true, and therefore anything which didn't accord with their version of what the missing link was, was dismissed. And it's extraordinary the way in which a whole scientific endeavor can be manipulated in such a way that the real truth, as it were, is hidden for decades.

CONAN: There's a story, for example, of a man named Raymond Dart, who made a discovery in Southern Africa and brought it to England expecting to have contributed significantly to scientific progress and was basically laughed off the map.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes, he was. And it all came from the British scientific establishment, who were - who believed that the key element in any human ancestor must have been a large brain. They believed that the brain led the way in human evolution.

So when Raymond Dart in South Africa found a small-brained missing link, which he called Australopithecus, meaning southern ape. His claims that this represented some link to the human lineage was laughed out of court.

And it wasn't for - he found Australopithecus in 1924, and it wasn't really until the 1950s that it was accepted that his claims for Australopithecus, for being in the direct lineage - the direct human lineage - were validated. So it's an example that scientists cling on to a kind of particular school of thought and refuse to let go even though there is evidence which is beginning to contradict them.

CONAN: And it's interesting. One of the reasons he was mocked was because he'd had the nerve to combine Greek and Latin in one expression. They denounced him for being a poor classicist.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes, I mean, it was an absurd piece of elitism that the members of the British scientific establishment were highly critical of his claims. And a lot was made of the fact that he had combined two different names, Australo, meaning southern, which is of Greek origin, and pithecus, which means ape, from Latin origin, and it was described as being a barbaric combination of Greek and Latin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And he again was scorned for this. And is somehow quite satisfying that at the end of this ordeal, his claims for Australopithecus turned out to be true, although his claims were put in such a way that he exaggerated hugely the evidence that there was, but in the end, he turned out to be right.

CONAN: And it's a broader point that there are existing schools of thought, and when evidence is brought up that contradicts them, they are thrown out of court as if they're unimportant because they don't accord with the largest school of thought, and you mention that. There's also the influence of politics.

We already saw Hans Reck, his interests in the Olduvai Gorge, which turned out to be incredibly important later on, that that was frustrated by the outbreak of the first world war and further developments in South Africa sidetracked by politics, as well.

After several important discoveries in that country, then, well, the Nationalist Party comes to power there, and they are opposed to the idea that dark-skinned humans and white-skinned humans could possibly have a single ancestor.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes. I mean, it was the beginning of the Apartheid era in South Africa, and because South Africa was turning out to be an area of high significance in terms of discovering the origins of human life.

A lot of effort was being made to support all the various investigations going on. And there was an international conference due to take place in South Africa, and everybody was hugely encouraged by what South Africa had to offer.

But the new Apartheid government refused to allow any black delegates to attend. So the international conference had to be transferred elsewhere. And for many years during the Apartheid era, South Africa was shunned but shunned by the international community, although there were a number of brave individual scientists in South Africa who kept at work investigating various kind of fossil sites and cave sites.

And indeed South Africa now has turned out to be one of the most promising areas not only for deciding the origins of human ancestors going back several million years, but it's also become a crucial theater for discovering what modern humans were up to and where they came from and how they lived.

CONAN: So these are two separate controversies, yes the hunt for the earliest origins, our ancestors, but also the search for where it was and when that modern humans emerged.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes. There was one theory, which gained ground increasingly in the 1970s and also carried over into the 1980s, which claimed that there was a multiregional origin for modern humans, that that is sort of - the theory was that, although the earliest stages of human evolution took places in Africa, it was only when various groups of proto-humans left Africa to go to other parts of the world, that this led to the multiregional theory, which said that modern Africans didn't come from Africa, they came from each different region of the world.

CONAN: We're talking with Martin Meredith, author and journalist. His new book is "Born In Africa: The Quest For The Origins Of Human Life." This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the search for the missing link in the evolution of humans, a story of controversy, personal grudges, outright fraud and brilliant discoveries.

One of the best-known families in paleoanthropology is the Leakeys. After decades in the family business, Richard Leakey became fed up with the rivalries and the backstabbing and became a conservationist.

Mr. RICHARD LEAKEY: I was very disappointed by the infighting and the venality of the personalities who, if they didn't like what you found, didn't discuss the fossils but discussed the personalities behind the fossils.

CONAN: Those personalities become vivid in Martin Meredith's latest book. It's titled "Born In Africa." We've posted an excerpt where you can read more about Hans Reck's discovery at Olduvai at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you're a student of the history of mankind, who inspired you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Martin Meredith joins us from BBC Studios in Oxford. And Martin Meredith, at one point, well, you're talking about people who are venal and ambitious. A lot of people would say that pretty well described Richard Leakey, too.

