In July 2015, I found myself in a rare spot making very important re-marks in what can be described as unusual and unique setting. It is not my typical day to be around world leaders inside state palaces; and this one was extraordinary in many ways. My role in this particu-lar situation was to talk about a subject that I know well but to a spe-cial audience - none other than the current US President, Barack Obama in the presence of his Ethiopian counterpart, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegne, who leads the second most populous coun-try in Africa with a population size of over 90 million. Cognizant of the momentous task, I strived to lighten it up by marrying humor with serious issues pertaining to humanity. Little did I know then that my remarks would end up being part of President Obama’s formal speech at a state dinner and in the headquarters of the African Un-ion. Nor did I, for a second, think my comments would be media sensation and even make it to some very popular late night shows including Jon Stewart’s, the Daily Show. In a sketch that lasted about 4 minutes, Stewart, while concurring with what I said, expressed his “frustration” with the president for regularly preempting his jokes and now an Ethiopian anthropologist jumping on the action. So, what happened during my encounter with President Obama and what triggered the flurry of media sensation and Stewart’s reaction? What happens when a President and an anthropologist meet and what is the significance?
Every region on earth has gone through social and political upheaval at some point in history, yet some have seen more than their fair share. Due to its proximity to the Red Sea as well as its strategic location between the rest of Africa and the Middle East, the geopolitical significance of the Horn cannot be overstated; nor can its potential for geopolitical conflict. Between seemingly endless upheaval in So-malia and constantly flaring conflicts in South Sudan, and the current stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Horn of Africa frequent-ly finds itself in survival mode.
This quandary is particularly poignant in a region that played host to the origin of humanity. When scientists say that all humans are Afri-cans, their evidence mostly derives from the Horn. Many sites in Kenya, including those in the Turkana re-gion, offer a wealth of evidence underscor-ing this region as the great place for paleo-anthropology, What happens when a President and an anthropologist meet and what is the significance?a branch of science dealing with the study of human ancestors and how they changed through time biological-ly and behaviorally. Footprints discovered in Tanzania show that hu-mans walked the landscape as early as 3.5 million years ago, while the anthropological and archaeological records of Ethiopia span the past six million years. Not only were some of the world’s most celebrated fossils, including Lucy, Selam, and Ardi, discovered in Ethiopia but fossil and DNA evidence also point to the Omo Valley of Ethiopia as the birthplace of modern humans some 200,000 years ago.
Before our species expanded into Asia, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas, our fundamental developmental milestones occurred in Africa. These milestones set us apart from every other species on earth, including our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees, with whom we share over 98% of our DNA despite diverging from them six million years ago. It was in Africa that we began to practice the singular human trait of habitual bipedality (walking on two legs). It was also in Africa that we commenced to make stone tools, thus paving the way for the myriad technological innovations that enabled humanity to spread throughout the globe and become the ONLY primate species to venture into and permanently occupy regions north and south of the tropics. These innovations continue to devel-op today into smart phones, airplanes and space shuttles.
Discoveries made all along the East African Rift, and especially in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania have therefore shown that the Horn played a key role in making us the amazing, albeit ostentatious, spe-cies that we are. Not only were we born in this region, we developed many sophisticated tools that would later allow us – for better or worse – to conquer the rest of the world and even imagine beyond. It was not until much later, around 70,000 years ago, that some groups of humans began to migrate out of Africa. The physical and cultural differences that we observe among people living in different parts of the planet today are therefore nothing but adaptations to conditions that are unique to the new environments. It must also be underscored that having a shared African ancestry means that all people, whatever their background, skin color, hair texture, shape of eye or geographic location today are equally related to the first mem-bers of our species that were born 200,000 years ago in Africa and that today’s Africans don’t have the monopoly of that heritage.
One of the most conspicuous and often cited, albeit frequently mis-interpreted differences among human populations living in different regions is skin color whose fascinating evolution is well documented. In short, skin color in humans has changed over time in a shared but complex manner. Before 2 mil-lion years ago, when humans lived exclusively in Africa and were by and large hairy, there is very good reason to suggest that, underneath their dark body hair, their skin was pale, as is that of our closest cousins, the chimpanzees. After 2 million years ago, when our human ancestors began to fully venture out of their comfort zones in the forests and into drier and more open environments, walking and running over long distances and hence sweating, they started to lose Not only was President Obama’s visit geopolitically historic, his recent African heritage also made the occasion an emotional one for many.hair as a means of dissipating body heat. But, with reduced body hair, their pale skin became vul-nerable to Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR). Their skin, therefore, started to produce more protective melanin, thus becoming darker. This darker skin became a necessity for survival in the tropics until some populations began to leave Africa 70,000 years ago. Once humans started to live in regions with varying amount of UVR, their skin col-or became more variegated as we see it today.
Members of Homo erectus, the immediate ancestor of Homo sapiens,were great walkers and runners in the open plains of equatorial Afri-ca. High levels of solar radiation, UVR, which are encountered year round at the equator, have a damaging effect on bodily stores of fo-late. Plentiful supplies of melanin pig-ment in darker skin absorb and scatter UVR, and prevent most harmful rays from penetrating into the body. Thus, dark skin was an essential adaptation for those members of Homo erectus and later Homo sapiens, who remained in Africa, particularly the tropics. Paler skin, in contrast, readily absorbs even limited solar radiation, and was thus an essential adaptation for members of our species who migrat-ed into more temperate zones beginning 70,000 years ago. Those in-dividuals were not at risk of damaging their folate stores due to solar UVR, but required paler skin in order to synthesize enough vitamin D (a.k.a. “sunshine vitamin” and is essentialI then asked him, ‘Did you find your birth certificate in Kenya?’ This really got him to laugh. for bone growth), using the limited UVB rays at latitudes farther from the equator. In sum-mation, during our evolutionary history, humans first had pale skin covered with dark hair, and then became dark and hairless, and very good at sweating in order to keep cool. Finally, we acquired the range of skin colors that characterizes our species today depending on where we (or our direct ancestors) lived in relation to the Earth’s equator. So what is your skin color and what does it mean to you?