74 - The United States of Stellaland

map_stellaland.jpg

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Nowadays, the southern tip of Africa is dominated by a single state, the Republic of South Africa (punctuated by Lesotho, one of the world’s few enclave-states). But starting about a century and a half ago, when the usurping British were pushing the Dutch-originated Afrikaners inland, the eastern part of the RSA’s present territory was littered with a number of Boererepublieke (‘boer’ means ‘farmer’, but became synonymous with white, Afrikaans-speaking and anti-British).  


\nThese republics were later annexed by the British, after two Anglo-Boer Wars at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The largest and best-known of these republics became constituent provinces of the Union of South Africa (later Republic of South Africa): the Orange Free State, Transvaal and Natal. But there were also smaller Boererepublieke that just disappeared off the map, including the intriguingly small and short-lived United States of Stellaland (1882-1885).\nStellaland owes its existence to the war between the Batlaping and the Korannas, black tribes that had both hired white mercenaries. David Massouw, leader of the Korannas, had promised the Boers homesteads if they helped him win the war. After the war ended in July of 1882, these homesteads were granted to exactly 416 white farmers, who thereafter considered themselves ‘free citizens’ and formed the independent republic of Stellaland on July 26, 1882.\n

The name was chosen to refer to the comet that was visible in the sky at the time of the decisive battle (although Stella is Latin for ‘star’, not for ‘comet’). The capital city was called Vryburg (‘Freetown’), on a place known to the Tswana as Huhudi (‘Running Water’). First and only president was Gerrit Jacobus van Niekerk (1849-1896). Stellaland expanded to include the neighbouring boer republic of Goosen. The two nations were known collectively as the United States of Stellaland.

\nStellaland aspired to be united with the big boer republic to the east, Transvaal. The British government, then in control of the formerly Dutch Cape Province, objected to the westwardly expansion of Transvaal, and decided to invade. An expeditionary force under Sir Charles Warren entered the territory in February 1885, and it was formally annexed to British Bechuanaland on September 30, 1885.\nDuring Apartheid, the area around Vryburg was a ‘white’ island in the (nominally) independent Bantustan of Bophutatswana. Since 1994, when the RSA’s administrative divisions were reorganised following the end of Apartheid,  the area is part of the North West Province of the RSA. Today, the name ‘Stellaland’ is still used to refer to the area around the villages of Vryburg, Stella and Reivilo.\n

Stellaland has had three different flags in its short existence, the first being the state emblem on a green background, the second a six-pointed white star on the same green and the third an eight-pointed white star on a field split vertically between green (left) and red (right). One of the reasons for this diversity is that apparently the president’s wife had to make all those flags herself, and didn’t always have the right material to copy a previous design.

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This map taken from the Wikipedia page on Stellaland.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • 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.