SCIENTIFIC breakthroughs are a bit like the trains on the Southern Suburbs line. You wait for ages for one to show up but then suddenly here’s a couple of them. In that respect, South Africa certainly had plenty to show the world this week – and give it food for thought.
Thursday’s announcement about the discovery of the fossilised bones of 15 bodies from a previously unknown human species, now named Homo naledi, in a cave in Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind is a case in point.
Here indeed was a dramatic breakthrough in evolutionary research, for it is believed the bodies were placed in this almost inaccessible underground chamber after death – a discovery of tremendous importance in the search for the origins of mankind.
As palaeo-anthropologist and research professor at Wits University, Lee Berger, put it, “Until this moment in history we thought the idea of ritualised behaviours directed towards the dead . . . was actually unique to Homo sapiens. We saw ourselves as different. We have now seen, we believe, a species that had that same capability – and it is an extraordinary thing.”
This disposal of the dead suggests, as another scientist put it, “they had an idea that something came afterwards, that they had a concept of an afterlife”.
It was a comment that led to much discussion here at the Mahogany Ridge. These fossils have yet to be dated, so these beings could have lived more than two million years ago or as recently as a few hundred thousand years. Nevertheless it seems they had the imagination to fear not only the known but also the unknown.
It was sad but inevitable that, even as science brought some light into the darkened recesses of that Magaliesberg cave, the blinkered enemies of reason chose to make their presence felt.
So it was with Mathole Motshekga, ANC MP and former Gauteng premier, who has challenged the scientists to a debate over Homo naledi. He told Die Burger the discovery of the fossils was “pseudo-science, which seemed bent on trying to confirm that Africans [were] descendants of baboons”.
This was, he stressed, his own thinking and not the ANC’s. While he valued the scientists’ work, he said “the African story can not only be told with stones and skulls. There is ancient literature the universe that offers a broader perspective.”
While a lot of this “ancient knowledge” had been suppressed, he however had been privy to much of it and was even a self-proclaimed expert on esoterica that, oddly enough, most of us couldn’t be bothered with.
He was thus in a position in July to tell the parliamentary ad hoc committee on Nkandla that, in Zulu tradition, a kraal on this planet reflected one in heaven. In other words, ten cows down here means ten up there.
Which brings us, conveniently, to the week’s other great scientific moment – the rational explanation as to why President Jacob Zuma’s bodyguards had to rush him away from the annual reed dance ceremony at Enyokeni Palace at Nongoma in KwaZulu-Natal last weekend.
It was not, as initially reported, that the guards feared for Zuma’s safety because the stage he was to share with King Goodwill Zwelithini was about to be stormed by hysterical bare-breasted virgins who had been possessed by demons.
No, it seems that the president needed the bathroom. And besides which, as is well understood, not just here at the Ridge but far and wide, it is unlikely that Number One would want to be whisked away from an attack by demon-haunted maidens. “Don’t worry about me,” we imagine him giggling, “but certainly save yourselves. . .”
This however did not mean that some of the women weren’t possessed. Zwelithini did, in fact, declare that “evil spirits” were responsible for their erratic behaviour.
And a Zulu cultural expert has agreed. Nomagugu Ngobese, virginity tester by royal appointment, told reporters she had been transporting young girls to the dance since the mid-1980s but this year’s event had been blighted with much “negative energy”, so clearly much hoodoo voodoo and mumbo jumbo was going down before his nibs.
Science may yet play a meaningful role here. There have been major advances recently in adult diaper technology. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, I’m told, swears by them, and it certainly would explain why this elder statesman of African affairs is capable of sitting happily for hours on end staring off into the middle distance at all those interminable rallies in Harare.
Our president needn’t ever again miss out on the action because of an unwanted emergency.