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Origins Centre new wing

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A new space opens for Wits treasures

Photos: Neil Kirby

The Origins Centre is preparing to launch a new wing in 2017, to exhibit priceless treasures that will enrich our understanding of the ancient art of the Khoi and San people. The wing houses a collection of engraved boulders brought from parts of North West province.

About 101 dolerite rocks, weighing 55 tons in total and mostly carrying depictions of wild animals, have been in storage for about 20 years. They were previously displayed outdoors at the Joburg Zoo’s Museum of South African Rock Art, established by the late Paul Friede.

Visitors will be able to take a guided tour of the engraved boulders, hosted by experts.

Why do we value all traces of our human origins, and preserve them carefully in places like the Origins Centre? Perhaps you have to visit and see them to feel their impact.

Last November at the Centre, the public had a chance to see some of “the earliest forms of abstract representation and conventional design tradition hitherto recorded”, according to Wits archaeologist Prof Christopher Henshilwood.

A little block of ochre, etched with a diamond pattern on one side. One hundred thousand years ago, a human being held this, looked at this, made this pattern. Why? What else did those eyes see and those hands do? What thoughts and feelings did he or she have?

In the same glass case: a fragment of ostrich egg shell, also cross-hatched, delicately and precisely – perhaps 35 000 years later.

The ochre and shells, along with bone points, shell beads and sharpened stones found at sites on South Africa’s southern coast, were exhibited together for the first time for just two days. These beads are the first known instance of “jewellery”. The leaf-shaped stone blades are the oldest known examples of the heat-treated pressure flaking technique on bifacial points, and they are a triumph of craftsmanship. They are 50 000 years older than the best examples found in France. The crescent-shaped blades – still with traces of sticky resin on them where they may have been fixed into a shaft – may indicate the earliest use of bows and arrows.

Also in the glass case, representing the incredible technological journey we have made since we left these coastal caves, was a 3D printed replica of the etched ochre block. We humans have been using ochre in various ways for the past 280 000 years. And now this: 3D printing. 

Even while our technology and behaviour as Homo sapiens evolve, we are curious about our early selves. The “Makapansgat pebble of many faces” has been one of the most popular exhibits at the British Museum, where it was on loan from Wits’ Evolutionary Studies Institute. It’s thought that the pebble, found alongside Australopithecus fossils, may have attracted the attention of a hominid two million years ago.

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