Lucy, the 3.2 Million Year Old Mankind’s Ancestor … in a Line of Ancestors

As we continue to learn more about Lucy, and the origin of mankind, I thought of sharing the video below. It is a short interview of Donald Johanson who found Lucy in 1974 in the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia. It is “In Conversation with Donald Johanson, a film by Pierangelo Pirak” on the BBC Earth. It is just a snippets, but it helps to perceive the change that occurred with the discovery of Lucy in our understanding of the human evolution and origin. There are definitely other documentaries, much longer that will give more information, but this is to wet your appetite. Since the discovery of Lucy, more Australopithecus afarensis have been found, and even older remains like those of the Kenyantropus platyops (3.5 million years) or the Ardipithecus (dated 4.4 million years).  Enjoy!

Lucy: the Oldest Ancestor to Mankind?

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Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis), approximately 3.2 million years ago (Replica of her skull at the Origins Museum)

How many of you have pondered upon the origin of humanity? Or who could have been the oldest ancestor to mankind? Or how we are all related to that ancestor?

I know some will say Adam and Eve… but what if it was Lucy and someone else instead? What if it was not somewhere in the Middle East but rather on the African continent?

Well, today, we will be talking about Lucy, the first human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia, in Africa, the cradle of humanity.

Lucy was discovered in 1974 in Africa, at Hadar, a site in the Awash Valley of the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia, by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History . In Ethiopia she is known as Dinkinesh, meaning the marvelous one in Amharic. The Lucy specimen is an early australopithecine and is dated to about 3.2 million years ago. At the time of the findings, it was the most ancient early human – or hominin – ever found. It was also the most complete: 40% of the skeleton had been preserved.

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Reconstruction of Lucy’s skeleton, cast from Musee national d’histoire naturelle, Paris (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, you might ask, why is she called Lucy? Well, because the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was playing on the radio when the archaeologists found her remains. Thus the name Lucy. Lucy belongs to the species of Australopithecus afarensis; afarensis for the Afar region of Ethiopia where she was found. She is one of the most important fossils ever discovered. Her discovery helped solidify the idea that Africa was the cradle of humanity, and a crucial hub for human evolution. Before Lucy, the skeleton of the Taung child dated to about 2.8 million years old had been found in South Africa in 1924, but European archaeologists and scientists refused to admit (as always) that Africa could be important in the study of human evolution. As always, they thought that Europe and Asia were the centers. Aren’t we tired of this Eurocentric view of the world which pretends to give meaning to everything it does not understand? Oh Mama Africa, your beauty and splendor is truly too much for these people that they have to keep denying your place and importance in the world!

Lucy was an upright walker, i.e. she walked standing up, thus dating the bipedalism observed in humans to at least 3.2 million years. She was only about 1 meter tall (3.5 feet). Lucy was a full-grown adult, because she had wisdom teeth and her bones had fused. Unlike modern humans, it would seem that she had grown to full size very quickly, and was about 12 years old when she died. From a 2006 study, the findings of a 3-year-old Australopithecus afarensis suggested that their brains reached their full size much earlier than modern human’s does. Lucy was ape-like in appearance and brain size, but could walk upright like more advanced hominins that lived later like the Taung child (2.8 million years) or the Australopitecus sediba (2.2 million years old). She had powerful arms and long curved toes that paleontologists think allowed her to climb trees as well as walk upright.

Lucy’s finding marked a turning point in our understanding of humanity, and the human lineage. She is a treasure, and although older skeletons have since then been found like the Kenyantropus platyops (3.5 million years) or the Ardipithecus (dated 4.4 million years), she remains a treasure. No wonder, Ethiopians call her Dinkinesh or “you are marvelous” or “marvelous one“, for Lucy truly is marvelous as she has allowed to place Africa back at the center as the cradle of humanity (Africa was always at the center, but some Eurocentric views would not let her shine). If you are ever in Addis Ababa, please do not forget to visit her (her cast) at the National Museum of Ethiopia . Enjoy!

