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SOUTH AFRICAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL BULLETIN 53: 135- 137 1998
Evolution: 'the forbidden word'?*
AMANDA ESTERHUYSEN & JEANNETTE SMITH
Educational Archaeology, Archaeology Department
University of the Witwatersrand
*Received August. Revised November 1998
The concept of 'evolution', be it on a micro-biological scale or in relation to human development was excluded from all curricula formulated under the old Christian National Education (CNE) system in South Africa. The Christian National sentiment that grew out of the Afrikaner Nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s, was formalised for the first time in 1948 and accepted as the basis for National Education from 1967 to 1993 (Enslin 198:139-4: Christie 1991:171-73). Christian National Policy stated, amongst other things, that white children should 'receive a separate education from black children to prepare them for their respective superior and inferior positions in South African social and economic life, and all education should be based on Christian National principles (Christie 1991). There was an obligation to 'Christianise' the black or the coloured so that 'he' would be "secure against his own heathen and all kinds of ideologies which promise him sham happiness, but in the long run will make him unsatisfied and unhappy.' (Christian National Education Policy 1949: articles 14 & 15; see also Enslin 1984:140).
Pupils were indoctrinated by the CN world-view through the formal curriculum, which omitted 'anti-biblical' concepts such as evolution, made Bible education compulsory and presented a version of history that, in the words of Dean and Sieborger (1995:32), "omitted, distorted or vilified the role of blacks, 'coloureds' and Asians in the country's past". Christian National principles were further entrenched in white pupils through the 'hidden curriculum' that made flag-raising and religious assemblies compulsory, and further through Youth Preparedness programmes and Veld (bush) schools (Christie 1991:185-86). During these programmes, pupils were lectured on, amongst other things, patriotism, communism, race relations, discipline and the Creation (Christie 1991). Indeed, one of the primary motivations for taking young girls and boys out of the city and introducing them to the 'unspoilt' natural environment was so that, "By focusing his attention on the wonders of nature-the beauty of the spider's web, the symmetry of the flower, the wonder of the cosmos-the child's attention is centred on the wonders of creation." (Transvaal Education Department 1981:23)
In 1994 change in government signalled a radical change in the education system. The ANC's education policy stressed the need for the 'reconstruction' of school curricula in order to "rid the education and training system of a legacy of racism, dogmatism, and outmoded teaching practices" (African National Congress 1994:10-11). During 1995 interim core curricula were put into place. Although, in many instances the interim curriculum differed only slightly from its old counterpart in that it remained content laden and provided no link with the outcomes based paradigm of the New Qualification Framework (NQF). Christian National Education was abolished and for the first time hominid evolution was included in the interim History syllabus. Archaeologists lobbying for greater archaeological representation in the History curriculum were asked during a meeting with the Deputy Director of Curriculum Development in March of 1996, to explore the teaching of hominid evolution in the classroom. They were asked specifically to investigate how teachers felt about teaching this 'sensitive' topic and to assess whether pupils especially from the younger grades could assimilate the content. Research was carried out over a period of five months. Initially, we targeted Grades 4-7 (40 classes) mostly because these teachers were desperate for information as a result of the greater inclusion of prehistory in the primary school core syllabus, and because issues relating to a pupil's ability to comprehend evolution were more pertinent to the younger classes. We did. however, teach one Grade 8 and fifteen Grade 11 classes. We attempted to access a wide range of schools, targeting both economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools in the Johannesburg area. A portion of the teaching was carried out at the Sterkfontein Cave Early Hominid Site to evaluate whether teaching at the site itself was more effective than teaching in an ordinary classroom. This was found to be the case. These lectures provided an outline of the present evidence for and understanding of human evolution, as well as an understanding of the geology of the caves and the process of fossilisation.
