I am an African. I was born in Namibia and raised in South Africa and I can trace my recent genealogy back 13 generations to 1657 in Cape Town. My ancient ancestors – and yours - evolved over millions of years on this continent. Sometime between 120 000 and 80 000 years ago my tribe were among those intrepid souls who ventured out of Africa and managed to survive in the Middle East, western Eurasia and Europe, blending as they went with Denisovans and Neanderthals – archaic humans who had left Africa at least half a million years before.
I have always been intrigued and enthralled by the story of where we come from and who we are. How did Homo sapiens come to be the only version of Homo to fully inhabit 6 out of the 7 continents? This conundrum is gradually being refined and shaped by new and exciting developments in genetics and archaeology. We can already sketch the broad outlines of human history, and the details will become much clearer during the next few decades.
My interest in our past led to an honours degree in archaeology at the University of Cape Town in 1989. During this time, I was involved with an excavation of a particularly remote and spectacular cave site on the flanks of Table Mountain, not far from my home. It was initially thought that the cave had never been inhabited by people but to everyone’s surprise the deeper levels revealed an array of notable stone tools and other debris associated with the Middle Stone Age – suggesting an occupation by Homo sapiens at least 40 000 years ago and possibly much, much earlier.
Filled with curiosity and a burgeoning interest in deciphering the past, I embarked on a 6-year research project at UCT that ultimately culminated in a PhD in palaeoecology. I wanted to understand the complex sequence of environmental changes that had occurred since the last Glacial Maximum (>20 000 years ago) along the arid western regions of the Cape – an area known for its profoundly important archaeological heritage.
It was a fascinating journey back to a time when the planet was climatically very different – extremely cold and much drier. My findings, together with evidence from archaeological sites, provided insights into how hunter-gather people shifted their diets and evolved new strategies and cultural adaptations to cope with climatic and ecological changes.
For the next 2 decades my professional career took many twists and turns as I built a sports wear business, worked as a corporate executive, joined WWF - the world’s leading environmental organisation - and headed up a renewable energy company. But throughout this time, I continued to follow closely the incredible progress in archaeology and genetic research around human origins and much of my free time has been spent reading the latest reports and exploring and documenting remote archaeological sites in various parts of southern Africa.
My passion and interest around the quest to understand our ‘origins’ has become a life-long project and I frequently find myself telling stories to make the topic more accessible. To this end, I have curated a fascinating presentation on human origins called Stones, Bones and Genomes.