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Thursday, April 11, 2013 11:04 am

Clearing up the record on human origins

I write regarding the March 14 article written by Lavern McNeese, titled “Africans lived here first.” It was based upon a presentation entitled “The African-American Presence in the Mississippi Valley Before 1492,” given by Kaba Kamene at the SIU School of Medicine on Feb. 28 as a Black History program.

I did not attend the presentation, so my comments are based upon the information presented in the article. The basic premise is that Africa and Africans provided the ancestors for all of humanity. The summation of the premise is that all humanity, indeed all human accomplishments, are therefore African. Africa is the home of humanity and migrations out of Africa beginning some 1.6 million years ago did eventually spread over the Old World and into the New World. The basic premise is correct and one could extrapolate that humanity is descended from early Africans. But this is also weak logic and an oversimplification of the archaeological record.

The use of the Cahokia site (900 A.D.-1300 A.D.) as a supportive example is only valid because the basic premise is oversimplified; indeed any prehistoric or historic site anywhere in the world could be used as an example. The Cahokia site has no pyramids and does not have a Paleo-Indian occupation but does have more than 100 earthen mounds. Mounds and pyramids have very different construction methods and materials. Their functions can be the location for structures, burials, markers and status depending upon the form, construction and location.

The article only speaks to Homo sapiens (modern humans) and not earlier lineages of human ancestors. Homo sapiens appear in Africa approximately 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. They quickly spread out of Africa and eventually entered the New World from Asia as pre-Paleo-Indian populations by at least 15,000 years ago, not pre-100,000 years ago as stated in the article. There was more than one migration out of Asia into the New World, most likely at least three, with the earliest about 20,000 years ago and the most recent about 6,000 years ago.

Civilization, however it is defined, is only associated with Homo sapiens and has occurred independently in numerous locations and times in both the Old World and the New World. But it is older in the Old World where the generally accepted criteria of civilization appeared in the Near East about 6,000 years ago.

Human biological variation is the result of many complex and interacting variables, including migrations, natural selection, environmental change, biology and cultural factors. Ethnicity is culturally based and has different definitions and meanings to different cultures. For example, there are 20-plus choices by the U. S. Census Bureau which are culturally based. “Ethnicity” as a means to define biological populations has very limited utility because it is based upon cultural factors such as language, religion, dress, economic pursuits or observed biological traits. There are some biological (skeletal) characteristics that are suggestive of ethnic (biological) groups, but I am unaware of mandibular traits as one of those markers.

The goal of informing and improving humanity through the scientific study and presentation of human history is a most noble endeavor. The endeavor should not be based upon a cultural perspective and oversimplified interpretations of scientific data. Humanity is not advanced by such perspectives nor does it correct past inaccuracies.

I would suggest a fuller and scientific presentation of humanity could be gained by reading a current introductory college text, such as Understanding Humans: Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology, 11th edition, by B. Lewis, R. Jurmain and L. Kilgore and published by Wadsworth.

Glen Freimuth, Ph.D., of Rochester is professor emeritus, archaeology, from Richland Community College in Decatur. He taught anthropology for 28 years at Richland and has conducted archaeological research at Cahokia and the surrounding area, in the Caribbean and at various locations in central Illinois.
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