As eventful as South Africa’s recent history has been, it seems its prehistory was no walk in the veldt either.
In a series of caves and other sites north-west of Johannesburg, some of the oldest remains of our pre-human ancestors have been found. The “Cradle of Humankind”, as this area is now known, has yielded extensive hominid fossils which have greatly enlarged our understanding of the origins of human life. The Maropeng Visitor Center does its best to dissolve the mists of time which separate us from this almost unimaginably distant past.
Flash-forward a few million years, and our prehistoric predecessors were getting the creative urge, producing marks which constitute the first flowering of civilization. Here, again, the region that is now South Africa is key; the mountainous Drakensberg region bordering Lesotho boasts thousands of cave paintings, some of the earliest ever found.
South African soil is continually springing surprises on researchers, and one site in particular continues to provide amazing discoveries. The Blombos Cave lies on the Indian Ocean coast, about 300 kilometers east of Cape Town. Some of the earliest evidence of fishing and use of sharp tools has been found here. But some of our ancestors’ downtime activities were just as interesting. In early 2002, archeologist Dr Christopher Henshilwood discovered pieces of ochre marked with geometric patterns in the Blombos Cave. At an estimated 70,000 years old, they were hailed as the world’s oldest examples of non-figurative artworks, making abstract art at least twice as old as previously assumed.
And now almost ten years later, Henshilwood has returned to the Blombos Cave and made a further momentous discovery: “art supplies” consisting of ochre and other materials, all mashed up in an abalone shell, dating back 100 millennia.