The Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour exhibition pays homage not only to original artefacts but also to the craftmanship that went into making the copies. Picture: Craig Foster
The Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour exhibition pays homage not only to original artefacts but also to the craftmanship that went into making the copies. Picture: Craig Foster

Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour-curated by Craig Foster, Petro Keene and Jos Thorne-an exhibition of multimedia compilation displays and artefacts by the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the University of Witwatersrand and the Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE). The exhibition is fully funded by Professor Christopher Henshilwood’s DST/NRF SARChI Chair in modern Human Origins held by Henshilwood at Wits University. Ends on August 31Seen from afar it’s an almost imperceptible slash in a cliff face surrounded by nubs and stretches of verdant foliage, opposite a lap of bright sea.

Blombos Cave is one of the "living places" of our 100,000-year-old ancestors. Although only qualified archaeologists get to experience and enter the womb of our origins, the public can get a taste by proxy.

This high-end exhibition, Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour, is appropriately located in the dark, cave-like oldest wine cellar at Spier Wine Farm in Stellenbosch and was two years in the making. It impresses on us that we are one, as the words on the bus sides read in isiXhosa, implying that we are not separate people.

Renowned archaeologist and academic, Professor Christopher Henshilwood, guided and funded the exhibition and states categorically that "there is no such thing as race", given the fact that we all originate from a common ancestry and share the same ancestral heritage.

Against a fractured political climate the timing of the exhibition couldn’t be more right. It’s a wonderful antidote to the current divisiveness.

The exhibition takes us out of the noisy heel-nipping, ankle-biting, throat-slashing, dog-eats-dog political arena to a quieter, contemplative place of awe at our common ancestors.

Genetic evidence indicates that our human ancestors originated in Africa.

Cocurator and film-maker Craig Foster has always been fascinated with human origins, and he has worked with many indigenous people all over Africa along with Canadian anthropologist and film-maker Niobe Thompson.

Thompson created the mini-TV series The Great Human Odyssey, an exploration of mankind’s birth, evolution and migration across the planet.

According to Foster, Homo sapiens first incubated in Africa for more than 200,000 years and then relatively recently (about 60,000 years ago) took technological innovations to the rest of the world.

"It’s quite an amazing thing," he says. "Africa’s earliest people, who are our common ancestors, took heat-treated, silcrete arrow heads, complex chemistry, sophisticated language and art to the world. We are all essentially African by nature."

The purpose of the exhibition is to create awareness and also celebrate the ingenuity of our coastal ancestors.

"SA has the most amazing wealth of archaeology not known to many people," says archaeologist and cocurator Petro Keene. "It represents some of the biggest breakthroughs in the manufacture and use of symbolic material culture in our own species, Homo sapiens."

This is evident in the four short films made by Foster and his brother, Damon. The films recreate the daily life of "behaviourally modern" ancestors and the displays are exact copies of the original artefacts. These include beautifully crafted utilitarian stone spear tips made by Lachlan Matthews and painted by Matthews, Amy Rusch and Althea Visagie, tiny delicate Nassarius kraussianus shell beads by Greg Dunn, ostrich egg water carriers with their elegant incised patterns by Cedric Poggenpoel and an ochre-processing toolkit recreated by Matthews.

The exhibition pays homage not only to the original artefacts but also to the incredible craftmanship that went into making the copies.

The films made by the Foster brothers can be watched under sound domes. They cover our common ancestry, a day in the life of Homo sapiens, the excavation process and the origins of symbolism relating specifically to adornment. Foster considers the movie on our common ancestry, Time Machine, the most important of the four.

The ideas of unification scupper the notion that humans have evolved from "quite a primitive human into a technological genius", he says. "It’s also an absolute myth that the people from this time lived short, brutal lives." Homo sapiens "were super healthy people and there is no evidence to suggest that they lived any shorter or longer than we do", he says.

He points out that it took any hunter gatherer "about 20 years to become a master tracker".

The level of sophistication required to survive in that environment required an enormous amount of brain power, he says. This was supplied by a paleo diet rich in land animals, shellfish, fish, marine mammals and bulbous geophytes.

Current popular writings suggest that Homo sapiens was savage and violent and "that modern man is this wonderful group of people". But Foster insists "there is simply no evidence of violence in early Homo sapiens". He explains that "when you only have between 7,000 and 10,000 people in Africa, 70,000 years ago you couldn’t afford to resort to violence, as you simply wouldn’t survive."

Picture: Craig Foster
Picture: Craig Foster

Beliefs such as these "do such a disservice to who we really are in our designed state".

In response to the belief that matriarchal societies were less violent, he points out that his involvement with San shows that neither male or female dominate. "It’s very balanced."

But "take any animal, and we are an animal, and put us under unbelievable pressure … agriculture is a massive shock for the psyche. It has completely turned the human being upside down". In fact, he is surprised we aren’t more violent today.

What is so powerful for Foster is that "once one recognises that this is the original human lifestyle, it’s so much easier to navigate the strange environment we are in now".

One of the most exciting finds at Blombos Cave was an ochre-processing toolkit, or the oldest chemistry set. This points to Homo sapiens living on the southern Cape coast 100,000 years ago being what is termed "behaviourally modern".

Consisting of an abalone shell containing ochre, charcoal and bone marrow, this paint may have been used for ritual body-painting. The mixture was stored in abalone shells, the earliest known use of containers.

The highlight of the exhibition is the mosaic panel created by diver and collector Matthews.

Made up of 5,000 bones, shells and stones, it represents artefacts found in caves on the southern African coastline.

Projected onto the panel are sepia images of San people. The result is rather like seeing the flickering, ghostly presences from our past superimposed by the dark shadows of contemporary observers.

Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour is the first phase of a bigger project that will be housed in the De Hoop Nature Reserve’s Origins Centre.

According to Henshilwood, the primary mission of the Origins Centre is to display, explain and interpret the origins of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Keene points out that the idea of having a "decent museum out there related to the excavations at the archaeological sites Blombos cave and Klipdrift Shelter" appealed. Children from Cape schools will visit De Hoop and be introduced to our shared ancestral past.

Ultimately, Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour excavates the national psyche, exposing the fascinating middens of ancestry that connect everyone across the planet.