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THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHEMISTRY SET? New Discoveries from Blombos Cave. At Iziko SA Natural History Museum until October 13, 2014. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews
THE shell of the perlemoen or abalone is a common sight for many South Africans who have spent any time at the coast.
Although blessed with a beautiful satiny interior, this shell doesn’t have a history of high regard. It often performs the debased role of ashtrays in dingy bars or holiday shacks and a container for kitsch miniature cactus gardens sold at tacky flea markets.
The fleshy foot is best served prepared in thin slices and seasoned with lemon and nutmeg, a delicacy that is an acquired taste. It also has darker connotations of an aphrodisiac connected to Asian triads and police raids.
So what was it that so moved a group of visiting Canadian archaeologists to tears on seeing a rather tired version of the shell containing a grainy looking substance and surrounded by bits of bone in the Iziko SA Natural History Museum?
Part of the Blombos Ochre Preparing Kit, this is no ordinary shell – surrounded by other finds such as a quartzite grinding stone and flakes, the shoulder bone from a young seal, a thin bone from the leg of the dog genus.
The shell is the more robust one of two excavated shells. It was found four years ago by archaeology professor Dr Chris Henshilwood and his team from the Blombos cave, which is situated in the limestone cliffs near Stilbaai, about 30 minutes from Riversdale.
In 1991 Henshilwood excavated pieces of 80 000-year-old incised ochre believed by some to be the very first works of art for art’s sake rather than decorated utilitarian pieces from the same cave. Replicas of the pieces are on display in the museum in the vicinity of the exhibition IQE, the Power of Rock Art: ancestors, rainmaking and healing, as is the kit.
The exhibition, which is still in progress, includes a reconstructed rock overhang and fragments of rock paintings taken from the Linton shelter in the Eastern Cape. Displays of beautifully crafted quartz arrow heads and rock engravings on glittery rocks mined for their heat retardant qualities for space travel, all of which indicate that Homo sapiens evolved not only physically but also mentally in Africa.
The information panels explain that until the mid-1990s, it was believed that the oldest art had been found in Europe. We now know differently. The European examples are dated at 32 000 years, making the Blombos cave the oldest of its kind and it’s found not in Europe but in Africa.
The shell was used to mix ochre or hematite with crushed seal bone, charcoal, quartzite chips and some sort of liquid. No one is yet sure about the exact purpose of the mixture. Several possibilities exist and range from colouring, which would make it the earliest form of paint, to medicine, tattooing to a sun screen. The recipe is the same one that was used by the ancient Egyptians.
At 100 000 years old, the kit is placed in the time known as the Middle Stone Age when Homo sapiens were around. Homo sapiens mark the transition from instinctual animal thinking to the more cognitive qualities associated with modern humans. The importance of the find is twofold. It is regarded as evidence of deliberate planning, production and storing, as well as being the oldest known human use of a container.
The cave itself is a kind of laboratory and was abandoned soon after the shells were used. Eventually it was covered up with sand, which helped to preserve the shells.
Archaeologist Dr Karen van Niekerk was the team member who found the tool kit under about 3m of sand.
Unlike the previous incised ochre pieces, which were immediately recognisable as major finds, these shells had none of the same surety. A sceptic by nature, Van Niekerk said that although the find was suggestive of something, it wasn’t as if “a light went on in the cave” when she found it. Only once tests had validated the find did Van Niekerk lose her scepticism.
The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, is interested in the find. It already has one of the bifacial point quartz arrow heads, or Still Bay points as they also known after the cave’s location, in their collection.
At a time when divisiveness is so much more prominent than the collective, this exhibition, right on Cape Town’s doorstep, is a very important reminder of our mutual connectedness beyond the smallness of political and cultural difference. As the word “sibanye” (found on the side of the buses) suggests, we are one whether we like it or not, as we all share an ancient common parentage.
And when once-in-a-lifetime finds such as these happen it’s also a reminder of what an exciting and rich place Africa is to be living in. Go see and take the whole family.
l 25 Queen Victoria Street, Gardens. Gallery hours are 10am to 5pm. Call 021 481 3800.