"Can it really be called academic research?"

10 July 2012

Friedemann Schrenk, the 13th scholar to hold the Johannes Gutenberg Endowed Professorship, often seems to stray from the normal path. The paleoanthropologist demonstrated this ability once again in his final "Out of Africa" lecture. Moving from fossilized teeth through racist thinkers and genetic findings, he ended up by encouraging people to become members of the Friends of Mainz University association.

There is one question that is not infrequently put to Friedemann Schrenk at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU): "What you do – can it really be called academic research? All you seem to do is just tell interesting stories." He smiles as he says this and offers no defense of his position. In fact, the paleoanthropologist skilfully combines both aspects, something that the people of Mainz got to experience at first hand.

The Gutenberg Endowed Professor has been entertaining his audience over nine evenings with his lecture series "Out of Africa: The Global History of Homo Sapiens". Senior citizens sat next to university students, children next to dignitaries. Schrenk had decided to talk about a couple of the highlights from his field in his final lecture entitled "Re-interpretations – fossil stories and their reconstruction".

What teeth tell us

The researcher recommends using Google Earth to find fossils. "All we had before were extremely expensive satellite images," he recalls. Now he uses the web to find where sediment has been exposed through soil erosion. Such spots can contain potential finds. Schrenk discovered a fossilized tooth at such a spot fifteen years ago live on camera. He had gone to Africa to make a movie about the paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey. Schrenk brought a clip along in which Leakey can be seen enthusing about the find. "This shows that we're not feigning this – she would never have agreed to act like that for a film."

Schrenk rapidly moves from the prehistoric man's tooth to other tooth discoveries and then turns to discussing a joint project with researchers from the Institute of Geography at JGU: "As the global temperature changes, the isotope levels in water also change." The level is influenced by how much water is captured as ice at the poles. These isotopes accumulate in tooth enamel and fossilized hippopotamus teeth thus contain information on the climate in previous epochs. "We have colleagues here at Mainz who are absolute marvels when it comes to extracting such information. Don't you think that's fantastic? Well, I certainly do!"

What makes people different

Less fantastic in Schrenk's opinion is the role that racism has played in the interpretation of fossils. He touches on this subject again in his closing remarks. Carl von Linné divided humanity into races in his Systema Naturae. Schrenk quotes from the second edition of 1758: Native Americans "are red of face, are choleric, and governed by traditions". Asians are "cruel and greedy, governed by surmises and notions". Africans are "dull, lazy, indifferent, governed by capriciousness". But he had nothing but praise for Europeans: "Sky-blue eyes, perceptive, inventive, governed by laws."

"You may well laugh, but this was how social traits first became a feature of biological classifications," says Schrenk. Alone the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the 17th century claimed: "Race is the product of climatic conditions." And as far as Schrenk is concerned: "What happened over the next 300 years was a waste of time."

What genetics tells us

Although there were enough scholars who seemed willing to waste their time. From Georges Cuvier, through Paul Broca to Ernst Haeckel – they all thought that sooner or later that they have discovered significant identifying characteristics of the various races. Schrenk then shows images from colonial exhibitions and anthropological exhibitions. In 1885, the "Male and Female Australian Cannibals" show in London instilled fear in the hearts of visitors, while "50 Wild Women from the Congo" could be marveled at in Berlin in 1913. "And in the background to all this was always the question: Who is superior and who is inferior?" Africans were seen as the low point of evolution and Europeans the pinnacle.

"What does modern genetics say about this?", asks Schrenk – only to provide the answer himself. There is ten times more genetic variation within the chimpanzee family than there is in the human race. There is about ninety percent genetic variation within any one human population and this is significantly greater than the variation between the populations on different continents, which is a mere ten percent. "As there are no genetic differences between races, we have abandoned the concept of race."

What came out of Africa

Homo sapiens descends from just a few thousand individuals, and this genus of Homo left Africa to spread around the globe. All the important inventions and developments were made in Africa, including fishing, mining, and painting. The migrants took these with them when they moved to other continents.

Going off on a tangent again, Schrenk shows the current world map: "Nowadays global migration is severely restricted." The well-off regions are trying to fence themselves off from the rest of the world. And this is also a problem from the paleoanthropological point of view. "We do not conduct our research in the well-off regions of the world." Karonga in northern Malawi is not only one of the places where Schrenk made his most important finds but it is also where he has developed a deep-seated affection for the locals. He himself provided support to the people of Malawi in their attempts to establish a museum there and over the years, Malawi has seen the creation of an increasing number of educational facilities.

What the people of Mainz can do

"You too need to get involved," says Schrenk on behalf of Uraha, the organization that started it all. He then digresses for the final time and talks about the Friends of Mainz University, the association that established the Endowed Professorship in 2000. "You also need to get involved there as well."

The association now has 989 members. Schrenk then declares his intention to join on this, the last evening of his lectures. "But I'm only going to do it if ten other people join with me. Everybody who joins will get a signed copy of my book." And, as it turns out, there are plenty of willing applicants for membership. Schrenk counts along: "1,000, 1,001 ..."

The 13th holder of the Endowed Professorship finishes up by saying: "If you want to know anything, you can write me an e-mail at any time." He then starts with the signing. A line forms and it becomes apparent that the paleoanthropologist would be stuck in Mainz for a while yet.