South Africa’s prolific evidence of the origins of life on earth has shed significant new light on how life on our planet has evolved over millions of years. Through our increasing mastery of the two disciplines of palaeontology and astronomy, we are fast becoming the world’s leaders on unveiling the mysteries of the past — how the universe came to be, what made us what we are today and what significance this knowledge may have for our decisions about our future.
We made our mark in the field of palaeontology when an eminent scholar from Wits University, Prof Lee Berger, and his team made the remarkable discovery at the Cradle of Humankind of two fossil skeletons of a previously unknown hominid species, now known as Australopithecus sediba. These early ancestors of ours lived in the area about 2-million years ago. The painstaking research undertaken to ensure the success of this project speaks volumes about the calibre and dedication of our scientists.
On Thursday, Berger and his team had six more articles published in Science, one of the world’s most prestigious journals, coinciding with the launch of the Palaeosciences Centre of Excellence.
Last year, on Africa Day, South Africa was announced as the host country for the lion’s share of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, one of the great science projects of the 21st century. This project is so huge that the SKA central computer will have the processing power of about 100-million personal computers, and the dishes of the SKA will produce 10 times the data of present global internet traffic. It will serve as a giant magnet for science in South Africa. The SKA will be far more sensitive than any existing telescope. It will enable scientists to address fundamental, unanswered questions about our universe, including about the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and quasars and the nature of gravity and dark matter, and it may even answer the perennial question: is there intelligent life out there?
While astronomy explores the universe and the very distant past, the discipline of palaeoscience aims to reveal the history of life on earth — our small part of this universe — over a period extending from deep time to our recent past, but over a period long before there was written history. The answers to these questions cannot be obtained from written records but have to be interpreted from rocks and sediments.
The palaeo-and evolutionary sciences are the only disciplines able to provide reliable information on past biodiversity. They are thus key to understanding not only the development and history of life on earth, but are becoming increasingly important in improving our understanding of the effects of climatic changes and catastrophes on the biodiversity of our planet. This is particularly relevant as the world grapples to understand the current biodiversity crisis in the light of what has been labelled the "sixth extinction", in which more than 50,000 species become extinct every year, and the causes and mechanisms that drive biodiversity change. The rich fossil and archaeological record we have in South Africa makes us one of the few regions in the world offering tangible and comprehensive records of the past and thus the possibility of understanding both past and present changes in biodiversity. Indeed, at least three of the recognised five major global extinctions of the past 500-million years are represented in the rock record of South Africa.
Because of the antiquity of South Africa’s rock record and the fact that South Africa has fossil-bearing rocks of all different ages — from the oldest evidence of life on earth more than 3.5-billion years ago to the relatively recent emergence of modern humans and culture — South Africa has a huge competitive advantage over other countries when it comes to unravelling the history of life on earth. In fact, this unique antiquity of our rock record makes South Africa the only country to boast all of the following: the oldest evidence of life on earth; the oldest multicellular animals; the most primitive land-living plants; the most distant ancestors of dinosaurs; the most complete record of the more than 80-million-year ancestry of mammals; and a remarkable record of the origins of humans and their earliest technological achievements over the past 4-million years.
This uniquely rich and extensive fossil heritage, coupled with the internationally competitive palaeontological, palaeoanthropological and archaeological research undertaken in South Africa, means the story that we have to tell on the development of life is of great international significance. In fact, it is not possible to write a comprehensive text on the development of life on earth without referring extensively to South Africa’s fossil record.
Informed by the recently launched South African Palaeosciences Strategy, we have established a Palaeosciences Centre of Excellence, which is hosted by Wits University together with its partners, the University of Cape Town; Iziko Museums in Cape Town; Albany Museum and Rhodes University in Grahamstown; the National Museum in Bloemfontein; and Ditsong Museum in Pretoria. It will be a hub of groundbreaking multidisciplinary research, with programmes that map the history of life on earth through the fossil record.
It will simultaneously explore the driving mechanisms of biodiversity changes though time. Because of the public’s fascination with ancient history and the importance of understanding the mechanisms for biodiversity change through time, the centre will run an extensive public outreach programme, assisting in providing a context for understanding the present biodiversity crisis. The programme will create the storyline for palaeo-tourism initiatives in an effort to provide much-needed employment.
Palaeoscience is a relatively new discipline — there is still a lot to learn and discover. Just last night, we learnt of new groundbreaking and internationally significant fossil discoveries, and there are more in the pipeline.
The six studies by Berger and his multidisciplinary team of more than 100 scientists, academics, professionals and technicians from South Africa and around the globe describe how Australopithecus sediba walked, chewed and moved. The research indicates that Australopithecus sediba appears to be mosaic in its anatomy and presents a suite of functional complexes that are both different from that predicted for other australopiths, as well as that for early Homo. This study will have implications for interpreting the evolutionary processes that affected the mode and tempo of hominine evolution and the interpretation of the anatomy of less well-preserved species. Research on several individuals from the Malapa site in the Cradle of Humankind continues, with more than 300 early human ancestor remains discovered in recent months amid the remains of hundreds of fossilised flora and fauna, truly making South Africa a global hub for palaeosciences research.
In the famous words of the late Prof Phillip Tobias: "Africa gave the world humanity, and that is no small thing", but the spread of humanity around the world and burgeoning global population growth has had a profound effect on our natural resources and presents us with the greatest of all challenges: what do we need to do to ensure a sustainable future for humanity?
As the SKA seeks to understand the ancient origins of the universe, the Palaeosciences Centre of Excellence will expand on this theme and answer fundamental questions about the origin of life on earth, the development of ecosystems and understanding mass extinctions and their causes.
Written by: Derek Hanekom
Picture credit: Business Day
• Hanekom is minister of science and technology. This article was published on Daily Maverick.