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Ancient stones from Olduvai

I have been listening to the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects narrated by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

Inspired by the programme, I visited the British Museum. I was particularly interested in seeing two objects from the cradle of humanity, the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania: the Olduvai stone chopping tool (made 1.8 million years ago) and the Olduvai handaxe (made 1.2 – 1.4 million years ago).

The two objects were, of course, behind glass. But the museum had made available alternative, equally old, stone tools that could be handled under the supervision of an expert. It was a great pleasure to be able to handle a stone chopping tool that was over 1.5 million years old. And the children who were playing with the stone tools before I got my turn seemed to be equally enjoying themselves.

MacGregor describes the significance of the finds at Olduvai:

Leakey’s discoveries in the warm earth of the Rift Valley did more than push humans back in time, they made it clear that all of us descend from those African ancestors, that every one of us is part of a huge African diaspora – we all have Africa in our DNA and all our culture began in the same place.

Listening to the news on the radio, it’s easy to imagine the world is divided into rival tribes and competing civilisations. So it’s good, it’s essential in fact, to be reminded that the idea of our common humanity is not just an enlightenment dream, but a genetic and a cultural reality. It’s something we’ll see again and again in this series.

Singer, songwriter and anthropologist Johnny Clegg puts it more poetically in his song “Scatterlings of Africa”:

Ancient bones from Olduvai
Echoes of the very first cry:
“Who made me, here and why?”
Beneath this copper sun
My very first beginnings
Beneath the copper sky
Lie deeply buried
In the dust of Olduvai

And we are scatterlings of Africa
Both you and I
We are on the road to Phelamanga
Beneath a copper sky
And we are scatterlings of Africa
On a journey to the stars
Far below we leave forever
Dreams of what we were
Hawu beke Mama-ye! Mama-ye!
In the beginning
Beneath the copper sky
Ancient bones
In the dust of Olduvai
Who made us, here, and why

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