Exhibition: Mankind’s original technology and culture hub

A new exhibition opened by the Western Cape premier proves modern man’s origins include what is now the De Hoop Nature and Marine Reserve.

If he had his way, quipped Western Cape premier Alan Winde, he’d replace the “Welcome to Cape Town” sign at the Mother City’s international airport with one saying: “Welcome home, everybody!”

Winde’s comment was made at the opening of the Origins of Early Southern Sapiens Behaviour exhibition, the public face of an archaeological project that proves modern man’s origins include what is now the De Hoop Nature and Marine Reserve.

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“This part of the world played a key role in the evolution and modernisation of man,” he said, “and the exhibition shows a divided world that, essentially, we’re all one.”

The display showcases discoveries at the Blombos Cave, Klipdrift Shelter and Klasies River sites occupied by early Homo sapiens between 120 000 and 50 000 years ago.

The multimedia exhibition was put together by Damon and Craig Foster, producers of the Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher.

Originally presented at Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch in 2018, the exhibition has moved repeatedly until finding its permanent home last month at the De Hoop Collection in the reserve, which falls under Cape Nature.

Project leader Prof Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway said the most important message from the collaborative dig (one partner being the University of the Witwatersrand) was that “it doesn’t matter where you live now, your genes are African.

“Modern humans – essentially those who look like we do – emerged between 100 000 to 150 000 years ago. People in Europe, Asia and Australasia are carrying, in part, genes from southern Africa.”

These genes, said Henshilwood, stem from people who first migrated successfully out of Africa across the Red Sea into what is now Yemen, some 70 000 years ago.”

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Equally important, he added, is determining what happened to facilitate the migration to other continents and Homo sapiens’ subsequent replacement of all other hominins (our immediate human ancestor species) in the world over a “mere” 30 000 years.

“The exhibition shows there was a marked change in the way modern humans behaved.

“Their brain evolvement led to the development of syntactic language and the ability to communicate easily with one another. They were socially well organised and cohesive but, equally important, they embraced technology.”

This meant the tools and trappings that made life both easier and less nasty. Among the most remarkable finds at Blombos “are the first known containers ever used – two perlemoen shells into which were poured ground ochre and seal fat, which were mixed together to form a paint.

We also found two intact paintbrushes that had been buried for 100 000 years. “Blombos is also associated with breakthrough cultural developments such as engravings and abstract designs on pieces of ochre and ostrich eggs, as well as the first jewellery in the form of beads made from sea-shells.”

Possibly the most critical invention was the bow and arrow 65 000 years ago. “It enabled people to hunt remotely and not confront prey face-to-face with a spear.”

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