HISTORIAN: Martin Meredith is in SA to promote his latest book. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

IT WAS time," says journalist-turned-historian Martin Meredith, when asked why he chose now to write the story of how the world came to realise humans are all descended from a small band of African hunter-gatherers.

Meredith is on a whistle-stop tour to SA to promote his latest book, Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life, which tracks the remarkable palaeontological findings of the p ast 100-odd years. A fair number have been made just 50km from Johannesburg at the Sterkfontein complex.

"Over the p ast 20 years a series of discoveries about human origins have been made that have transformed our understanding. It seemed to me it was time to write the book.

"Enormous gaps still remain, but there is enough to make a story; certain key facts have emerged - you can go back to the beginning which is 6- or 7-million years ago in Africa."

Fossilised skeletons discovered by several scientists across (mainly) southern and eastern Africa, plus huge advances in genetics since the 1980s, have reinforced the continent's importance in the story of human origins, he says: "Not just of our apelike ancestors, modern humans too."

He is referring to the startling discovery, by South African archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, of two small ochre tablets, purposefully cross-hatched by Stone Age (modern) Africans about 75000 years ago. The tablets imply that those who crafted them were capable of symbolic thought far earlier than previously believed; that humans cared about more than the bare necessities.

Having finished this last in a line of several books, most of which cover modern socioeconomic history, Meredith is working on a new book on the p ast 50 centuries of African history, which sounds a far tougher task than covering the remarkable story that makes up Born in Africa. When done it is almost sure to be a great read. Born in Africa certainly is. I found myself reading deep into the night, persuading myself one more chapter wouldn't hurt.

"I quite like looking at big subjects and reducing them to something manageable. In a sense that's what journalism is about," says Meredith, who had a long career as a journalist in Africa, first for The Times of Zambia in the mid-1960s, and then as foreign correspondent for London's The Observer and The Times.

Meredith arrived in Africa aged 21 in the mid-1960s, armed with a Boy's Own-style ambition to explore the Nile.

"It was a youthful ambition to get from Cairo to the Cape, so I explored the Nile and arrived in Cape Town about 18 months later. I liked exploring places." He did not explore SA until it became front page news in the 1980s, before which he knew it only as "a wonderful place to have Christmas".

Meredith left the daily deadlines of newspapers for life as an Oxford researcher because "in a sense my trade is Africa, but I wanted to understand what had really been going on. Eyewitness knowledge is what journalism is based in and it is often as good a knowledge as you can get at the time. But (covering the turmoil of the Congo's transition from colonialism to the modern state of Zaire), I found I had to wrench myself away from my convictions. I didn't know the hinterland. Journalism gives you the eyewitness experience. Academic research gives you the hinterland."

Africa's "hinterland" is, most obviously, the irreverent slicing up of the continent as booty for various colonial states, which means modern Africa comprises a collection of "artificial constructs" we call countries. This year's split of Africa's largest country, Sudan, into Sudan and South Sudan marked what might just be the first real rupture of one of these "artificial constructs", he says.

But Meredith likes to write history because he is fascinated by the way in which individuals, from dictators to scientists, can have an extraordinary effect on events.

Born in Africa is full of some truly great characters, the most iconic of whom is probably Louis Leakey who, with his wife, Mary, made some of the p ast century's most edifying discoveries during years of work in East Africa's famous Olduvai Gorge, among other sites.

While Born in Africa starts with the lesser-known discovery, just before the First World War, of a skeleton in East Africa by German Hans Reck, it quickly steps towards the remarkable findings of a reluctant Wits University professor in 1924. Raymond Dart's discovery of Australopi the cus Africanus, which he published in Nature that year, was the start of a crisis in world scientific circles. Just one of Dart's many "sins" was upending the idea that modern man came from Europe - he was pilloried by some for mixing Latin and Greek when naming A. Africanus.

So began years of "professional rivalry" in palaeontology, with the tussle between scientists across the globe sometimes hiding, sometimes revealing extraordinary findings and the theories to which they gave birth. "It's office politics if you like. It affects every profession, but it doesn't detract from the scientists' professional ability. The evidence is so meagre and if the evidence is thin people shout louder and louder about their own arguments and beliefs."

There's a pause then Meredith adds: "The great clash, really, is that of scientific endeavour and religious belief."

While Born in Africa mostly leaves creationism to the side, it does deal with palaeontology's "office politics", but that is not its raison d'être.

The rivalries - some titanic - are discussed only as part of the story of how humanity's origins have emerged from opacity. Tellingly, chapter titles reflect discoveries and theories; none is named for a scientist.

Most of the discoveries and theories come down to genetics.

"We now know how humans left Africa 60000 or 70000 years ago.

"There is debate about whether it was '60 or 70' , but those are small matters. What is important is we are all descendants of African hunter- gatherers. If you argued that in the 1970s, you'd have been laughed out of court."

Just as the power of the individual is perhaps most easily depicted in the formidable character of Leakey, the power of an individual's discovery is perhaps best illustrated in that of South African palaeontologist Elizabeth Vrba who, in the 1970s, discovered evidence of dramatic evolutionary change about 2,5-million years ago. Vrba linked this to a dramatic change in the global climate.

Meredith came to Africa having borrowed "£150 sterling" from an aunt, walking across dunes to Egypt's Rashid, where the Nile empties into the Mediterra ne an, so that he could claim to have walked the Nile from its start. He was looking for adventure and had, as a safety net, the name of an uncle in Dar es Salaam.

"I came to a stop in Zambia in 1965," he says with a journalist's flair for the dramatic. In fact, he made it all the way to Cape Town then made his way back up to work in Zambia. The rest, you might say, is (ancient) history.