For more, please check out the Institute of Human History at the Arizona State University (founded by Donald Johanson), the Smithsonian, and this very good article on The BBC website.

Quick Note on Successful C-section Pre-Colonial Africa, in Bunyoro Kingdom

As I read the account of Dr.  Robert W. Felkin of a successful C-section in the Bunyoro kingdom, I could not help but realize that in Africa, and particularly in this instance in the Bunyoro kingdom there was superior anesthetics, antiseptics, and advanced medicine which allowed them, at a time when in Europe this was considered a desperate measure performed only on dying mothers, to successfully deliver both mother and child.

Caesarean delivery in Uganda, 1879 (Felkin RW. Notes on labour in Central Africa. Edin Med J 1884;29:922-30.)

One important oddity in Felkin’s account is the illustration of the native doctor and his assistants and the pregnant mother. Note that in his written account, Felkin said of the woman that, “she was perfectly naked. A band of mbugu or bark cloth fastened her thorax to the bed, another band of cloth fastened down her thighs…The oddity is in the drawing: why would Felkin draw the native doctor and the assistants all naked, when he stated that the woman was naked? If the native doctor and assistants were all naked, wouldn’t he have stated that also? If he stated that she was naked, that means that, that was already something that stood out, i.e. that in normal days, the woman would be dressed, and for this operation only was she naked. This also implies that the native doctor and assistants were clothed, and only the patient was naked! Lastly, this may mean that either it was not Felkin who drew the image, or that Felikin was so astonished by the superiority of the Bunyoro doctor and assistant, and Bunyoro superior medicine, that he felt the need to present them in some ways as inferior people, savage men. What better way than by drawing them as primitive people all naked?

See… this is another case of falsifying history, denigrating a people, and debasing them. How low! Remember how I told you about the rich history of African Fabrics and Textiles and the falsification performed by The New York Times, and also about the account by Cadamosto in the 1400s of very well dressed Africans (Description of African Dressing in 1400s) he met on the coast of most likely modern-day Gambia!

Successful C-Sections in Pre-Colonial Africa: Surgery in Bunyoro Kingdom

Sketch of Caesarean delivery in Uganda in 1879, by Felkin in Edin. Med. J. 1884

Did you know that long ago, when Cesarean sections (C-sections) were deemed dangerous in Europe, Africans were safely performing them on the continent? Did you know that there was an extremely high success rate? Both mother and child lived! And no fancy “modern” equipment was used!

Historically, in Europe, when a c-section was performed upon a living woman, it usually resulted in the death of the mother. It was considered an extreme measure, performed only when the mother was already dead or considered to be beyond help. It was a last resort.

Well, imagine Robert W. Felkin’s surprise when he found out that in the great kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in modern-day Uganda, C-sections were considered routine! Imagine his surprise when the “backwards” people he met successfully delivered both mother and child, and had a very sophisticated surgical technique dating back a long time.

Dr. R. W. Felkin

In 1879, the British medical student R W. Felkin who had embarked on a mission led by the Church Missionary Society to Central Africa (probably hoping to rescue the souls of the savage natives) witnessed a C-section in the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. He found out that in the Bunyoro kingdom, this was a routine procedure with extremely high success rates. There, the native healer used banana wine to cleanse his hands and the woman’s abdomen before the surgery. The healer used a midline incision and applied cautery to minimize hemorrhaging. He then massaged the uterus to make it contract, but did not suture it; the abdominal wound was pinned with iron needles (remember that Africans have been masters at iron smelting for centuries) and dressed with a paste prepared from roots. The woman was fully awake during the entire procedure, and recovered well. Felkin recognized that the degree of perfection and precision of the technique implied that it had been in use for a very long time.