Mr. MEREDITH: Oh, yes. I mean, he was hugely ambitious and quite ruthless. And it's a bit ironic for him to claim that he was fed up with all the infighting that went on when he was one of the greatest infighters of them all.

CONAN: Including against his own father.

Mr. MEREDITH: Well, he didn't - yes, he had a pretty testy relationship with his own father, who was almost kind of revered around the world for being one of the most outstanding paleoanthropologist and archeologists of his time.

And he was always rather embittered by the enormous shadow that his father cast over him. And he was determined to make his own name in the trade and to gain a reputation equal to his father's.

And one of the devices he used was to - when he and his father were asking for more funds from the National Geographic Society in Washington, he suddenly surprised his own father by suggesting that his father's projects weren't worthy of the kind of support the National Geographic were thinking of giving him and that the money should be given to him instead for his own projects.

And he actually kind of did his father a direct - not only humiliated him, in a sense, but did him a direct disservice. So he was ruthless. And indeed, there are a number of other characters who were pretty ruthless.

And it was the only way that many of them actually saw a means of establishing their reputations in a pretty competitive field.

GROSS: You argue that in fact Richard Leakey's ambition was to become the top man, even if that meant displacing the current top man, his father. Then there is another character who comes along, by the name of Donald Johanson, whose ambition is to replace the then-top dog, which is Richard Leakey.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes, I mean, the biggest feud probably of the 20th century in paleoanthropology was really between Richard Leakey, supported in some ways by his mother Mary Leakey, and Don Johanson. And that was a feud which sort of engulfed the entire paleoanthropological community for many years.

And Johanson was quite open and direct about his ambition to supplant Richard Leakey. They started out as friends. They're roughly sort of the same age. Leakey is a white Kenyan, and Don Johanson is an American from a Swedish immigrant family.

They started out by being friends, but they ended up by being pretty vicious rivals.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Dennis(ph), Dennis with us from Rochester in New York.

DENNIS (Caller): Yes. I think one of the inspirational people in modern evolutionary biology is a professor emeritus at Stanford named Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

And he's trying to integrate modern evolutionary biology genes with the anthropological evidence and basically the whole picture cultural of the origin of man. And now with the ability to sequence genes and actually follow specific genes, the genetic evidence for the origin of man in Africa is really overwhelming.

CONAN: That is an issue you go into in quite depth in the second part of your book, Martin Meredith.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes, the genetic evidence and the advances made in genetic technology have pretty well transformed the whole science. There have been extraordinary advances made in the last 10 to 15 years. Some of them have been fossil finds. But certainly the advances in genetics have more or less now underpinned a great deal of our understanding, particularly of the migration of modern humans out of Africa.

There have also been discoveries made in Southern Africa, which give a much clearer understanding of the development of sophisticated tool technology and the use of seafood and the beginning of artistic endeavor in modern humans, starting out in Africa. And all that occurred long before the creative explosion, which occurred in Europe 40,000 years ago or so.

So all these strands of the science, the genetic science, the fossil discoveries and the cultural factors like tool technology and so on, are now all beginning to give us a fairly clear outline of the origins both of human ancestors and also modern humans.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dennis.

DENNIS: You're welcome.

CONAN: And there is also, as you mentioned in the book, but reinforced by even subsequent discoveries or analysis, linguistic discoveries that cite the source of all human languages back to Africa.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes, the science there is much less certain, and that's obviously because there are no ways of physically discovering a language which is now dead and died out. But it is - and there are huge arguments which go on about when language began to develop.

Some kind of - some scientists argue that some forms of vocalization may have occurred as far back as two million years ago. But others insist that it's -that the ability to use some form of language occurred probably as recently as 100,000 years ago and that it wasn't until about 60,000 years ago that Africans had developed a pretty articulate form of language.

But what is certain is that because of the exodus, which took place from Africa to other parts of the world about $60,000 years ago, the groups which left Africa to populate the rest of the world possessed some form of language which they then used in exploring different parts of the world. And it's from that that all the different forms of languages that we have around the world can now be traced.

But the origin of vocalization and language is almost certainly comes from Africa. But exactly when and how, there are huge gaps in our knowledge.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Tom(ph) in Berkeley. I just finished reading Lewis Mumford's "Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development," 1972 or '73, about a generalist, humanist and a formidable writer. Mumford stresses the overemphasis on stone tools simply because they are what was left behind.

Anyone who wishes to describe our long emergence from upright apes to fully human must be willing to speculate and build upon that speculation since there is no real record.

