On his visit to Ethiopia, U.S. President Barack Obama viewed the fossil remains of three famous human ancestors. These included two belonging to the 3 to 3.8 million-year old hominin species Australopithecus afarensis, “Lucy” and “Selam”), as well as “Ardi” from an older species Ardipithecus ramidus. (Click here for a nice overview of our hominin family tree). Later, he said this:
“When you see our ancestor, 3.5 million years old, 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 (Zeresenay Alemseged) 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.”
I think Obama got it right, which isn’t surprising, since his mother was an anthropologist. Humans everywhere belong to the same species and share common ancestry. We have our differences — some trivial, some significant to us — but our bedrock should be that shared connection. That may be an ideological approach, but the nice thing is that it’s also scientifically accurate.
Myth has value in uniting people who share that myth. But no anthropologist confuses myth with science. Lucy and co are supposed to be science, and as science the ‘ancestral’ connection is theory. It can be discussed, it can disputed, but it should not be given the status of self-evident truth. That’s not the way science (inc anthropology) works.
Yes, it’s a nice myth: we all have one ancestor. To showcase a single fossil or group of fossils provides ritual objects to support the myth. But the myth aspect of Lucy etc is no more than that of Adam and Eve. And sharing a myth does NOT stop people killing each other.
Whether or not the Out of Africa thesis has any basis in fact, we should not confuse myth and science. Hitler and his propagandists did it and we know the result. Obama’s confusion of science and myth is certainly for good rather than bad, but it remains, in this instance, political rhetoric. The fact that Obama’s mother did anthro is rather beside the point, but if he learnt anything from her it might have been .the coexistent nature of myth and ‘reality’.
Hi Robert, I understand what you mean, but I think of this less as myth, and more as ‘perspective.’ It’s true that where Lucy and company fit on our family tree is inexact, but it’s also a fact that all humans (and all of life) go back to some common starting point, whenever that may be. I guess the question is what to do with that fact. Maybe that’s where mythology can creep in, as we build meaning around facts. It’s also true that sharing a myth does not stop violence. To tell someone they are related to me, no matter how close or distant, won’t necessarily change their view of me. Even twins can loathe each other, and they are as closely related as we can get. But with all of the competing myths or perspectives out there, where people get their meaning, I think this is a good one, that emphasizes similarity and our deep, shared history. It’s no panacea, but it’s true and it beats myths based on exceptionalism.
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