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Discovery in Algeria
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 11 - 2018

I am writing this from Algeria where it was announced last Thursday evening our human ancestors already lived 2.4 million years ago. This is an important discovery because, so far, the oldest recorded evidence of human existence anywhere in the world comes from Gona in Ethiopia and that dates to 2.6 million years ago.
This discovery, which was unearthed by an international archaeological team in Algeria, was simultaneously announced by Science magazine which, together with Nature, is one of the most reputable scientific periodicals in the world. The news spread like wildfire through the international written and televised press. The next day it appeared in Le Figaro in France, The Atlantic in the US, The Guardian in the UK, El Pais in Spain, La Stampa in Italy and undoubtedly dozens of other major newspapers that I have not had the chance to see. I searched the internet to see whether this discovery was covered by our press and came up with nothing. The scientific event that was the buzz everywhere else in the world had no echo in the Egyptian media which was caught up in the debate over whether gender equality in inheritance was permissible or sinful.
My dear friend, Azzedine Mihoubi, the Algerian minister of culture, invited me to the ceremony organised by his ministry to pay tribute to the scientists who made this important find. The event, which was also attended by Algeria's Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Taher Hajjar (who, incidentally, is the brother of Abdel-Qader Hajjar who once served as Algeria's ambassador to Cairo), was a relatively brief one. Following some formal speeches, certificates of honour were awarded to the scientists (Minister Mihoubi had invited me to take part in presenting these certificates). We then listened to a lecture by the head of the scientific team, Mohamed Sahnouni who, along with archaeologists from France, Australia and Spain, collaborated with their colleagues at the Algerian National Centre for Prehistoric, Anthropological and Historic Research (CNRPAH).
Sahnouni displayed slides of the excavations and the artefacts that were discovered, which were hewn stone tools and the remains of animal bones that bore butchers' marks. Such tools could not have been made by any other creature but man who would have used them to hunt, slaughter and cut the flesh of animals as indicated by the 2.4 million years old marks on the bones discovered at the Ain Boucherit site in the Sétif province in northeast Algeria.
Afterwards, Sahnouni told me that this major scientific discovery is the fruit of 20 years of work. The excavations began in 1998. The digging, itself, was not the hard part, he said. The hard part was the painstaking tests and analyses that the unearthed bones and stones had to be subject to in order to determine their date. It was only after scientists in Spain, Australia and France applied a combination of multiple dating techniques that they determined that these items date back 2.4 million years, making them the second oldest testimony to mankind's existence on earth after the Gona site in Ethiopia.
Until this point, the prevailing scientific theory was that human civilisation originated in East Africa and then eventually spread across the rest of the continent and from there to the rest of the world. However, the relatively short time gap between the Gona and the Ain Boucherit sites has given rise to a new hypothesis which is that human civilisation has multiple origins in view of the existence of human habitats in several places in east and west Africa at the same time.
This is why a discovery of this sort is so important, not just to Algeria, but to all mankind. According to Science magazine, it will upend prevailing theologies on human origins and evolution. These theories have developed considerably during recent years, especially since the “Out of Africa” theory gained pre-eminence in the last quarter of the 20th century. After decades of uncertainty, it was established that human beings originated in East Africa and then, after a long time, spread to the rest of the world. The Algerian discoveries indicate that they spread to several places in Africa long before the waves of migration some 600,000-700,000 years ago brought them to Asia and Europe. Some years ago, archaeologists discovered a human jaw in a part of Palestine that now falls in modern Israel and dated to between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago.
I asked Sahnouni whether the humans discovered in Algeria might have migrated from Ethiopia eastward towards North Africa.
Theoretically it is possible, he answered. However, he stressed that we have to bear in mind that humans in those remote times did not migrate as readily as they do today. They feared wild beasts and the weather. They only had their feet to carry them across rivers and over mountains in the blistering heat of summer or the freezing cold of winter. Therefore, it is likely that the cradle of human civilisation was not just in East Africa, as we used to believe, but that it was disseminated across many parts of this continent. Indeed, this is what the findings at Ain Boucherit tell us: that the entire continent of Africa was the cradle of mankind.


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