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We are one humanity

- By Erna van Wyk

Who we are, where do we come from, what we ate and how we communicate are some of the key questions the study of evolution seeks to unravel.

From dinosaurs to Karoo reptiles, ancestors of today’s mammals, the paths that all living things have taken to develop on Earth is a fascinating field of study filled with awe, wonder and surprise.

To celebrate our origins, Wits hosted Evolution Day 2015 on Saturday, 20 June 2015, in the Great Hall where enthusiasts of the palaeosciences, archaeology and history had a rare chance to hear some of South Africa’s leading experts talk on topics ranging from the origin of life to human evolution, archaeology and early human symbolic communication.

“This is an excellent opportunity to promote public awareness of the diversity of life on earth, demonstrating how it originated and developed within 3.5 billion years. South Africa has an extraordinarily rich palaeontological heritage, which is part of world heritage,” said Professor Francis Thackeray, Phillip Tobias Chair in Palaeoanthropology from the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute and lead-organiser (*) of Evolution Day.

One humanity

Key to the day was Professor Himla Soodyall, world genetics experts, reminding South Africans “there is no homogeneous population in the world, and that human identity is not genetic”.

In her talk, titled: A genetic narrative of human evolutionary history, she called on all to remember that “we are one humanity. The more we broadcast this message, the better chance we have in bringing people together”. 

Darwin in South Africa

And what would any evolution day be without the father of evolutionary theory. Thackeray enlightened the audience with a brief reminder of Darwin’s visit to South Africa – a country he initially found "dull and uninteresting” before later acknowledging "remarkable phenomena" present here. 

These remarkable phenomena were included in these thought-engaging talks on the day.

Dr Pierre Durand: The origin of life, and the transition from single cells to multicellular organisms Professor Bruce Rubidge: Our reptilian ancestry – South Africa’s Karoo provides new insight on distant mammal origins Dr Natasha Barbolini: Changing environments and mass extinctions: what the Karoo fossil pollen record can tell us Dr Jonah Choiniere: Dawn of the world’s largest dinosaurs: The biggest animals to walk the planet and their South African origins Professor Francis Thackeray: Charles Darwin’s visit to South Africa, human evolution, and the problem of defining a species
Professor Marion Bamford: Plants, past environments and human evolution Professor Lynn Wadley: The evolution of early symbolic communication in South Africa Professor Jan Boeyens: Number Theory, space-time and evolution Professor Michele Ramsay: Signatures of past encounters: How infections shape our genetic diversity Dr Mirriam Tawane: Education and evolution in South Africa

(*) Evolution Day is presented by the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) and the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience at Wits, together with the Royal Society of South Africa, and with support from the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences and the Palaeontological Scientific Trust.