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In a global partnership between Iziko Museums of South Africa, the SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE), the University of Bergen, Norway, and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa – a team of archaeologists have collaborated to showcase the discovery of our early modern human origins and innovations in southern Africa.
Undertaken by Professor Christopher Henshilwood, Dr Karen van Niekerk, Professor Sarah Wurz and their research teams at the respective archaeological sites – co-curated by documentary filmmaker, Craig Foster, and curator at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, Petro Keene – Origins expertly brings to life the rich archaeological record of three unique South African archaeological sites: Blombos Cave, Klipdrift Shelter and Klasies River.
All situated on the southern Cape coast of South Africa, these sites were occupied by early Homo Sapiens (humans like us) between 120 000 and 50 000 years ago – a key period in the evolution of modern human behaviour.
We are all ‘one’
The message of we are all one features strongly throughout the exhibition, pointing to the clear and current genetic evidence that all Homo Sapiens have their origins in Africa. This is revolutionary to our understanding that all people on Earth share a common ancestry. By examining our DNA, scientists have been able to tell us that we are all African and that we only moved to Asia and the rest of the world about 70 000 years ago.
The decades of archaeological discoveries at these three very rare and unique sites have allowed us to enter into a time machine – reliving parts of the extraordinary lives of our ancestors, humans who were anatomically modern and intelligent, like us in so many ways. A ‘people’s history’ is richly portrayed via multimedia to educate visitors of all ages about their own past and encourage a sense of pride in us, knowing that we all come from Africa.
Ms Rooksana Omar, CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa, expressed her thoughts on Origins at the exhibition opening: “Museums are spaces of learning, discovery and exploration, which in today’s society are becoming more and more integral in the search for answers about our identity, ancestry, tradition, cultures and the world we live in. The exhibition not only takes the visitor on a multi-sensory journey of discovery of our common ancestry – but it also is a tribute to human expression and humanity. Through the exploration of our roots, our heritage and our culture, we often find that the similarities amongst us are more than the differences that divide us.”
As a ‘first-of-its-kind’ exhibition, Origins comprises of 16 unique display panels, including six videos by Craig Foster, and seeks to take visitors on a multi-sensory journey of discovery through our common ancestry. The daily life of early Homo Sapiens has been recreated on film, and the artefacts and objects created and used by these early individuals have been meticulously replicated and put on display – illustrating what life was like for humans between 120 000 and 50 000 years ago. The videos also demonstrate the remarkable scientific work of the SapienCE and Wits archaeologists who assisted in the reconstruction of ‘scenes’.
Three archaeological sites brought to life
Archaeological deposits found in the sites have been methodically dated using the latest available technology. One such find, and a highlight of Origins, is the ‘ochre-processing toolkit’ – which was excavated almost perfectly intact from the 100 000 years-old levels at Blombos Cave near Stilbaai. This remarkable discovery provides the earliest evidence of a red ochre paint that was mixed and stored in the first known ‘containers’ – abalone shells. The paint mixture contains ground red ochre, seal fat and ground bone, charcoal and a liquid. It is the same recipe that was used in ancient Egypt 2000 years ago.
The Homo Sapiens living in Blombos Cave engraved abstract designs on more than fourteen of the found pieces of ochre, some dating back 100 000 years, and made the earliest known drawing which dates back 73 000 years – an abstract design recently named as the world’s first ‘hashtag’. These engravings are also considered to be some of the first evidence of art. Stone spearheads that are aesthetic and bifacially worked (meaning they have two ‘faces’) are also included in Origins – contributing to the repertoire of technologically and symbolically advanced material culture that these early humans produced.
Origins also showcases finds from Klipdrift Shelter that has been dated at around 66 000 – 59 000 years ago, and include engraved eggshell fragments, ostrich egg water flasks, and replicas of finely crafted stone tools. Small flakes, essentially tiny pieces of stone, were shaped to form crescents or half-moons, and these were attached to wooden shafts with glue (made from plant resin and ochre) to make arrows. The wood shafts of the arrows and the bows have not preserved, but the wear patterns on the stone flakes tell us the whole story. This southern African evidence, that is also found at Klasies River, is the oldest for bows and arrows found anywhere across the globe and ranges from between 70 000 – 55 000 years old. Klasies River has also offered up some of the oldest human remains in southern Africa – evident from bones found of humans living in the cave 120 000 years ago.
About Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko)
Iziko operates 11 national museums, the Planetarium and Digital Dome, the Social History Centre and three collection specific libraries in Cape Town. The museums that makeup Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect our diverse African heritage. Iziko is a public entity and public benefit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure. The organisation allows *free access to all individuals on commemorative days, (*excluding the Castle of Good Hope, Groot Constantia and Planetarium and Digital Dome). Visit our webpage at www.iziko.org.za join our online community on Facebook (www.facebook.com/IzikoMuseums) Instagram (@izikomuseumssa) or follow us on Twitter (@Iziko_Museums) for regular updates on events, news and new exhibitions.
Issued by: Ellen Agnew
Communications Coordinator: Iziko Museums of South Africa
Telephone: 021 481 3830 Email: email@example.com
Issued on behalf of the Office of the CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa