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Two-million-year-old African 'pebble of many faces' in UK exhibit

- Deborah Minors

A little stone said to represent the earliest appreciation of art is on display in the British Museum.

The pebble is naturally water-worn and bears indentations on both sides which look like a human face. However, it was found 30km from its watery origins and in the vicinity of our early ancestors.

The pebble’s aesthetic lies in the theory that these hominins recognised themselves in the ‘face’ on the pebble and – delighted – carried the ‘artefact’ to their cave north of Pretoria.

It was discovered two million years later, in 1925. Fifty years after that, Professor Raymond Dart, a paleoanthropologist at Wits University published a scientific paper on the ‘Makapansgat pebble of many faces.’

Dr Bernhard Zipfel, University Curator of Collections in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits, says: “This stone was found in the presence of Australipicus africanus, an extinct hominin that lived over two-million years ago. But this particular pebble, which is water-worn, is not [usually] found in the immediate vicinity of these hominins. Dart felt that these australopiths had picked it up and carried it back to Makapansgat and there, perhaps, were looking at it, saw a likeness, and had some form of aesthetic appreciation of the pebble. There’s no way of proving or disproving it so it remains speculative.”

The pebble is arguably the oldest artefact on display in the South Africa: the art of a nation exhibition in London, which features 100 000 years of the country’s art. The pebble has never been exhibited before. It is registered as a precious South African heritage item and required a temporary export permit to travel to London in a specially designed secure wooden crate.

It is impossible to know if we can take Dart’s hypothesis at face value. Zipfel says: “There are many people who like the idea – as I do – that perhaps this was the earliest expression of art and recognition of art by these early hominins. We like the idea of this being picked up, transported some distance by these hominins looking at it and thinking, ‘Here we recognise something’, but there’s no way of really knowing.”

South Africa: the art of a nation is on now until 26 February 2017 at the British Museum in London. Alumni of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg are among the exhibitors and include Candice Breitz (BAFA 1994), Karel Nel (BA FA 1978) and William Kentridge (BA 1977, honorary DLit 2004). The art of Penny Siopis, formerly in the Wits Faculty of Arts, is also on display. On loan from the permanent collection of the Wits Art Museum (WAM) are John Muafangejo’s The Battle of Rorke’s Drift and Sam Nhlengethwa’s It Left Him Cold.