The Cradle of Humankind: South Africa and the Story of Human Evolution

When Charles Darwin wrote his classic Origin of Species in 1859, “humans” were mentioned only once, in passing: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”. But the implications of the theory of evolution for the place of humans in nature were earth-shattering, and nobody missed them. In 1871, Darwin took the step of specifically applying his theory to humans, in his book The Descent of Man, in which he made what was at the time a bold prediction: “In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probably that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.” Half a century later, discoveries in South Africa proved Darwin to be correct.

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Fossil hominid skulls on display. Cradle of Humankind Museum, Maropeng, South Africa

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The Workers Opposition: Defending Socialism Inside Stalinist Russia

The history of the Workers’ Opposition has been largely forgotten, both in the West and in the former Soviet Union.  This is unfortunate, since it is the history of a faction within the Russian Communist Party itself which, during the very time that the Russian Revolution was falling into the centralization of political and economic power that would shortly lead to Stalin’s dictatorship, stood up to defend socialism, democracy, workers’ control, the rights of union workers, and economic justice.  Sadly, their struggle was in vain—the bureaucratic Party concentrated all power in its hands, and Stalin soon assumed sole power and crushed the people of the Soviet Union under one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century.  Many of the members of the Workers’ Opposition died in Stalin’s jails.

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The Mobile Quarantine Facility: Protecting the Earth From Moon Bugs

It was a nightmare scenario for NASA’s moon mission planners–a human triumph turning into tragedy as space-borne moon germs, brought back by astronauts, swept the Earth and killed all terrestrial life with a lethal unstoppable disease. To prevent it, NASA developed a Space Age motor home trailer for astronauts called the Mobile Quarantine Facility.

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The Mobile Quarantine facility, on display at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center

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The American Lion (Yes, America Once Had Wild Lions)

If you could have wandered across the United States in the area that is now the Great Plains 15,000 years ago, you may have mistaken it for the African Serengeti. Elephants, camels, horses, cheetahs . . . all would be roaming across the vast savannahs of North America.  And the most impressive of all would have been the North American Lion.

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Fossilized skull of Panthera atrox, the North American Lion, on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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