His account was received in Europe with shock and skepticism, because after all, if they, Europeans couldn’t do it, how could the ‘backwards’ Africans do it? The account can be found in “The Development of Scientific Medicine in the African Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara” by J.N.P. Davies, Med. Hist. 1959, Jan 3 (1) 45 – 47. Felkin gave a lecture to the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society on January 9th 1884 entitled “Notes on Labour in Central Africa” (Felkin, R.W., Edin. Med. J., 1884, XXIX, 922); it is from this lecture that the following account on c-section delivery in Bunyoro kingdom is taken:  

The patient was a fine healthy-looking young woman of about twenty years of age… The woman lay upon an inclined bed, … She was liberally supplied with banana wine, and was in a state of semi-intoxication. She was perfectly naked. A band of mbugu or bark cloth fastened her thorax to the bed, another band of cloth fastened down her thighs, and a man held her ankles. Another man, standing on her right side, steadied her abdomen.

The knife used for the c-section operation in 1879 (Wellcome Historical Medical Museum – “The Development of Scientific Medicine in the African Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara” by J.N.P. Davies)

The operator stood, as I entered the hut, on her left side, holding his knife aloft with his right hand, and muttering an incantation. This being done, he washed his hands and the patient’s abdomen, first with banana wine and then with water.

Then, having uttered a shrill cry, which was taken up by a small crowd assembled outside the hut, he proceeded to make a rapid cut in the middle line, commencing a little above the pubes, and ending just below the umbilicus. The whole abdominal wall and part of the uterine wall were severed by this incision, and the liquor amnii escaped; a few bleeding-points in the abdominal wall were touched with a red-hot iron by an assistant. The operator next rapidly finished the incision in the uterine wall; his assistant held the abdominal walls apart with both hands, and as soon as the uterine wall was divided he hooked it up also with two fingers.

The child was next rapidly removed, and given to another assistant after the cord had been cut, and then the operator, dropping his knife, seized the contracting uterus with both hands and gave it a squeeze or two. He next put his right hand into the uterine cavity through the incision, and with two or three fingers dilated the cervix uteri from within outwards. He then cleared the uterus of clots and the placenta, which had by this time become detached, removing it through the abdominal wound. His assistant endeavoured, but not very successfully, to prevent the escape of the intestines through the wound. The red-hot iron was next used to check some further hemorrhage from the abdominal wound, but I noticed that it was very sparingly applied. All this time the chief “surgeon” was keeping up firm pressure on the uterus, which he continued to do till it was firmly contracted. No sutures were put into the uterine wall.

The assistant who had held the abdominal walls now slipped his hands to each extremity of the wound, and a porous grass mat was placed over the wound and secured there. The bands which fastened the woman down were cut, and she was gently turned to the edge of the bed, and then over into the arms of assistants, so that the fluid in the abdominal cavity could drain away on to the floor. She was then replaced in her former position, and the mat having been removed, the edges of the wound, i.e. the peritoneum, were brought into close apposition, seven thin iron spikes, well-polished, like acupressure needles, being used for the purpose, and fastened by string made from bark cloth. A paste prepared by chewing two different roots and spitting the pulp into a bowl was then thickly plastered over the wound, a banana leaf warmed over the fire being placed on the top of that, and, finally, a firm bandage of mbugu cloth completed the operation.

A caesarean section performed by indigenous healers in Kahura, Uganda. As observed by medical missionary Robert William Felkin in 1879

Until the pins were placed in position the patient had uttered no cry, and an hour after the operation she appeared to be quite comfortable. … The child was placed to the breast two hours after the operation, … The wound was dressed on the third morning, and one pin was then removed. Three more were removed on the fifth day, and the rest on the sixth. At each dressing fresh pulp was applied, and a little pus which had formed was removed by a sponge formed of pulp. A firm bandage was applied after each dressing. Eleven days after the operation the wound was entirely healed, and the woman seemed quite comfortable. …

So as you think again of medicine in Africa, think of successful c-sections performed in the Bunyoro kingdom in the 1800s (and probably long before then), and the long traditions and advanced medical training that allowed for such degree of sophistication and precision. This marked the turning point for modern (European) medicine in c-section, and led to the increased success rates we see today. It is however conveniently left out of history books!

Archaeologists Uncover Oldest Human Burial in Africa

Oldest burial found in Africa of a 3-year-old boy (Source: Nature)

Archaeologists have uncovered the oldest human burial in Africa. It is the body of a 3-year-old boy who was buried 80,000 years ago. As always, it is good to note that even though Africa is the cradle of the human species, very little research has been conducted on the continent showing a real bias in research, but also highlighting the need for Africans to do their own studies: there is so much to find! There is so much wealth (in every field)! Excerpts below is from an article on the Guardian. Please check out the original article in Nature, and also the press release on the New York Times website.

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‘Quite spectacular’ discovery shows three-year-old child was carefully laid to rest nearly 80,000 years ago

Archaeologists have identified the oldest known human burial in Africa during field work that uncovered the remains of a child laid carefully to rest in a grave nearly 80,000 years ago.

The arrangement of the bones shows the three-year-old – named Mtoto after the Swahili word for child – was placed with legs tucked to chest, and perhaps wrapped in a shroud with their head on a pillow, before being gently covered in soil.

Researchers discovered the delicate and degraded bones while excavating the floor beneath a sheltered overhang at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave in the tropical uplands of Kenya’s coastal plain about 10 miles from the shore.

This is quite spectacular,” said Michael Petraglia, a professor of human evolution and prehistory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. “It is the oldest human burial in Africa. It tells us something about our cognition, our sociality and our behaviours and they are all very familiar to us today.”

Overview of the cave of Panga ya Saidi. The boarded excavation on the right marks the locality where the burial was recovered. (photo by Mohammad Javad Shoaee).

… The team unearthed the edge of the grave and the first pieces of bone in 2013, but the fragments were so fragile they turned to dust when the scientists tried to remove them. Over the next four years, the researchers excavated the grave from above, revealing yet more bone, but even after applying resins to the material, it was still too weak to recover.

The researchers decided to dig around the circular pit, roughly 40 cm wide and 13 cm deep, and encase the whole grave in plaster so it could safely be lifted from the ground. The block was taken to the National Museum in Nairobi and on to a specialist lab in Spain where the material was excavated further and then imaged with 3D X-ray equipment.

Two small teeth found in the grave matched those of Homo sapiens and put the age of the child at two and a half to three years old. Further teeth were still embedded in the child’s lower jaw, discovered with the spine, ribs and other bones from the shoulder and limbs. Stone tools for scraping, boring and engraving were found in and around the grave, alongside stone points that may have been hafted on to wooden shafts to make spears.

The images show that the child was laid on their right side with knees tucked up towards the chest, while the position of the skull suggests that it lay on a headrest or pillow. The articulated bones, such as the spine, had not fallen apart in the grave, leading the researchers to suspect the body was wrapped tightly in a shroud before burial. Dating found the bones to be about 78,000 years old, according to the study published in Nature.

… “Early African burials are especially rare despite the fact that Africa is the birthplace of our species,” said Boivin. “This almost certainly reflects biases in where research has been done – the regions where earlier burials have been found have been much more extensively researched than Africa.

South African Audiometer Helps NASA Research Aboard the International Space Station

Flag of South Africa

Just saw this article on how an audiometer made in South Africa is helping NASA research hearing aboard the International Space Station, and thought to share with all. As you probably guessed, South Africa has one of the strongest and biggest space programs in Africa, with its South African National Space Agency (SANSA). For the full article go to Africanews.space. Enjoy!

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NASA has recruited the help of South African company eMoyo, in a bid to research the biological effects of noise in space and aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on the astronauts. eMoyo is a South African company that seeks to create a future where medical technology and the care it provides to humanity are merged into a ubiquitous system.

NASA had previously faced challenges in accomplishing this research due to lack of equipment, as it needed a lightweight product which was easy to operate. It is in this respect that eMoyo’s KUDUwave provides the answers to NASA’s plight.

The KUDUwave is a portable high-frequency audiometer featuring booth-free operation and high-frequency hearing testing up to 16 kHz. It has been used to test audio deficiencies, in South Africa as far back as 2009. The KUDUwave Pro combines the sound booth, audiometers, bone conductor, and extended high-frequency headset in a single, lightweight device. It includes the full battery of testing options as well as the ability to test almost anywhere.

