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map of east africa

Cradle home of mankind

If you know anything about human evolution, it’s probably that humans arose in Africa. But you may not know how scientists came to that conclusion. It’s one of my favorite stories in the history of paleoanthropology—one that involves an anatomist you’ve probably never heard of and an infant who was attacked by an eagle and dropped into a hole almost three million years ago.
The idea that humans evolved in Africa can be traced to Charles Darwin. In his 1871 bookThe Descent of Man, Darwin speculated that it was “probable” that Africa was the cradle of humans because our two closest living relatives—chimpanzees and gorillas—live there. However, he also noted, a large, extinct ape once lived in Europe millions of years ago, leaving plenty of time for our earliest ancestors to migrate to Africa. So, he concluded, “it’s useless to speculate on the subject.”
By the early 20th century, the world’s leading anatomists thought they knew the answer: Humans evolved somewhere in Europe or Asia

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