The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Cradle of Humanity

The 19th-century evangelical Protestants who invented the term Cradle of Humanity made generalized but undocumented claims that the term originated in Mesopotamia in the 2nd century, and that it was used by early Arab Christians to refer to a geographic area that falls within a 1,000 mile radius of the spot they believed to be the birthplace of humankind. No documentation of such a historical use has been forthcoming. Nevertheless, the term has been used not only in religious, but also in secular contexts, and may therefore refer to different locations, depending on the views of the user.


Evolutionary view

The consensus among biologists and paleontologists is that mankind evolved through natural processes, and some currently use the term to refer to sites in East Africa, where the oldest hominid fossils were found in 1974. Subsequent work done on the basis of mitochondrial DNA in 1987 strengthened this "out of Africa" theory. Within the past two years, however, several groups of prominent paleontologists have begun to challenge East Africa's position as the evolutionary "cradle of humanity", most notably due to recent research in connection with the Liujiang hominid of China, the Dmanisi fossils of Georgia and the Mungo Man fossils in Australia.

See also: Origin of Species, Darwinism

Creationist view

Jewish, Christian and Muslim creationists believe that man was created by God in a garden called "Eden"; among them, some early Christians (A.D second century) used the term to refer to a geographic area covering lands that fall within a 1,000 mile radius of a location they believed corresponded to one described in the Bible book of Genesis as the birthplace of mankind.

See also: Creation

States believed by some to be the "Cradle of Humanity" (lands falling within a 1,000-mile radius of the location described in the Bible book of Genesis as man's birthplace).
States believed by some to be the "Cradle of Humanity" (lands falling within a 1,000-mile radius of the location described in the Bible book of Genesis as man's birthplace).

Group of fifteen lands

Based on the second century 1,000-mile "limit", the fifteen nations/territories that today comprise the "Cradle of Humanity" are, in alphabetical order: Bahrain, the Gaza Strip, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, the West Bank and Yemen.

Origin of the term

The radius of 1,000 miles from Eden as the limit of the Cradle of Humanity may have been "fixed" by early Arab Christians who were the dominant inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt from the second century well into the ninth century, even after Muslim conquest of the region.

By the arrival of the Ottoman period (1516–1918), the term had become well accepted throughout the majority of the empire, which extended into parts of southern Europe and exerted much cultural influence for over 400 years. Early in the nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries began to arrive in the region and found that the term provided a common ground for introducing their teachings to the local population.

Use of the term

It is important to note that the term "Cradle of Humanity" is not necessarily interchangeable with or identical in meaning to the expressions "Cradle of Civilization", "origin of man", or "birthplace of mankind" for those who use these phrases.

Among Evolutionists

In discussing the use of this term among evolutionists, please note that some prefer to use the expression cradle of "humankind" rather than "humanity", considering it to be more biologically correct. The following discussion makes no distinction between the two versions of the term.

Like most areas of science, modern understanding of the evolutionary process is still growing and does not yet provide us with a complete, nor necessarily accurate, picture of man’s early development. Hence, views on the actual location for the origin of humankind vary widely among biologists, paleontologists, paleoanthropologists and even geologists. As a result of these differences in opinion, ever since the humble beginnings of evolutionary research, various places have been nominated as the "cradle of humanity" with the current consensus still focusing on East Africa – despite several recent challenges.

Ever since the nineteenth century, paleoanthropologists have considered the following areas as possible candidates for the "cradle of humanity" at different times:

As of 1856

It would be fair to say that the study of paleoanthropology probably began in August 1856, on the day when a fossil of what we now call Homo neanderthalensis was found in the Neanderthal, Germany. The discovery was announced in 1857, two years before the publication of Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species.
For several years thereafter, many evolutionists suspected that the "cradle of humanity" was located somewhere in southwest Europe, even though Darwin, personally, always favored Africa as the most likely site.

