Who We Are As “Earthlings”

Within the order of the universe the planet Earth provides the
efficient, final, material, and formal causes that bring the human into being,
support the human in being, and lead the human to fulfillment.
– Thomas Berry
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver

In connection with a recent trip back to Kenya in May, I began reading two books about Africa that had serendipitously (as often they do) come in to my life just as I was getting ready to leave. One, the nearly 800 pages of which I am only yet half way through, is Africa: A Biography of the Continent. The author, John Reader, is a British writer and photojournalist who lived several years in South Africa and traveled the continent extensively.  The second book, Why Africa Matters, is written by Cedric Mayson, a Methodist minister and active participant in the resistance to apartheid in South Africa.

A significant theme for me in both books is reinforcement of the idea that we who are a part of the human community on Earth today are all “out of Africa.”

John Reader (1997) presents the biography of Africa in a sweeping timeline that begins more than 3,600 million years ago with the formation of Earth’s crust. Portions of the African continent have remained in place on the planet since then. Scientists speculate that the other continents broke off from Africa and drifted away, eventually taking up the positions we know them to have today. This means that Africa is “The Mother Continent.”

It is interesting to me that for Western Europeans and their descendants Africa became the “The Dark Continent.”  Perhaps there is some deep psychological connection here to our all having come out of the dark wombs of our mothers that goes beyond even the negative patriarchal association of women with darkness.

Reader’s book is packed on every page with scientific and historic detail. Yet, amidst reading through all the details, I couldn’t help but be touched emotionally as I read in the early chapters of the book about the slow, evolutionary struggle that led to our coming into our own as anatomically and socially modern humans despite the geographic and climatic challenges of Africa.

It is Mayson who uses the now undisputed fact of our human origins in Africa, and our emergence in deep relationship to all other aspects of Earth’s community of life – plants, animals, rivers, weather – to suggest that we discard the term “human” in favor of calling ourselves “Earthlings.”

Mayson argues that it is this vision of ourselves as Earthlings, united in a bond of community that goes back to the aged motherland of Africa, that must guide our decisions today. He argues that we need an approach to ecology, economy, and religion that stems from this vision if we are to survive on the planet to birth future generations.

The vision of ourselves as Earthlings begins with the discovery in Tanzania of a trail of footprints left 3.6 million years ago by three walking hominids (not yet truly like us) preserved in mud created by volcanic ash.  Reader (1997) offers this graphic description of the area, called Laetoli, where the footprints are located, noting that it looks much the same today as it did those millions of years ago:

The highland foothills are covered in dense acacia thornbush, and the upper slopes are swathed in grass that turns from green to golden as the dry season advances. Westward, the plain extends to a distant horizon, the broad undulating expanse broken here and there by huge steep-sided outcrops of granite and gneiss….Elephants come down from the highlands; giraffes cross the plain, their legs blurred in the shimmering heat haze; lions lie concealed in the dun-coloured grass, herds of zebra and antelope mingle nervously, flocks of guinea fowl scatter noisily. Laetoli preserves a sense of the Earth in a pristine state, when humanity had but recently learnt to walk (p. 58).

Our ancient ancestors walked out of Africa in small numbers some 100,000 years ago, migrating to the shores of the Mediterranean, and on to the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Australasia, and the Far East. Earthlings who looked anatomically like us reached South America, having crossed through the Bering Straight, by 12,000 years ago.  As Reader puts it, “Within the span of 4,000 generations” we modern humans spread to every habitable part of the globe, and have been to the moon (pp. 91-93).

How is it that we managed to do succeed in this great migration? Reader offers this conclusion: “We see visions of the future in the mind’s eye, and turn them to reality with the aptitudes and talents which evolution bestowed – in Africa” (p. 95).

Reading these two books has made me more conscious that so much of what we know and take for granted as familiar in terms of human economy, society, and culture is a gift of the thousands of generations committed to survival who went before us. Grains, such as wheat and barely, that I take home in boxes from the grocery store were initially cultivated by humans some 9,000 years ago in the “fertile crescent” of the Near East. The carbohydrates we all are so concerned about in our modern obsession with diets – and which our bodies need – were supplied by the arduous gathering of seeds, fruits and tubers harvested annually where they grew in the wild in the Nile valley as long as 19,000 years ago.

These images help me find meaning in my own life using the same “mind’s eye” that evolved in the brain of our ancient hominid ancestors.  In that mind’s eye, I now envision myself belonging to those 4,000 generations of human men and women whose DNA I carry within me. And I ask myself, “What will be my contribution to seeing that their struggle and triumph is not in vain?”

For an interactive map of the migration of modern humans out of Africa and around the globe, visit this site on the Web:


Mayson, D. (2010). Why Africa matters. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Reader, John. (1997). Africa: A biography of the continent. New York, NY: Randam House.

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