Sunday, September 16, 2007

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 Kenya urged huge reversals in the conventional wisdom about the theory of evolution, the chasm in the reporting between the African media and the Euro-American one was astoundingly wide. Almost all of the media in the United States and in Britain who wrote about the news attributed the finding to Maeve Leakey and other Euro-American scientists. The African newspapers, on the other hand, attributed the discovery to Kenyan palaeontologist Dr Fredrick Kyalo Manthi. One writer, writing in the Daily Nation of Kenya, pointed out the discrepancy, while everyone else just reported on the finding and its hard facts.

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

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 Africa is the ancestral home of every single human being alive today on planet Earth. That part remains virtually unchallenged, at least in the scientific community, from the understanding of someone like me who is not an archeologist. What is now being questioned however is the idea that homo habilis existed earlier, out of whom homo erectus evolved, later. The finding in Kenya suggests that both species may have co-existed over a 500,000 year overlap. That is the news that is said to have overturned existing knowledge, leading to a need to rewrite that aspect of the theory of evolution. For our purposes as students of the Pan-African world and its place in the larger world, it is important to examine the politics accompanying this kind of knowledge production, and the effects of how the knowledge is packaged to the rest of the world.

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 Kenya shows our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, calling into question the evolution of our ancestors.” Borenstein went on to explain how “In 2000 Leakey found an old H. erectus complete skull within walking distance of an upper jaw of the H. habilis, and both dated from the same general time period.”

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 Kenya. That pokes holes in the chief theory of man's early evolution - that one of those species evolved from the other.”

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 Kenya”. He quotes “Professor Meave Leakey, palaeontologist and co-director of the Koobi Fora Research Project,” “Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at London's Natural History Museum,” and “Fred Spoor, professor of developmental biology at University College London, and co-author of the paper.” None of the honorific and academic titles used for Maeve Leakey, Chris Stringer and Fred Spoor, are used for Fredrick Manthi, who in fact is Senior Research Scientist, Palaeontology Department, National Museums of Kenya, and has a PhD in the field.

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 Lake Turkana, Kenya”, the paper was co-authored by nine researchers, the first of whom is Fred Spoor, and is ranked first in the byline. Fredrick Kyalo Manthi’s name appears next before last, and is ranked eighth. Not being privy to the reasons and arcane bargains that determine these scientific authorial rankings, we may assume that the ranking is in order of the importance of the contribution by each co-author to the research and the writing.

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 Lake Turkana, the report went on to say “Other authors include Meave G. Leakey and her daughter Louise Leakey, the Kenyan paleontologists who are co-directors of the Koobi Fora Research Project that made the discovery.” The Kenyan scientist, Dr. Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, is mentioned nowhere in the entire article, which goes on to quote other scientists from Harvard University and New York University commenting on the finding.

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 University of Cape Town in South Africa.

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 Kenya function at which the fossils were unveiled, writing that “Instead, it was Dr Frederick [sic] Manthi, a Kenyan researcher who discovered the fossils near Ileret on his birthday seven years ago, who held the ancient bones before the cameras.”

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 Kenya, but also in the world. His seven-year research is likely to send publishers scrambling to rewrite history books.

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 Kenya [sic] Dr Kyalo Manthi’s discovery is diverting the logical line of research in human evolution that anthropologists have come to accept as the logical progression of the species.” The differences in the way the Euro-American media and their African counterparts were framing the ownership of the discovery were too stark to be missed. And it behooves us to point out these discrepancies and analyze the underlying paradigms that drive them.

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 Kenya fossils story make that glaringly clear. What is perhaps not as easy to articulate, however, are the effects this travesty has on the image of the continent, its people, their histories and possible futures.

At one level, there is little to worry about in the images of Africa manufactured by an endless Eurocentric onslaught, especially for audiences that already know about the pernicious effects of racism and the history of global injustice. There are many who know about this, both inside Africa, in the African Diaspora, and even amongst a few discerning, critical-minded Euro-Americans. But there are also many others, both inside Africa and outside, for whom the Eurocentric model is unassailable, the epitome of omniscient truth.

Consider, for example, what Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame told the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to a ubiquitous question posed by Kristof on his recent trip to Rwanda and other African countries. Kristof asked, all too predictably, why Asian countries which once were at par in income levels with African countries are today much richer than their African counterparts. And here was Mr Kagame’s response:

“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 Kamuzu Academy. Today, you still hear educated Malawians spewing forth this kind of froth.

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 Africa and Africans both on the continent and outside. They are not struggles for their own sake; rather, they are struggles about the truth of an entire group of people striving to tell their own stories to a world long used to hearing tales of the hunt from the hunter’s perspective. There is no doubt as to the contributions of Euro-America to human knowledge, and to the continuing relevance of that paradigm to the future of knowledge-making. It is in that light that the world is hugely indebted to the generations of the Leakey family for the enormity of their contributions to human knowledge, and for enabling young scientists like Dr. Manthi to also be a part of that knowledge revolution. However buried inside the story of the production of human knowledge are the unacknowledged contributions of people outside the Euro-American frame. And this constitutes a global injustice that must be addressed.

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.


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thank you

FCORT said...

Great article! Enlightening.

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