As of 1905

In 1891, Eugène Dubois discovered a group of fossils at Trinil in Java. Though the find was originally named Pithecanthropus erectus, Dubois renamed it Homo erectus in 1894.
Due to apparent prejudices of the predominantly British paleontological hierarchy at the time, Homo erectus was not immediately accepted in 1894 as a valid hominid. Hence, it was only about a decade later, following the turn of the century, after fossilized remains attributable to Homo erectus had been found also in South Africa, Asia, England and China (with subsequent, smaller, matching finds popping up just about everywhere in Africa, Asia, and Europe), that the consensus of evolutionary opinion shifted its focus to Southeast Asia as the possible "cradle of humanity".

As of 1920

It was in 1907, at the Mauer sand pits in Germany, that one of history's most controversial fossil discoveries was made by a quarry worker. This fossil, an almost complete mandible, was designated Homo heidelbergensis by Otto Schoetensack .
Because he failed to justify the fossil as a new species by describing its unique anatomical features, leading paleoanthropologists of the day refused to accept it as a valid hominid. By 1920, however, this find contributed to the formulation of new theories (see chronospecies and anagenesis) more in keeping with Darwin's original assumptions that the "cradle of humanity" may well be in Africa, though several also viewed it as confirmation of the then prevailing view (represented by powerful names like Othenio Abel and Arthur Keith ) that the ancestors of humans would be found in Europe.

As of 1939

The 1924 South African discovery of Australopithecus africanus at Taung was named by Raymond Dart, a pioneer of paleontology, who created quite a stir by suggesting that the material was a hominid. The hostile response from his peers caused Dart to abandon excavations at Taung. Nevertheless, his use of both Latin ("australo") and Greek ("pithecus") in naming the specimen resulted in a change from the use of the prefix "Homo" to describe every hominid discovery. Since then, the new genus-label created by Dart has become accepted as the designation to be used for the entire group of early hominids found in Africa.
By 1939, possibly as a reaction to the racial extremism developing in Central Europe and in the light of other new discoveries in Africa, the Australopithecus africanus material was reevaluated and some evolutionary experts slowly began to consider South Africa as another possible option for the "cradle of humanity".

As of 1946

Although eminent scientist, Dr. Robert Broom, commonly receives the credit for discovering and naming Australopithecus robustus , the find had actually been made by a young schoolboy named Gert Terblanche at Kromdraaii , South Africa in 1938. Broom later found several more cranial and mandibular fragments that came to be associated with A. robustus. Broom published the results of his extensive research on the australopithecines in 1946, which marked a crucial turning point for South Africa in the eyes of the global evolutionary community — establishing it as the new "cradle of humanity".

As of 1960

Although the 1959 discovery by Mary Leakey of a specimen known as OH5 or "Zinj " is considered by many the watershed in paleoanthropological history, this Olduvai, Tanzania, find, which later became known as Australopithecus boisei did not affect prevailing views regarding the location of the "cradle of humanity" the way Homo habilis did only a year later.
Estimated, at the time of its discovery in 1960, to be approximately one million years older than Australopithecus robustus, the Homo habilis find created a bit of a problem: The name given to it literally means "handy man", and was chosen because of the collection of stone tools that were discovered near the specimens. Further, its height and brain size were smaller than those of the australopithecines, and it appeared to be less robust. In other words, this older specimen seemed more advanced than comparatively recent ones.
While the role of Homo habilis in human evolution is still not settled, its discovery by the distinguished team of Louis Leakey, John Napier, and Phillip Tobias did result in Tanzania being regarded as the "cradle of humanity" for at least two decades.

As of 1980

In 1974 Donald Johanson found the famous "Lucy", the most complete skeleton of an australopithecine. Together with Timothy White, Johanson named the specimen Australopithecus afarensis, which resulted in heavy objections from their peers. By the end of 1980, the heated dispute seems to have been settled and Australopithecus afarensis was widely accepted as a new human ancestor.
Dated at almost four million years old, A. afarensis became the oldest hominid fossil on record, granting Ethiopia the position as the new "cradle of humanity".

As of 2000

After Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa 1994 the fossils of South Africa became more accessible to the public, with a new Cradle of Humankind (World Heritage Site) named in 2000. Current fossil excavations include 2.5 million year old Australopithecus africanus specimens (originally discovered in 1924—see As of 1939 above) as well as the Australopithecus robustus material (discovered between 1938 and 1946—see As of 1946 above).
The Cradle of Humankind exhibit is intended to be the showplace also for any future evolutionary discoveries that may appear in South Africa.

