Hedging hegemony: Dr Kyalo Manthi, African fossils & the ownership of science
When the news broke out in August of this year that new archaeological research in
The production and institutionalization of what becomes acceptable as knowledge is riveted with racial and geo-strategic politics, and is never neutral. A closer look at how this politics unraveled in the reportage of Dr Kyalo Manthi’s momentous discovery reveals how this tag-of-war still goes on today when most of us would like to believe that knowledge is power, and is unmediated by interest. Unfortunately the reality is not as palatable as that.
Dr. Kyalo Manthi. Photo courtesy of http://www.prehistoryclubkenya.org
The facts of the discovery are that the conventional scientific view has been that we human beings of today, homo sapiens, are an evolution out of our ancestor who walked erect, homo erectus. Homo erectus is supposed to have evolved out of an earlier ancestor, homo habilis. The earliest fossils for both species have been found in East Africa, leading most scientists to assert that
The earliest date the story was carried was August 8, starting with The Washington Post whose headline was “Fossil shakes evolutionary tree”, by Seth Borenstein, of the Associated Press (AP). Borenstein wrote: “The new research by famed paleontologist Maeve Leakey in
A slightly modified version of the same AP story by Borenstein appeared in the Denver Post the next day. “The discovery by Meave Leakey, a member of a famous family of paleontologists, shows that two species of early human ancestors lived at the same time in
On the same day the British Broadcasting Corporation published an article on its website, on the same story, written by James Urquhart, titled “Finds test human origins theory.” While the BBC story did not make the overt claim made by The Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein that the research was done by Maeve Leakey, it is still revealing to look at who Urquhart mostly quoted. To his credit, James Urquhart does state that the skull causing this major scientific shift was “discovered by Frederick Manthi of the National Museums of
Appearing on the 9th of August was the actual paper, 4 pages long, announcing the finding, in the scientific journal Nature. Titled “Implications of new early Homo fossils from Ileret, east of
Also coming out on August 9th was an article in the New York Times, titled “Kenya Fossils Challenge Linear Evolution to Homo Sapiens,” written by John Noble Wilford. As with the BBC report, the New York Times’ Wilford also avoided overt claim as to which individual actually made the discovery, instead opting to quote Fred Spoor as “lead author”, and attributing to him his rightful titles. Stating that the fossils were found east of
Meanwhile, the story as it appeared in the Kenyan media was starkly different. The Daily Nation of August 10 titled its story “New discovery shakes theory of evolution,” written by Muchemi Wachira and “Agencies.” Giving due acknowledgement to the journal Nature, and leaving out who the lead author was, the story was unequivocal as to who actually made the discovery:
“A Kenyan scientist has made a discovery which brings into question the long-held view of human evolution.
Dr Frederick Manthi, a researcher with the National Museums of Kenya, made the discovery that questioned the theory that human beings evolved from Homo Habilis to Homo Erectus.
Dr Manthi’s research over seven years suggests that Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus actually lived close together for half a million years.”
Wachira’s story went on to quote another Kenyan scientist, Dr Emma Mbua, “the head of Earth Sciences at the Museums”, and also included quotes from Dr Susan Anton (a co-author in the Nature article), in addition to naming Maeve and her daughter Louise Leakey. Wachira gave a detailed account of Dr Manthi and his work, including the specific day on which he found the skull, while taking a leisurely stroll with his friends, on his birthday. We learn, through Wachira, how Dr Manthi started off his career as an archaeologist, until getting his PhD in 2006 at the
In that same edition of The Daily Nation was another article, by Tim Querengesser, whose title expressed a sharp and immediate awareness of the hegemonic bias in the way the news was being reported: “Slowly by slowly, reluctant world starts to credit Kenyan scientists.” Querengesser observed that Meave Leakey did not attend the National Museums of
Qurengesser added that “Dr Manthi’s recognition marked the first time the Leakey name was not being attributed, rightly or wrongly, to major archaeological discoveries in Kenya.” Querengesser was apparently aware of how the news had already been framed in the Euro-American media, and found it necessary to address the issue. “Although Dr Manthi is being recognised by some international media for finding the skull and jawbone, several stories running in British and US newspapers still credit a “team led by Meave Leakey” for the find.”
The Daily Nation continued with the news the following day, August 11th, titling its next story “Scientist digs his way into history books.” The first two paragraphs, as in the previous day’s story, left no doubt as to who the paradigm shifting discovery belonged to:
“He may not have been known outside the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), where he works, but his discovery has made him a household name not only in
Dr Fredrick Kyalo Manthi’s discovery questions the theory that the evolution of man moves from homo habilis to homo erectus.”
Appearing several days layer, a commentary by Muthoni Thang’wa in another Kenyan paper, The Standard, continued in the same spirit as the earlier Kenyan writers. Thang’wa wrote: “National Museums of
The question for us now becomes how to move beyond the cliché that describes the blatant anti-Africa biases not only in the EuroAmerican media, but also in the entire knowledge enterprise. Africa and Africans continue to occupy a liminal, marginal space in the Euro-American imaginary, and the media representations of the
At one level, there is little to worry about in the images of
Consider, for example, what
“I’m hesitant to talk about the issue of culture, but I have to -- and we have to work on it -- that culture of hard work, that culture of being ambitious and wanting to achieve [. . .] I believe that those values were in Africans, but I don’t know what dampened it -- what killed it” (NYT, July 5, 2007). Kristof goes on in the article to say that the Rwandan president reads the Harvard Business Review. Perhaps the Harvard Business Review has never published in-depth studies on how Asia has managed globalization, and the forces Africa has had to content with, but for an African president to assert that Africans no longer have ambition and a hard work ethic, and being clueless as to why, does nothing to stave off the hegemony of Eurocentric beliefs about Africa and Africans.
So at another level there is enough to worry about when African leaders and elites harbor inaccurate, uninformed beliefs about their own people. In Malawi we used to have Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda who drilled it into the nation that black people were intellectually inferior (except for himself), and that the best education one could afford was a European classical one, replete with Greek and Latin. He decreed that no black person was qualified enough to teach at his Eton-carbon copy
But we also have young Malawians and Africans who see through the pseudo-intellectual basis of this kind of unreason. They are the ones who are uplifting the country and the continent in many innovative ways only the youth know best. I have already written about the likes of William Kamkwamba, Andrews Nchessie, and many others for whom it would be an insult to consider them as lacking in a hard work ethic, ambition and a desire for achievement.
The story of Dr Kyalo Manthi and the way the Euro-American media has portrayed it is another reminder of the ongoing struggles for the re-assertion of
The story of human knowledge is a very long one, going back to the earliest moments when our ancestors created art, culture and wisdom for utilizing nature’s nurture as well as surviving its harshest elements. Those capabilities have evolved over countless millennia, to the present when we can blog, and even clog an ever-expanding cyberspace. Hegemonic discourse holds that one group of people owns the means for producing this human knowledge, but the discoveries made by scientists, including Dr Kyalo Manthi, show us that all of human kind has been a part of that knowledge-making process. As one imperative in uMunthu epistemology tells us, the success of one is the success of all, one compelling reason for us to celebrate the contributions of those on the periphery of global hegemony.