/ 13 May 2011

Sharing a bone or two will tempt the tourists

Gosh, we’ve evolved into incredible creatures — let’s all give ourselves a good pat on the back at this point. Well done. We’ve arrived at such an advanced state that we’re now trying to converge everything. But all that’s happened is some very confused humans have been left to wander around wishing for a simpler life, where a spoon is a spoon.

This was apparent when, in launching its pan-African initiative, the aptly named Past (Palaeontological Scientific Trust) tried its own take on convergence — by mashing together old-school speeches, Johnny Clegg, people in suits, a most confusing play, and cutlery.

The launch, held at the Women’s Jail on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Wednesday evening, was clearly an attempt to overcome its stuffy image, in favour of seeming a bit trendy, perhaps, and posh. Suave waiters drifted about with a hefty amount of strong alcohol, while women, dressed far too fashionably to be warm, lingered near the blazing fires to keep from freezing.

Inside the jail, the air was claustrophobic and faint mutters could be heard about free drinks being the event’s highlight. The gabble died down as the epic South African song came on over the thumping sound system — Johnny Clegg’s Scatterlings of Africa. Great song choice, but it created more confusion: Why did a bunch of scientists pinch the song title to name their new initiative?

Craig Morris and Greg Melvill-Smith in ReVerse

It turns out the artist is a great fan of palaeontology. Apparently, the idea for his song came from the godfather of palaeontologists, Professor Emeritus Phillip Tobias. Tobias is the one you see in all the documentaries, sitting behind a pile of skulls. He’s also the founder of Past and its chief scientific patron.

The idea behind the Scatterlings of Africa initiative, is that fossils can bring us together. If we realise that we all come from the same place then our superficial differences would fall away.

Stooped over his walking stick, Tobias slowly walked onto stage. Pulling the microphone down to his level he flashed a cheeky smile and claimed he was too old to sing, but then burst into a line — “We’re all scatterlings of Africa”.

Such energy from an eminent palaeontologist brought wild cheers from the audience, their crisp cocktail dresses and suits crumpling as arms waved in the air.

Derek Hanekom, the deputy minister of the department of science and technology, also shared his love of people who hunt for fossils saying, “Palaeontologists become celebrities in South Africa.”

Hanekom said the world doesn’t know nearly enough about its common ancestry, which meant that Africa’s importance was lost.

“This is the place where seven billion of us originate from, yet this is the continent that has had its resources and people ripped from it.” With more financial support Africa could become a hub for heritage tourism, he said.

Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom, Professor Phillip Tobias Chief Scientific Patron of Past, Jay Naidoo Patron of the Scatterlings for Africa project, (standing) Andrea Leenen CEO of Past and Rick Menell Chairman of Past.

Past CEO Andrea Leenen said the organisation has struggled to survive during its 17-year existence. The fractured way different countries handle their fossils has meant no collaboration and very little funding. Her vision for Past is to be the umbrella organisation for funding and coordination for the whole continent’s palaeontology.

Jay Naidoo, political activist turned businessman, saw fossils providing something for people to rally around. “We’re part of the human race. There’s nothing to divide us except what’s planted in our heads.”

Scatterling’s flagship production, ReVerse, was also launched at the event. A work of physical theatre, it’s supposed to be the “grown up” version of another play, Walking Tall, that toured schools around the country, teaching over a million students about our fossil history.

Perhaps I should have seen that one first as ReVerse made no sense to me. People later claimed they understood it all, I think just to save face, but I’m sure many of these were the same ones casting worried looks around earlier to see if they weren’t the only ones confused.

You couldn’t fault the choreography. The two actors, Craig Morris and Greg Melvill-Smith, made incredible use of their limited props — a very long and extremely sturdy table and a collection of shiny silver cutlery. Oh, and a candle that represents our taming of fire, or something like that. These changed hands as the two aped around the stage and moved between all fours and walking upright.

As confusing as it was, one scene gave a glimpse of how good the play could be if it made any sense. Silhouetted behind a white sheet, the two recreated man’s entire history with a few forks, knives, spoons and trays. The ingenuity needed to make everything from a catapult to biplanes to laptops from cutlery was perhaps the clearest reminder of how far humans and their brains have evolved.

Perhaps Past doesn’t need a complicated play. Clegg said it all in just one line: Both you and I — we are the scatterlings of Africa.