Professorial Inaugural address: Prof Marlize Lombard
The future of human origins research lies in inter-disciplinary research programmes, aimed at understanding gene-culture, brain-culture and gene-brain co-evolution.
According to Marlize Lombard, the Director of the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), human origins researchers will need to integrate fossil, archaeological and genetic records with state-of-the-art methods, and global trends and debates; whilst dedicating the knowledge thus gained to the youth and to their futures in a region that gave birth to our humanness.
Professor Lombard explored the questions what makes us human (Homo sapiens or modern human, i.e., ‘us’), and how, where and when did we gain our humanness, when she delivered her professorial inauguration address, Human Origins in Southern Africa: A Stone Age Archaeologist’s Reflections on the Past and Future (link to address). Prof Lombard’s inaugural took place in the University’s Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Tuesday, 24 July 2018.
Prof Lombard sketched some of the paradoxes and puzzles around the discovery of the first fossil skull of a young hominin child in South Africa almost a century ago.
“Around two million years ago when these early hominins roamed our grasslands and where many fossil discoveries have been made since, mostly by non-South African researchers in a still male dominated field. Yet, the work of South African women scientists is greatly influencing what we are learning about the genetic and cognitive origins of our own species, Homo sapiens,” she said.
Prof Lombard pointed out that Prof Himla Soodyall, a woman geneticist from the University of the Witwatersrand was a trailblazer in the field of mitochondrial DNA, which showed that all living humans stem from one ‘great, great, great … grandmother’, a woman who lived in sub-Saharan Africa (perhaps even southern Africa), and most closely resembled a San woman of today. “Her mentee Carina Schlebusch now works from Uppsala in Sweden, from where she is exploring ancient human DNA in a collaborative project with myself and other scientists in an endeavour to reconstruct the population history of sub-Saharan Africa, aligning it with the archaeological records of the region.”
She highlighted that the artefacts excavated as archaeologists are human-made material culture, the tangible products and extensions of the human mind. “Lyn Wadley, my mentor, A-rated scientist, and the first woman professor in archaeology in South Africa, worked several prominent Stone Age sites, and her cognitive archaeology on material culture from these sites demonstrates how ancient hunter-gatherers had fluid intelligence that allowed them to conceive of and use complex knowledge systems to resolve everyday problems innovatively”.
“It is then to the human mind – a mind that is capable of wisdom and reason, and a mind that is flexible enough to think simultaneously both scientifically and creatively – that I find myself drawn to explore the origins of our humanness here in southern Africa. Working with cognitive scientists from Scandinavia, we are delving into the earliest symbolic behaviours, what stone tools can reveal about human cognitive evolution, and the evolution of causal cognition,” said Prof Lombard.
In a first study of its kind they used EEG (electroencephalography) scanning that provided the first direct neuro-archaeological evidence for praxis, the human ability, based on ‘ideas’ or ‘imaginings’, to knowingly play out different scenarios in our minds before enacting them.
“Such conscious imagination and ideation are quintessential traits of our humanness – there can be no science, no art, and indeed no Fourth Industrial Revolution without them. This way of thinking has its neurological foundations in the precuneus, an area of the brain in which only Homo sapiens displays a general enlargement.”
Prof Lombard stressed activities such as bow hunting was instrumental in shaping the modern human brain. “A brain with which Africans colonised the globe – outwitting and outlasting all other human groups, becoming ancestral to us all. It also alludes to our abilities to gain causal knowledge, and to reason about outcomes based on it, which is key to the human way of thinking.”
Prof Lombard concluded that a few decades ago, lines of research such as neuro-archaeology, and reconstructing the full genomes of people who lived millennia before us were inconceivable. “The future of human origins research now lies in inter-disciplinary research programmes, aimed at understanding gene-culture, brain-culture and gene-brain co-evolution. As human origins researchers, our task will be to integrate fully our fossil, archaeological and genetic records with state-of-the-art methods, and global trends and debates; whilst dedicating the knowledge thus gained to the youth and to their futures in a region that gave birth to our humanness.”