NASA recruited the KUDUwave portable boothless audiometer and has transported it to the ISS via a commercial resupply mission known as the Northrop Grumman NG, aboard the CRS-15 Cygnus spacecraft. The audiometer, while innovative in its own right, had to be “slightly modified for self-testing in space”, according to eMoyo executive John Tidy. …

Italian Space Center in Kenya?

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Do you know about the Italian-run Broglio Space Centre (previously known as the San Marco Equatorial Range) located off the coasts of Kenya? Yes… you heard me right, there is an an Italian space center in MalindiKenya. As you recall, Malindi was the first African city the most venerated Chinese maritime admiral Zheng He reached on the horn of Africa in 1418, even before Vasco da Gama? Indeed, Zheng He’s great armada rich of more than 300 ships and as many as 30,000 troops entered the coastal town of Malindi, in modern day Kenya, in 1418. If you are like me, this is quite a news: a space center off the coast of an African country (if you know of others, please let me know), and an Italian presence in Africa tends to be sparse, especially since its defeat at the hands of Ethiopia at the Battle of Adwa, and later during world war II. Can you imagine that the presence of this space center has created such a Kenyan-Italian synergy to the point that the lingua franca on Malindi is Italian? I wonder if they ever hire or train the locals to operate this space center, or to be engineers, technical workforce? From past experience, they probably don’t. Excerpts below are from the BBC. Enjoy!

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Malindi, a seaside town by the Indian Ocean that was founded in the 13th Century, is 120km (about 75 miles) north-east of Mombasa and has been known as “Little Italy” since the late 1960s.

The tourist resort is brimming with Italian restaurants, pizzerias, delis and gelato shops – billboards advertise in Italian, restaurant menus offer after-dinner liquors such as Limoncello and Amaro.

Most people speak Italian – from the Kenyan housekeeper where I stayed and the tuk-tuk drivers who ferried me around, to the waiters and the fisherman hanging around on the beach.

It is the town’s lingua franca. …

The history of the Italians in Malindi goes back to the opening of the Italian-run Broglio Space Centre off Kenya’s coast [32 km from Malindi] in the Indian Ocean. [It started as a partnership between the Italian Space Research Commission and NASA, with 2 offshore launch sites made from old oil platforms, and a mainland communications station].

Broglio Space Centre Platform (Source: NASA on BBC website)

The first Italians to arrive in the town were engineers and scientists, who loved what they found. Word soon spread about Malindi’s miles of pristine beaches, abundance of seafood and good-natured inhabitants [colonization was always like that: good-natured inhabitants who could be fooled easily, and their lands grabbed away].

By the 1970s the community began to take shape, with many settling in Malindi and pursuing opportunities in the tourism industry.

They opened hotels, restaurants, built beach villas and became economically integral in the town.

… The town had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when tourism boomed and estimates suggest 4,000 Italians lived in the town and 30,000 visited annually.

But a shadier side to Malindi also emerged with allegations that the underage sex trade was rampant, as was the drugs trade and even whispers of the Italian mafia’s presence.

Still the tropical paradise with its hint of noir flourished until a slump began with Italy’s financial crash of 2008.

… But it is still a blissful place to relax and enjoy if you can visit, and while tucking into a delicious plate of crab linguine, I felt transported back in time if not place.

Mining giant Glencore faces human rights complaint over toxic spill in Chad

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Another giant is facing human rights complain over toxic spill in Chad… Usually these giant corporations are free to pollute in Africa, and never or rarely face any setbacks… I wonder what this is all about… is there a competitor to Glencore that wants Glencore out of Chad to come polluting as well? I know I am a cynic… but you will have to admit that these giant corporations have polluted freely in every corner of the world, and in Africa in particular, without even getting a tap on the hand. I applaud this and hope that the people of Chad will get compensated… as no pollution should go unpunished. Excerpts below are from an article in the Guardian.

