Dowell: Celebrating African culture

Published 1:06 pm Sunday, February 26, 2017

Did you ever wonder where life began? As you ponder this question, can you believe it all may have begun in Africa?

Have you ever heard of the Leakey family? You should have, even if you disagree with their research on human origins. Louis Leakey was born in Kenya, East Africa to English missionary parents. Louis Leakey had an insatiable appetite for learning and especially about the origin of man. Later as a young adult, armed with degrees in anthropology and archaeology, Leakey shocked the world with his discoveries in East Africa. He was consumed with the notion that humankind did in fact, begin on the continent of Africa. This was also a belief of Charles Darwin. The prevailing belief, at the time, with respect to the beginning of mankind, was that Asia (as indicated by the Java Man remains and similar fossils) hailed this distinction.

Not to be dissuaded, Leakey felt that the tools he had discovered while growing up in East Africa that were, supposedly, thousands of years old, proved that the continent held other secrets. Around 1932, the sophomoric Leakey found what he believed to be fossil evidence validating his belief around Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. He immediately rushed to publication and his discoveries were met among some with praise, skepticism, and even consternation. The verifications of his findings lacked sufficient credence and his reputation briefly suffered among his peers.

Convinced even more, that he was correct concerning the origin of man, the setback only increased his enthusiasm for Africa and the secrets it held regarding evidence of earliest man. In the early 1950s Leakey, experiencing financial difficulties, was able to supplement his income by working as a translator for the British government in Kenya because of his familiarity with the native languages. He actually served as a translator in the trial of Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first African president.

In 1959, Leakey’s reputation was salvaged among his peers around the world. In fact, it was his second wife, Mary, who found anthropology and archaeology to be infectious also, whose discoveries resulted in catapulting Leakey’s career and reputation. It was Mary’s 1959 discovery of the Zinjanthropus cranium at Olduvai that captured worldwide attention and made the Leakeys a household name. Building on this find, Louis and Mary were instrumental in attracting other researchers to work at Olduvai. Their research at Olduvai launched the modern science of paleoanthropology, the study of human origins. Some of their later findings were scientifically dated to be nearly 2 million years old, thereby confirming that mankind did in fact, begin on the continent of Africa. Louis’ work resulted in some around the world even calling him the “self-proclaimed white African.”

I have always been fascinated with the research of the Leakey family. After undergraduate school I had the opportunity to travel to Ghana, West Africa where I lived for nearly three years. At the time, I left the country, the United States was going through a radical transformation. A country that had once been segregated was changing almost on a monthly basis. Demonstrations for equality and justice were occurring all around the country. The country survived and became a better place to live and to pursue the American dream of liberty, freedom, and other rights guaranteed citizens under our Constitution.

When I arrived in Ghana I felt that I was actually going home to visit my family. Ghana was an exciting place to live. I became fascinated with the many religious and ethnic customs of the country. The first thing I discovered is that among most of the tribes a person is given a name according to the day of the week they are born, order of birth, and as is the case in most countries, to distinguish between a male or female child.

I value the experiences I had in Ghana. I might add that the country remains a major tourist attraction. Tourist from all over the world frequent the country each year. Because of their experiences while there, many as Louis Leakey did many years ago in East Africa, decide to call Ghana their home.

Question? If the Leakey’s research discovered that mankind did originate in Africa – doesn’t that make us all-white and black, brothers and sisters? Shouldn’t we all therefore, celebrate our commonalities rather than our differences?



Dr. Glenn Dowell is an author and columnist who currently lives in Jonesboro. He has been a guest speaker on major college campuses , including having appeared on TV programs such as the Oprah Winfrey Show. He may be reached at