CONAN: And indeed, a lot of the story you tell are people who make discoveries and then seemingly leap to make speculative findings from those studies, sometimes that were not supported by the evidence they had in front of them.

Mr. MEREDITH: Oh, yes, because it's an area where the evidence is sometimes really quite slender. There have been huge arguments about what the evidence means. And in some cases, if you just look at fossil evidence, scientists looking at the same piece of fossil can reach diametrically opposed conclusions about what it represents.

But in fairness to Mumford, he was writing in the 1970s, and a lot of our understanding about early tool technology has occurred since he was writing. And for example, the discovery of the world's oldest tools didn't - or what we think are the world's oldest tools - were not discovered - they were discovered in Ethiopia, but not until about - in the late 1970s. And it wasn't - the dates weren't really sort of validated until the 1980s. And it turns out that the earliest known tools were in existence about two-and-a-half million years ago. And so since Lewis Mumford's time, there have been huge advances in our understanding about the various of stages of tool technological development.

CONAN: Here's an email from another Dennis. He writes: Please ask Mr. Meredith about the geostratigraphy of the Sivalik Hills of the Himalayas. Research has shown the flora and fauna of this region was identical to the Rift Valley in Africa at the same time - the Rift Valley is where Olduvai Gorge is - and Ramapithecus and Homo erectus have both been found in this area. Why then is Australopithecus also have not been found here? It's probably due to the fact research was never conducted in the Hindu world.

Mr. MEREDITH: Well, no. A lot of research and investigation has been carried out in India. I mean, it is pretty remarkable, in fact, that so many discoveries have been made of items which are several million years old. The oldest item of what may be - of a human ancestor comes from the Sahara Desert, and that's seven million years ago.

The amount of fossils that had been discovered in Africa are now fairly substantial. And indeed, the whole nature of australopithecines is pretty well-established. And various other discoveries have been made in India and certainly in Asia, in Indonesia and China, about Homo erectus.

But it may well be that the physical conditions don't exists or the right -that expeditions haven't been put into the right area to enable fossils in places like India to be discovered, which might give further clues as to the whereabouts of human origins.

But I'm always struck by the remarkable discoveries that have been made. We are dealing with landscapes that have changed hugely over the last few million years. I mean there have been huge volcanic eruptions and mountains come and rivers and lakes have come and gone. And it's extraordinary that scientists have managed to have found anything in these landscapes at all.

CONAN: Martin Meredith is our guest, his new book, "Born in Africa." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Jessie on the line, Jessie with us from New Orleans.

JESSIE (Caller): Hi. Yes. I just wanted to discuss Mr. Meredith his ideas on the - when we lost our hair or most of our hair. The one - the theory that always intrigued me the most was one I read in "The "Naked Ape" - the aquatic ape theory, that we lost it due to - swimming and I guess eating seafood and hunting seafood, as well as his ideas about interbreeding between, I guess, Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals.

CONAN: All right, Jessie. Some of us like to think we still have most of our hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...but I think you're probably talking about body hair. But anyway...

JESSIE: Well, I'm quite hairy myself.

CONAN: All right. Martin Meredith.

Mr. MEREDITH: Yes. I mean, it is actually kind of one of those areas where the evidence about hair loss is hugely speculative, not - for obvious reasons. And so scientists can sort of make up whatever theory they like. But there is evidence that a human ancestor known Homo agusta(ph), which basically the first upright walking human ancestor with a fairly kind of modern frame - there is evidence that Homo agasta had lost a certain amount of his body hair and that -he - that particular species was around about 1.6 million years ago. But it's -the evidence is partial and it's probably open to any amount of interpretation and reinterpretation.

One factor which will have - had an effect is the way in which - as humans stood up and walked around on two legs, they shed their body hair as a means of - they needed to be - to have a better cooling system, basically, under the African sun. And the direct rays of the sun would have been harmful in some ways. There is a theory that one of the benefits of standing - of walking on two feet - was that it enabled humans to absorb less of the heat from the sun. And for that reason, it's likely that the body hair was being lost as a result of man - humans - standing up on two feet and walking bipedally.

CONAN: Jesse, thanks very much for the call. And one of the interesting parts of Martin Meredith's book is that this is a developing field, not just fieldwork and the discovery of fossils and sciences like genetics, but all kinds of new technologies that are contributing to more and more information, some of it still very speculative and a lot of it still very controversial, about the origins of human life. Martin Meredith, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. MEREDITH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Martin Meredith's book, "Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life."

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