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The wastewater basin at Glencore UK’s operations in Badila, southern Chad, collapsed in September 2018, unleashing 85m litres of runoff. Photograph: Raid (Source: The Guardian)

The UK government has accepted a human rights complaint against mining and commodities giant Glencore regarding a toxic wastewater spill in Chad, where dozens of villagers – among them children – claim they suffered severe burns, skin lesions and sickness after contact with contaminated water.

The complaint, brought by three human rights groups on behalf of affected communities, alleges environmental abuses and social engagement failures by the FTSE-100 company in relation to two spillages, the wastewater spill and an alleged oil spill, both in 2018.

… In September 2018, a wastewater basin holding a crude oil by-product collapsed at Glencore UK’s operations in Badila, southern Chad. Some 85 m litres of runoff – equivalent in volume to 34 Olympic-sized swimming pools – flooded fields and the local river, which local people use for drinking, bathing and washing.

At least 50 people reported burns, skin lesions, sickness and diarrhoea after bathing in or using the contaminated river water in the weeks after the leak. Many of those harmed were children, some of whom were admitted to hospital. One 13-year-old boy was unable to move his body for a year after swimming in the river, which doctors attributed to the “crude oil burns”. Livestock drinking from the river also died, according to the complaint.

World Tiniest Reptile found in Madagascar

Madagascar
Madagascar

There has been a discovery of possibly the world’s tiniest reptile in Madagascar, the grande Ile. It is a Seed-sized chameleon, which scientists have tagged the nano-chameleon, named Brookesia nana (who gives these sort of names? – the Brookesia is probably derived from one of the scientist’s name), whose body is only 13.5 mm long. Excerpts below are from the Guardian. Enjoy!

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Scientists say they have discovered a sunflower-seed-sized subspecies of chameleon that may well be the smallest reptile on Earth.

Two of the miniature lizards, one male and one female, were discovered by a German-Madagascan expedition team in northern Madagascar.

The male Brookesia nana, or nano-chameleon, has a body that is only 13.5 mm (0.53 inches) long, making it the smallest of all the roughly 11,500 known species of reptiles, the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich said. Its total length from nose to tail is just under 22 mm (0.87 inch).

The female nano-chameleon is significantly larger, with an overall length of 29 mm, the research institute said, adding that the scientists were unable to find further specimens of the new subspecies “despite great effort”.

Professor Hulda Swai of Tanzania Wins Distinguished Science Award: ‘Women are as good as men’

Professor Hulda Swai (Source: nm-aist.ac.tz)

Congratulations to Professor Hulda Swai of Tanzania for winning the 2020 prize of the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Continental Awards for Scientific Excellence. This is a prestigious scientific award in Africa. Her work with nanotechnology has helped to study more effective anti-malarial medicines, and through the World Bank, she has helped to secure millions of dollars to fund African researchers. She is an outstanding scientist, and Oliver Tambo Chair for Nanotechnology as well as the director of the African Center of Excellence at the Nelson Mandela Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Tanzania. The award comes with the sum of $20,000. She told the BBC’s Focus on Africa radio programme, “I’m using nanotechnology, which is my training and expertise, to improve the availability of existing herbal extracts which are very potent but are lacking for example solubility.” Excerpts below are from the The Citizen. Please also take the time to listen to her interview to the BBC at the BBC’s Focus on Africa radio programme.

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Arusha. Tanzanian scholar Hulda Swai has won a prestigious scientific award in Africa. The award has been given since 2008 by the African Union (AU) Commission as part of its drive to promote science, technology and innovation. The professor of life sciences and bioengineering was declared the 2020 winner of AU Kwame Nkrumah Continental Awards for Scientific Excellence.

It is sweet news but I’m not entirely surprised. Science has been part of my life since childhood.”

… The award goes with a $20,000 (about Sh 47 million) cash prize for the 66 year old female scholar specializing in nanotechnology.

Prof Swai is the current leader of the African Centre for Research, Agricultural Advancement, Teaching Excellence, and Sustainability at NM-AIST. …

Last year, Prof Swai was appointed as one of the chair holders of the prestigious O.R Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative. … The objective, she noted, is to give out scientific awards to top African scientists “for their scientific achievements and valuable discoveries and findings.”