Available Support Material
There is, to date, very little support material for teachers. The support material issued by the Department for Grade 5-9 is inadequate. Hominid evolution is reduced to two 'factual' paragraphs on the discovery of Australopithecus africanus by Professor Raymond Dart and 'other discoveries' at similar sites (Department of Education 1995). Issues relating to change through time, the dynamics of evolution, the fossils, different types of evidence and interpretation; indeed everything that makes the subject comprehensible, interesting and exciting is ignored. The exposition of this material in textbooks and teacher's books ranges from a few incomprehensible paragraphs to, in two instances, more informative and creative approaches. One of the more confusing examples is to be found in the second edition of Making History Standard 3 Teacher's Book: "The bones of the first examples of the human family have been found in eastern and southern Africa. These very early members of the human family existed about 3-4 million years ago. The bones of the earliest examples of modern people, people like all the human. beings in the world today, have also been found in Africa. This shows that Africa is the continent where modern people first developed (Marneweck et al. 1995). A more informative approach is offered by Potenza (1994) in a section entitled 'The human family-some fascinating facts'. She furnishes the 'who, how and when' of hominids and provides illustrations of hominids, maps, and skulls. She too, however, 'does not convey much about the activities, skills and thought processes that have gone into producing these facts. Clacherty and Ludlow (1995) have advanced the most visually stimulating approach to this section of human history. Cartoon-style hominids occupy their appropriate time-line space in a most charming and entertaining manner. This textbook also attempts to provide insight into the process of fossilisation, the discovery of fossils, the reconstruction of hominids based on evidence, and provides a number of skills-based exercises designed to foster an understanding of 'historical' concepts. Unfortunately, there is to date no teacher's guide accompanying this textbook.
Teaching Hominid Evolution
It was with some trepidation that we set out to teach pupils about the early hominids. Well versed in the tenets of Christian National Education and privy to some of the more conservative .views held by educationists at the South African Society for History Teaching Conference held in January of 1996, we expected both pupils and teachers to show some resistance towards the subject matter. The teachers displayed mixed opinions about approaches towards the subject. The primary school teachers were by far the most enthusiastic about teaching this section. In general these teachers had no problem with the content being taught but were apprehensive about their own lack of knowledge and how the subject should be taught. Their High School counterparts, mostly Grade 11 Geography teachers, were more nervous about the notion of 'evolution'. On numerous occasions we were asked to teach the pupils about the early hominids but were asked not to use the word evolution and not to draw a connection between the early hominids and their later Homo sapiens manifestation.
For the most part, teachers responded well to the lectures. Some of the more frequent responses from teachers were that for the first time the caves had become more than just stalactites and stalagmites and that they and the pupils benefited from 'seeing' the evidence and learning how interpretations of the evidence had changed through time.
The pupil's reaction to the material was split roughly between the Grades 4-8 and the Grades 10-12. The older pupils displayed symptoms of the repressive educational environment they had experienced. Many had never heard of the more famous fossils such as 'Mrs Ples', the 'Taung child' or 'Little Foot'. They were often unwilling to engage with the material as it was 'not in the syllabus', and were unable to entertain the possibility that material evidence or text could be interpreted in more than one way. There were exceptions. Pupils from 'liberal' schools, became captivated by tile various theories explaining evolution, and asked questions relating to their own social sphere of interest, for example, the 'evolution' of race and the 'happy' advent of menstruation in women.
Pupils in Grades 4-8, ranging in age from 8-14 years. regardless of language or colour, engaged. wholeheartedly with the material with an enthusiasm that possibly arose from their knowledge of 'Jurassic' dinosaurs. They were already familiar with the concept of a distant past-although their understanding of actual rime and perception of the duration of time differed-and excited by the discovery of fossils, the 're-fleshing' of 'bones, possibility of DNA replication and causes of extinction. This excitement was further enhanced by their fascination with new information, their willingness to become involved with the process of interpretation and by the 'presence' of the fossil-casts in the classroom, as is illustrated 'by the following Grade 5 statement, ". . . it was wonderful to hold the borns (bones) of the people". Without exception, they engaged with the early hominid material in a very positive way.
The teaching mode adopted was one of 'open conversation', a running dialogue rather than transference of information. This not only allowed us to establish and evaluate what the pupils already knew and understand but also enabled students to question what we were saying Our presentations were loosely structured so that we could address specific issues, for example their understanding of distant time, but at the same time remain flexible enough to allow them to fully explore interest and problem areas. For black children, for example, the issue of whether early humans were black or white was of importance. The concept of a single ancestor was significant. They enjoyed the fact that "blacks and white people are from the same person" (Moira Mabuya, Grade 5), and that skin colour is simply an adaptation to environmental conditions: "I learned that we a one human being child, our skin changes from the wether"(Cynthia. Grade 5). These simple insights led to interesting discussions about race as a social construct, which helped to break down some of the norms and expectations associated with 'whiteness' and 'blackness' that had been promoted by Christian National Education.
