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The Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour – Mother Africa Welcome Home Exhibition

When: Wednesday, 17 April 2019 - Sunday, 30 June 2019
Where: Off campus
Iziko South African Museum, 25 Queen Victoria Street, Gardens, Cape Town
Start time:9:00

The Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour Exhibition is a showcase of a culmination of some 30 years of archaeological research in the southern Cape.

Undertaken by Professor Christopher Henshilwood, Dr Karen van Niekerk, Professor Sarah Wurz and their research teams at Blombos Cave, Klipdrift Shelter and Klasies River, The Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour – Mother Africa Welcome Home Exhibition has been curated by award-winning documentary filmmaker Craig Foster and the Curator at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at University of the Witwatersrand, Petro Keene. The exhibition is designed to explore key aspects of archaeological research and is linked to the SapienCE/Wits research programme that focuses on early human origins and innovations in southern Africa.

The exhibition was first showcased late in 2018 at the Spier Wine Farm in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town. Since then it has been expanded and updated to include finds from the Klasies River site.

The Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour – Mother Africa Welcome Home Exhibition. © Craig Foster

About the exhibition and research

In 2018 the SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE), University of Bergen in Norway, and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg South Africa collaborated in this first-of-its-kind exhibition to showcase the discovery of our early modern human origins and the multitude of innovations that originated in southern Africa.

It is an extraordinary multimedia presentation comprising 16 unique display panels that include six videos by renowned documentary filmmaker Craig Foster. The exhibition expertly brings to life the extraordinary rich archaeological record of three unique South African archaeological sites - Blombos Cave, Klasies River and Klipdrift Shelter - while taking the visitor on a multi-sensory journey of discovery of our common ancestry.

The daily life of early Homo sapiens has been re-created on film and the artefacts and objects they made and used have been meticulously  replicated and displayed to illustrate what life for humans was like between 120 000 to 50 000 years ago. The videos illustrate the remarkable scientific work of the SapienCE/Wits archaeologists who assisted in the reconstruction of scenes that depict the daily activities of our early human ancestors on this archaeologically rich stretch of the southern African coastline.

Three archaeological sites are brought to life

The exhibition features the unique archaeological discoveries that scientists have made over the course of some 30 years at three of their core archaeological sites:  Blombos Cave, Klipdrift Shelter and Klasies River, all situated on the southern Cape coast of South Africa. The 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. Archaeological deposits found in the sites have been meticulously dated using the latest available technology.

Of the many exciting finds displayed and a highlight of the exhibition is the ochre-processing toolkit excavated from the 100 000 years old levels at Blombos Cave near Still Bay in the Western Cape.

This remarkable discovery, found almost perfectly intact, provides the earliest evidence for the manufacture of a red ochre-rich paint that was mixed and stored in the first known containers - abalone shells. The mixture contains ground red ochre, seal fat and ground bone, charcoal and a liquid. It is the same recipe used in ancient Egypt 2000 years ago.

The people living in Blombos Cave made beads out of tiny estuarine shells and strung them in various ways to be worn, possibly, as necklaces or pendants. They also engraved abstract designs on more than fourteen pieces of ochre, some 100 000 years old, and made the earliest known drawing that dates to 73 000 years - an abstract design made with an ochre pencil on a stone flake. This design recently captured the world’s imagination when it was named ‘the world’s first ‘Hashtag’. These engravings and the drawing are regarded as the first evidence for art.

Aesthetically beautiful, bifacially (meaning having two sides) worked stone spearheads, made from specially heated stone and then pressure flaked using a technique thought to have evolved in Europe 20 000 years ago, add to the repertoire of technologically and symbolically advanced material culture that these early humans produced. 

The exhibition also showcases finds from Klipdrift Shelter that were dated at around 66 000 – 59 000 years ago, and include engraved eggshell fragments and engraved ostrich egg water flasks as well as 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 resins 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 and ranges from 70 000 – 55 000 years. Klasies River has also offered up some of the oldest human remains in southern Africa, evident from bones found from people living in the cave 120 000 years ago.

We are all one

The ‘We are all One' message features strongly throughout the exhibition, pointing to the clear and current genetic evidence that all Homo sapiens - people like us -  have their origins in Africa and is revolutionary in our understanding that all people on earth share a common ancestry. Regardless of where in the world we live, Africa is our original home. Our ancestors evolved here and by examining our DNA, scientists tell us we are all African and only moved to Asia and then the rest of the world 70 000 years ago.

The decades of archaeological discoveries at these three very rare and unique caves allow us to enter a time machine to relive parts of the extraordinary lives of our ancestors, people who were anatomically modern, intelligent humans and 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.


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