Speech delivered by the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, at the Palaeoscience Seminar held in Shanghai, China, on 29 September 2010
29 Sep 2010
Ladies and gentleman
I am pleased to see South African and Chinese researchers gathered here today to share their experiences and strengthen ties in the palaeosciences. The warm relationship between our two countries will surely make the collaboration more fruitful.
South Africa and China are no strangers to exciting fossil discoveries. The People's Republic of China has played a leading role in piecing together the story of human evolution and in providing perspectives on the development of our human ancestors. Palaeoanthropological finds at sites such as Java and Zhoukodian have encouraged intensive debate and inquiry among scientists.
The first important hominid fossil discovery in South Africa was that of the “Taung Child” Skull, the type specimen for the genus Australopithecus and for the species africanus. The 2, 5 million-year-old skull was discovered by a lime quarry worker, M de Bruyn, and Professor Raymond Dart published his findings related to this fossil in 1925. At the time he was ostracised by the international community, which dismissed the Taung Skull as that of a monkey. The world owes a debt of gratitude to Professor Dart for his legacy to the study of evolutionary human biology and life, for his pioneering spirit and courage in championing the human traits of the Taung Child, and for inspiring efforts in the field of palaeontology and palaeoanthropology by South African scientists such as Robert Broom, John Robinson, Alan Hughes and many others.
In 1938 it was Dr Robert Broom, one of the few loyal admirers and defenders of Dart, who described the type specimen of Australopithecus robustus. In 1947 Dr Broom found the skull of an adult Australopithecus africanus at Sterkfontein which became popularly known as “Mrs Ples”.
These finds provided evidentiary material to support Darwin's prediction that Africa would prove to be the place from which our human ancestors came.
Fifty years after the discovery of “Mrs Ples”, Professor Ron Clarke announced the discovery of “Little Foot”, an almost complete hominid fossil skeleton, and on 8 April this year Professor Lee Berger announced the find of two almost complete skeletons of a new hominid species, Australopithecus sediba. The discovery of this new hominid species in the symbolically named Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, which has yielded more than a third of all hominid fossils found throughout the world, has focused the world's interest again on the role that South Africa and Africa have to play in the Palaeontological sciences.
The story of the origin and the evolution of humankind is not limited to fossil discovery. The geological investigation work undertaken by Professor Paul Dirks on the formation of cave deposits at the Cradle of Humankind, for instance, is critical to understanding the fossils we are unearthing. Similarly, archaeological investigations have made it possible for us to find out about African civilisations such as Mapungubwe and Thulamela.
And, last year, South African Palaeontologists announced the discovery of a new Jurassic-period dinosaur species, Aardonyx celestae.
The South African Department of Science and Technology proudly supports research in this field. It is our responsibility to ensure that we train more researchers so that we are able to take full advantage of our fossil heritage. We are grateful to the foreign research collaborators who bring their expertise to joint endeavours. It is through international scientific relationships that we share the technological skills and know how we need to achieve a greater understanding of the value that these finds have for the world, and I would like to call on our Chinese counterparts not only to continue but also to expand their collaboration with us in investigating our palaeontological resources.
In South Africa September is Heritage Month, which is a time of year when our research community showcases our African origins which, this year, includes presenting our fossil heritage at the Shanghai World Expo. We are displaying the famous Taung Skull, Mrs Ples and the recently discovered Australopithecus sediba fossils, and hope that they will encourage scientific debate and human capital development through collaboration.
The People's Republic of China has advanced technological skills that are critical to the development of knowledge. South Africa already boasts bilateral relations with China in palaeoscience and indigenous knowledge systems, and we are committed to intensifying our collaborative efforts in areas in which we can complement each other.
In conclusion, one of our most pressing current challenges is the effects of climate change and the loss of habitats, which are putting enormous strain on biodiversity, ecosystems and the beneficial use of our natural resources. Palaeontological studies must assist us in understanding how climate change affects the evolution of organisms, and how organisms affect the physical world. Knowledge of past patterns of human life and the implications of population growth could help us develop a more effective approach to safeguarding the future of our planet.
I am sure that this seminar will go a long way towards increasing our knowledge and strengthening research relations. I wish you well in your deliberations and thank you for your hospitality. May I also encourage those of you who have not yet visited Africa and South Africa to take a journey to discover your African roots!
Issued by: Department of Science and Technology
29 Sep 2010
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