The Bones of Lucy


On July 24 at the National Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, U.S. President Barack Obama touched “Lucy,” the 40 percent-complete skeleton of a female human ancestor who lived 3.2 million years ago in what today is known as Ethiopia. The bones of Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis showed that she walked upright, solidifying evidence that humans first emerged in Africa. President Obama viewed even older “Ethiopian” bones on that warm night, just before he dined with President Mulatu Teshome. There were the bones of Selam, a child who lived 3.3 million years ago, and Ardi, an adult who lived 4.5 million years ago. The bones of these two, however, come nowhere near to forming a skeleton as complete as Lucy’s. To date, the bones of 300 of Lucy’s kith and kin spread across Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia have been found.


Having given birth to Homo sapiens, Africa now is being touted as the place where the future of humanity lies, as population experts predict a massive shift in the world’s child population toward the continent. “The future of humanity is increasingly African,” declare the authors of “Generation 2030/Africa Report,” published by UNICEF just over a year ago. That statement would be true if the meaning of “humanity” were limited to “people bulge” and nothing more. It would not be a given, however, if “humanity” has to do with the way people are treated.


For now, Africa’s people bulge seems inevitable. Within days of President Obama’s encounter with Lucy’s bones, the United Nations predicted that Africa would account for much of the growth in the world’s human population this century. It estimated that population to be 11.2 billion by 2100, up from 7.3 billion today. By 2050, one quarter of the world’s human population, or 2.2 billion, will be in Africa, roughly double the continent’s current 1.2 billion inhabitants, or 16 percent of the world population. By 2100, if current demographic patterns continue, Africa will have 4.2 billion people — 39 percent of the world’s population. (The Fast Facts page of the website provides a host of population and other statistics on the continent.) The explosion in the continent’s child population alone is even more dramatic. In the next 15 years, about 40 percent of all children will be in Africa, up from about 10 percent in 1950. By 2100, almost half the children in the world under 18 years old will be living there, an increase from its current 25 percent share of the world’s 18-years-old-and-under population. All this because Africa has the world’s highest fertility level, with around 4.7 children per woman against the global average of 2.5 children per woman. Nineteen of the 21 countries classified today as “high-fertility” countries (meaning the average woman has five or more children over her lifetime) are in Africa. At a fertility rate of 7.63 children per woman, Niger tops the continent’s “high-fertility” countries. 


Many thought leaders in and beyond Africa have opined on the benefits that the continent can reap from this “demographic dividend,” especially from the “youth bulge,” if its leaders do the right thing. “The unprecedented projected increase in Africa’s child population size provides policymakers with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to craft a child-focused investment strategy that enables the continent, and the world, to reap the benefits of Africa’s demographic transition,” Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, is quoted as saying in the Jan. 14, 2015, edition of African Business magazine. “If Africa does what it has to do and does it well, Africa could be the continent that provides the workforce for the world.” (We’ll assume he is talking about skilled labor.)


Therein lies the worry: Will Africa do what has to be done and do it well? “The problem that I find is that we don’t have statesmen anymore, we have politicians. They are always looking to the next election. We don’t have long-term plans to make things happen in a totally different way,” Osotimehin muses. Having the greatest number of humans in the world is no guarantee that Africa will be the most humane place on earth. It would take continent-wide, people-centered governance for it to become that, where the well-being of the governed — men, women and children — takes precedence over all else in making and implementing policy. 


The bones of Lucy tell us much about a species that once populated the earth. What will the bones of Africans say?