As of 2002

A new fossil, temporarily called "Toumaï " (or hope of life in the South Chad language, Goran), has created some new problems: The specimen is estimated at an age of seven million years, making it the oldest hominid found to date.
A team of researchers led by paleontologist Michel Brunet uncovered an almost complete cranium and lower facial bones of an ancestor that appears to have lived at the point of transition between apes and hominids and for which they have suggested the name Sahelanthropus tchadensis.
The discovery has not only confused the consensus on time and place for the divergence of the evolutionary lines of humans and chimpanzees, but, due to the location of the find in the Sahel region, a semiarid zone of mid-west Africa that separates the Sahara from the southern tropical forests, it has also led to the suggestion that the "cradle of humanity" may have been more in central or western Africa.
Meanwhile, other evolutionary scientists, particularly some prominent paleoanthropologists, have begun to consider the possibility that humans may have evolved simultaneously on several continents along parallel evolutionary lines, finally engaging in trans-continental migration and interbreeding at the stage of Homo erectus or even later. Proponents of these theories consider the discussion on a single evolutionary "cradle of humanity" impractical and irrelevant.

Considering this untidy history in the use of the term, many evolutionists now shy away from expressly designating any specific location as the "cradle of humanity". Nevertheless, those who use the phrase politically, frequently refer to evolutionary use of the expression at one time or another to support their application of it to a particular geo-political region.

Among Creationists

There is no evidence that the term "cradle of humanity" has widespread use among Jewish or Christian creationists today, although early Mesopotamian Christian Arabs seem to have been the ones to develop the term for describing an area roughly within a 1,000 mile radius of the location they believed to be the site of the "Garden of Eden", based on the a passage, attributed to Moses, found in the Bible at Genesis 2:8–14:

"A river watering the garden flowed from Eden, and from there it divided. It had four headstreams. The name of the first is Pishon. It winds through the entire land of Havilah , where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the great river Euphrates."

These words describe rivers which still exist and flow today in much the same way as they flowed when Genesis was written. Second century Christians thus identified the location of Eden at a point that, today, would be just west of the border between Iraq and Iran and just above the northern shore of the Persian Gulf.

A few isolated denominations of Christendom still appear to use the term, nowadays, as a nickname for "Eden" and when they do, the expression is usually capitalized as Cradle of Humanity. Despite this apprently "Christian" background, the term "Cradle of Humanity" seems to be more heavily used among Muslims, who tend to accept the 1,000 mile limit from "Eden" as the boundary for the area. This may stem from the use of the phrase during the period of the Ottoman Empire, a major force for expansion of Islam, when most of the territories in the general vicinity of the area converted from Christianity to Islam.

Among those opposed to the term "Middle East"

The expression "Cradle of Humanity" is frequently used by persons opposed to the expression "Middle East" when that term would seem too ambiguous in their opinion. They consider the lands of the "Cradle of Humanity" to be clearly defined within an unmistakable geographic limit. However, depending on the context in which the user applies the term "Middle East", it may or may not include countries in northern Africa, southern Europe and various parts of Eurasia east of the Ural Mountains.

Some cultural historians in the self-described "Cradle of Humanity States" (see map above) also find the thinking behind the terms Near East, Middle East and Far East offensive, since they are vestiges of British colonialism; a period when such expressions where coined based on the distance between England and the region in question. They often argue that, unlike the West Indies, where the present dominant culture was indeed largely formed under the influence of the colonizing powers, most of the dominant culture in so-called Near, Middle and Far East lands, predated the colonials and has actually survived their sometimes destructive influence.

Some scholars subscribe to the view that, in spite of the term’s inaccuracy from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, the region’s influences on language, culture and religion may well justify its preferred use over the controversial term "Middle East", which, from a geographical point of view, seems somewhat out of place. In their quest for a "regional identity", residents of the region also seem to take comfort in the fact that the name "Cradle of Humanity" was given to the area by local people, rather than outsiders, and that its meaning has not changed from the original understanding of its formulators in over eighteen centuries.

Last updated: 02-06-2005 07:12:08
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01