CRADLE OF HUMANKIND by Leslie B. Patient
In 1938 Dr. Robert Broom, because of the cave digging escapades of a seven-year-old schoolboy, began excavating the fossils that would solidify theories of human evolution and delineate the Guateng Valley of South Africa as the “Cradle of Humankind”. Broom would pay the boy a shilling each for the ancient human-like teeth, but the discovery would cost the boy so much more.
Gert Terblanche was picking a particularly crusty snot out of the edge of his right nostril when he heard Mister Van Rooyen’s booming voice shout from the front of the room.
“Terblanche! If you please.”
Gert dropped his incriminating hand, the booger still lingering on his pinkie. Gert stood up and his wooden chair toppled behind him. The crash sent the other Grade Three boys into convulsive guffaws giving Gert an excuse to bend over, pick up the chair and deposit his nose contents under the seat with its many predecessors.
Mister Van Rooyen looked at a yellow memo from the main office as Gert shuffled to his desk. “Terblanche, did you send a letter to Dr. Broom of the Transvaal Museum?” The schoolteacher belied no hint of the laudations or reprimand that would follow an answer.
Gert blinked. They wrote the letter nearly six months ago, before Kimi had gone. It was her idea, and she was ten and knew all the big words. They used her mother’s typewriter. Kimi said Gert should sign the letter alone. Her name was Hausa and she was a girl. Museum people, she reasoned, would be more likely to reply to an Afrikaans little boy. Remembering his promise to his mother, Gert accepted sole authorship. “Yes, Mister Van Rooyen, sir. I did.”
“Well, whatever you wrote has intrigued the doctor. He’s paying a visit to the school at week’s end.”
Gert was still unsure as to whether this visit was a cause celebre or grounds for a month of detentions.
“Sir? Dr. Broom is coming to Kromdraai?”
“Indeed, Master Terblanche. Well done.” The young boy began to see the glint of a smile in Mister Van Rooyen’s eyes. “Dr. Broom will be the most interesting person to arrive in the Gauteng Valley since Prime Minister Smuts crossed through seven years ago on his way to Port Elizabeth for the election of ‘31. But you wouldn’t remember that.” The school teacher tussled the boy’s white gold hair. Gert looked up at his teacher with wide green eyes. “Well done, Terblanche. You’re going to put this valley on the map, you are.” The schoolteacher went in for a proper and hearty handshake with the small boy who prayed there were no remnants of his earlier nasal indiscretion on his hand. “You’re supposed to bring the teeth you found, Terblanche. The doctor wants to see the teeth.”
Supper was lively that night after the announcement. Gert’s father congratulated him on his scientific fervor, his mother praised him for his initiative but questioned Dr. Broom’s Darwinian tendencies. No one mentioned Kimi, of course. Gert was the first and last one to have ever said her name in the Terblanche house. A regret, he thought often, that would follow him well past Grade Three.
Gert prepared for bed early and closed the door to his room firmly behind. He pulled a small wooden box out from under his bed. He sat cross-legged on the mattress his woolen blankets scratching at his short trousered knees.
Unwrapping the cloth, Gert touched the soft, worn, fraying edges of the square of green and yellow gingham. The teeth, five large brown-grey pebbles, lay firmly in the palm of his hand. Gert and Kimi had read about fossils in an article by Dr. Broom from a decades old Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.
“What does ‘Permian Reptiles’ mean?"
Kimi was always patient with the younger boy. “I don’t know. I think it’s something about the dinosaurs.” She read old pamphlets and magazines all the time. Her mother told her they were better than school.
“Here he says ‘. . . the change in the jaw frame is the evolutionary sign that distinguishes the primate from the hominid. When we find a creature with more strength in the rear jaw, we will know they were using tools’.” Kimi had grabbed Gert’s hand excitedly, “We have to write to Dr. Broom and tell him about our skeleton!” She got mock serious and looked directly into Gert’s eyes holding the teeth to his face. “What if these are the missing link?” The two laughed their heads off as they always did.
Gert had no words for the feelings he was having at the moment as he looked at those teeth in the green and yellow cloth. It certainly was an honor. Dr. Broom was coming to his school, to meet him, to collect the teeth. Yet, Gert could not explain the lump in his throat.
Gert was supposed to go to the caves that first day of summer break with his mates, Deiter and Markus. But the two other boys abandoned the idea in favor of swimming at the Koringspruit Bend with Deiter’s older brother and other Senior Phase schoolmates. Gert went along to the river with them once that week, but the older boys’ vulgar and boisterous antics made the small boy relish the quiet climbing and digging in the caves.
He had never been in the caves alone before but he felt emboldened that first day of summer. He’d soon be entering the last year of Foundation Phase at Kromdaai and, in his seven-year-old mind, that meant he was practically an adult.
