Orangeburg Massacre A Part Of The American Mosaic
One of the bad things about having a smart phone is, I can now scroll through the headlines of the New York Times before I get out of bed. This morning, I was running down the list of the latest headlines when the words “Orangeburg Massacre” caught my eye, mostly because this little known tragedy that occurred in South Carolina during the late sixties took place in my hometown. The article reviewed a play created by Calhoun Cornwell, a young man from Orangeburg who was inspired by hearing the story of a civil rights protest gone horribly wrong.
As soon as I saw the words “Orangeburg Massacre”, the names Smith, Hammond and Middleton went through my mind. The Smith Hammond Middleton Memorial Center, located at the rear of South Carolina State University’s campus, was an important hub in my life. When I lived a few blocks from the gymnasium/natatorium, I used to ride my bike around its parking lot and play on its steps.
I learned to swim in the huge pool behind the building’s main arena. I saw my first concert on its stage. My high school held our junior senior prom on there, and our graduation took place there. If you are from a small town, you probably already know why so many big events took place here—it was the biggest facility in town. Locally, at least when I was growing up, it was known as “SHM”, a shortened moniker that predated today’s obsession with acronyms by a generation.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I began to understand the significance behind the names inscribed across the entrance to the building. Many of my relatives, including my father and several of my uncles and aunts, attended South Carolina State University back when it was still a college. One of my aunts was a student here the night Smith, Hammond and Middleton were shot. Family folklore had my grandfather racing up from his farm in Berkeley County to Orangeburg, where my grandmother promptly climbed into the bed of the pickup truck and acted as a sentry, her shotgun across her lap, as my grandfather drove through the town streets to retrieve my aunt.
The New York Times editor went to the same public domain archives I did to select the picture of the National Guardsmen marching in Orangeburg after the shootings to help illustrate the story. I chose the photo above because in the end, this is a story about three real people who were gunned down on the streets of my hometown for daring to protest the racial inequities of the times.
Times did change—I have marched down the very same Russell Street the National Guardsmen patrolled during the tense time after the massacre as a student at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High, a school that consolidated the white Orangeburg High with the black Wilkinson High in 1970—but the American mosaic will always be incomplete until the stories like this one, and the countless others chronicling the struggle of our nation’s minorities to gain the full measure of their citizenship, are as well known to the general public as the Star Spangled Banner.
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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