Terminology was less of a problem than we had anticipated. The 'junior group was highly enthusiastic about learning new words and long species names: ". . . 1 learned a lot . . . of new, words like sabre-tooth cat" (R. Bower. Grade 4), ". . . that Mrs Ples was first Pleseeanthropos transvalsis" (Grade 6), and "about the Pleistoxene period" - (M. Maboya,- Grade 4). Although language was occasionally problematic, this section seemed to be more easily understood than sections relating to more recent history. This may be because the content was new and so removed from the present it did not hinge on any pre-existing social experience, language skill or understanding of time, in fact, with specific regard to time, it has been noted that "young children seem most at ease when handling the distant past .. . These times do not have to be related to the child's experiential world and hence do not confuse further the many different types of time he is encountering there" (Poster 1973, as quoted by Wood 1995:12). Although the content did not directly focus on the child's experiential world it did allow the children to better understand and question their own social environment. Racial and sexual problems, as well as issues relating to violence were often introduced. We were regularly asked whether the australopithecines would have killed each other in the same way that modern humans kill each ocher, or whether such killing coincided with the first perceptions of race.
The pupils were far more enthused by the evidence of the early hominids and the animals and plants found in association with them, than with dates and places of discovery. They had no difficulty 'comprehending the idea that early hominids were different from modern humans, and yet were possibly the ancestors of Homo sapiens. This is expressed in the following responses: "I learned that Mrs Ples scull is quite different to our skulls" (K. Kozaczynski, Grade 4), "It is so amazing that our ansestors were not like us today" (S. Gregson, Grade 4), "Mrs Ples was some where in between human and ape" (Mnadisi, Grade 5). They also demonstrated an ability to synthesise the ideas we were presenting and present fairly mature conclusions. For example, one group of Grade 7s reached the consensus that the only thing that we could know with any certainty was that "things are always changing".
Furthermore, the introduction of the actual evidence and the context in which it was found provided the pupils with insight into the nature of the evidence: ". :. things are only preserved because of the cave and the lime.. ." (Grade 6), ... people and animals also lived in Johannesburg, but could not be preserved..." (Grade 7). This enabled them to grasp the fact that interpretations based on the available evidence could change if new evidence was forthcoming. Close analysis of the evidence, for example, what Mrs Ples looked like, whether she was a male or female, the age at which the ear1y hominids died, the sabre-tooth prints in the skull, the sabre-tooth, the size of various individuals, their diet and the extinction of Paranthropus, elicited many empathetic questions from the younger pupils. Students often asked how 'Mrs Ples' would have survived in winter, whether she cried, or if she celebrated birthdays and weddings. Alternatively, they would produce their own creative interpretation: "Mrs Pless died when the sabatooths put there teeth in her hed and took her to the Sabatooths cave" (N. Shelver, Grade 5).
On occasions when a student broached an 'Adam and Eve' type question, it did not stem from religious anxiety, but rather from a desire to know why people believe the things they do. We did, however, encounter various popular misconceptions, many thought that people roamed the earth with dinosaurs and that people came from apes as we know them.
The results of this study formed part of a larger report on Archaeology and Education that was submitted to the Department of Education in 1996. In response the Department issued a letter supporting educational archaeology, and forwarded our report to relevant Learning Area working groups. To date human evolution has been included in the NQF Natural and Human and Social Sciences Learning Areas. It should be noted , however, that our study was only one of many efforts that contributed towards its inclusion in the NQF. For example , we were fortunate that our study coincided with the Fiftieth Anniversary celebration of the discovery of 'Mrs Ples' and with the tremendous efforts of Dr Francis Thackeray of Pretoria Museum to popularize this fossil.
Briefly , the report argued that hominid evolution, if taught properly , could be introduced at a very young age as a means of establishing a foundation for critical and creative historical thought. The early material is very tangible and is limited to specific contexts so that it provides a solid means through which pupils can be introduced to the nature of evidence, the notion that not all things preserve and the understanding that interpretations may be biased. This allows students to develop observation, inference, logical argument (supported by available evidence) and creative explication. Furthermore, we noted that because this section fits comfortably within both the Social and Natural Sciences it provides a great deal of opportunity for cross-curricula activity. Finally, an important point for South Africans, hominid evolution is an effective means through which teachers can introduce and dispel issues relating to race, and acquaint pupils with a section of history that is uniquely African.
African National Congress. 1994. A policy framework for education and training. Johannesburg.
Christie, P. 1991. The right to learn. Second edition. Johannesburg: SACHED/Ravan Press.
Clacherty,G & Ludlow, H. 1995. Looking into the Past. Standard 3/Grade 5. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman.
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Wood, S. 1995.Developing an understanding of time- sequencing issues. Teaching History 79:11-14.