Stephen Oppenheimer: "OUT OF EDEN: The Peopling of the World"
Reviewed by Richard Abernethy
Published by Constable & Robinson Ltd. 2003 £8.99 paperback.
"Out of Eden" tells the story of how modern humans spread out from the original homeland of Africa to occupy the rest of the world. Modern humans in a biological sense - people with bodies and brains like our own, the ancestors of you and me and every person alive today, or at any time in recorded history.
They were not the first. Older branches of the human family tree inhabited Europe and Asia, as well as Africa, hundreds of thousands of years ago, but appear to have died out leaving no modern descendants. The science of human origins is an exciting and fast-changing field, where new discoveries and theories appear in rapid succession. Stephen Oppenheimer's narrative of our ancestry and origins is deduced mainly from genetic studies of peoples all over the world. Two kinds of DNA are useful for establishing lines of ancestry: mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is inherited in the female line, from mother to child; and non-recombining Y-chromosome DNA (NRY) which is passed in the male line from father to son.
Genetics are combined with archaeology (human remains, tools and artefacts) and studies in prehistoric climate and changes in geography, such as the rise and fall of sea level. Every one of the 6.2 billion people in the world today is descended from the same female ancestor. This woman, known as "Mitochondrial Eve" lived in Africa circa 190,000 years ago.
The author argues that the exodus from Africa took place circa 85,000 years ago, and that the route taken was from Eritraea, across the "Gate of Grief" at the mouth of the Red Sea, to Yemen. One woman, "Out-of-Africa Eve", who was part of, or lived soon after that exodus, is a shared ancestor of all modern humans except Africans and modern African descendants.
After Africa, Asia was the next continent to be populated. Australia, Europe, North Africa and finally the Americas were all reached via Asia. Our cultural roots, as well as our genetic lineage, go back to Africa. Oppenheimer argues this point persuasively, rejecting an earlier and widely held theory that culture was born in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic period, between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago. Cave paintings and carved figurines from this period were taken as evidence of a "human revolution" occuring in Europe, in which people first acquired the capacity for language, abstract thought and artistic creativity. This was attributed to an evolutionary change which increased human intelligence. This view was Eurocentric, projecting the assumptions of the modern age of Western domination onto the distant past. Oppenheimer argues that the basis of all human culture - language, song, dance and painting - had already developed in Africa, before the movement into other continents began. Our common ancestors in Africa may have been mining for pigments and making shell jewellery as long as 100,000 years ago.
As our own species took over the world, earlier human types - Homo helmei in Africa, Neanderthals in Europe - died out. Does this imply a prehistoric genocide? In the absence of direct evidence, the author ventures a guess that our ancestors did exterminate the others. He writes: "This guess is based on our recent track record of successful and attempted genocides in Tasmania, Germany, Rwanda and the Balkans". At this point, where the author turns to an analogy with modern genocides to infer what may have happened in prehistory, I would take issue with his reasoning. Modern genocides have involved modern forms of state and military organisation, ideology and - usually - modern weapons. Even in Rwanda, where most of the killing was done with primitive weapons, it was incited and co-ordinated by the regime, using radio to communicate orders and propaganda.
Now I admit I'm prejudiced - I don't like the idea that our species committed this original sin. Still, I doubt if small groups of hunter-gatherers could have persecuted other types of human so far as to drive them to extinction. Oppenheimer quotes a Filipino version of an Oceanic proverb: "To know where we are going we have to know where we are; to know that we have to know where we came from."
A good reason for reading this book.
6 December 2005