He heard her scuttling first then saw her lantern from a small crevice the first fifteen minutes of his solo exploration.“Who’s there?” Gert’s heartbeat throbbed in his ears. Every shadow of her lantern became another spear-wielding Zulu ghost.
“It is I. OKimma Buhari of the West! And who are you so rudely disturbing my royal lair?” Gert shone his flashlight on a skinny brown leg emerging from where the still echoing bold voice had originated. The rest of the cave crawler emerged from a slit in the limestone that looked too thin to accommodate an arithmetic book. She stood on the ledge above Gert, feet bare, arms akimbo, a green and yellow gingham frock hanging on her thin frame like priestly robes. Gert stared in awe. He had never seen a coloured girl. He had seen some blacks once when he and his father rode to Queenstown to get feed during the winter drought. But this regal vision surrounded by the glow of limestone, was mystical. Her hair, kinky and brown, had a thin gilded layer. Her skin, too, seemed the color of the autumn hills at sunset in Guateng. Her brownish eyes reflected Gert’s flashlight with a piercing emerald glint. Suddenly she shone her lantern into Gert’s face. “I found some bones. You want to see them?”
When only two days were left of summer break, Gert asked his mother if Kimi could have lunch at their home. He had spent many afternoons with Kimi and her mother in their little corrugated shack eating mealie-meal cakes and the occasional small roast bird if Kimi could knock one out of the enormous shade tree on the edge of the cave with her slingshot. Gert loved to listen to Kimi and her mother argue in Hausa. The quick rhythms had a light and tripping feel. Gert felt that when people were angry in Hausa it was never the same as angry in Afrikaans which was heavy and slow and bore down on you like the air before the summer storms. Gert’s mother’s voice had that weightiness now.
“Yes, mama. We’ve played in the caves all summer. We found bones and teeth and she can shoot a slingshot and she speaks three languages and reads giant science books that her mother gets from the Quaker missionaries. Her mother has a typewriter. It looks just like the one papa used to have. We wrote a letter to one of the professors in this dinosaur article who said he likes fossils, that’s what we found in the cave. Fossils.”
“That’s who you’ve been playing with?” Gert could see his mother’s hand shaking as she called out the window to his father who was filling the cattle trough with fresh water. “Johannes, come in here. Now!” Gert had never seen his mother’s face so red, her lips so tightly stretched across her teeth, her eyes so full of hate.
The next day when Gert went to see Kimi to say his mother wasn’t feeling well so they’d have to eat lunch at her house again, Kimi and her mother had disappeared. Their little tin house was completely empty inside save for a small green and yellow gingham piece of cloth, the pocket of her dress, wrapped around five ancient fossilized teeth.
Komdraai Primary was in a state of frenzy during the few short days leading up to Dr. Broom’s arrival. Tiles were scrubbed, blackboards were wiped, yards were swept and flattened. The Gauteng Gazetteer were scheduled to send a photographer and a reporter. Every student was inspected and spit washed before the black Rolls Royce came rumbling down the dusty road to their humble farm school.
Dr. Broom’s vigor was supernatural. The creases in his face said he was an old man, but his crisp dark suit and his arrow straight posture told a story of perpetual determination and infinite curiosity. He stood at the podium of the small assembly hall looking out at the steely but eager faces of the rural schoolchildren.
“I am a paleontologist, lads and lasses. I used to be a medical doctor. I helped deliver babies, in fact, in Scotland where I grew up. That skill allowed me to travel the world. When I came to South Africa many, many years ago I was fascinated with bones and fossils and the origination of man. I’m quite sure that origin is right here in this valley, my wee ones. And one of your classmates has helped me a great deal. Gert Terblanche, laddie, I think you have something to show me.”
This was all staged, of course. Dr. Broom had met privately with Gert and his family earlier that morning to see the teeth. Gert asked his mother if she had a handkerchief he could wrap the teeth in. “You know something a little nicer than this old rag.” Gert suprised himself with how real his feigned disdain sounded. But he didn’t want his mother to know he planned to keep that ripped pocket as a keepsake.
Dr. Broom made a show in front of the crowd, exchanging Gert one shilling for every tooth. And then with an entourage of university students equipped with shovels, pick axes, and sifting tools he said with a flourish, “Well, my laddie, how about you bring us to that cave where you found these glorious teeth?”
The War halted funding for the excavations for more than eight years. The skull, jawbones and teeth of Paranthropus Robustus were finally ready for display at the Transvaal Museum’s “Cradle of Humankind” exhibit one Sunday in 1948. A tow-headed teenaged boy stood next to the erect and robust elderly museum director who pulled the golden rope unveiling the bones of almost man. The lanky seventeen-year old fiddled with a scrap of green and yellow checked cloth in his pocket. The museum patrons, some of whom would vote the next day to codify the hate the boy once saw in his mother’s eyes, pressed their faces against the sparkling new exhibit glass.