Cape Town - Among the world's oldest evidence of symbolic behaviour by humans went on display at the SA National Gallery in Cape Town on Wednesday.
It includes a 77 000-year-old piece of ochre, one side of which has been engraved with a geometric pattern, and 15 shell beads, pierced and perforated for use in a necklace 75 000 years ago.
The artifacts, which were all excavated from the Southern Cape's Blombos Cave by archaeologists, form part of the gallery's Symbols of South African Culture exhibition, organised jointly by Iziko Museums and the SA Post Office.
They are, without doubt, the oldest items ever displayed by the gallery.
The exhibition, which opened on Heritage Day, runs to November 27. It is based on a set of stamps issued by the SA Post Office on the same day last year, and also includes more contemporary symbolic objects such as a Venda divining bowl and a ritual whisk used by Eastern Cape diviners, as well as several examples of ancient rock engravings.
But it is the necklace shells and engraved ochre that steal the show, and they have been accorded their own special place in glass-topped plinths, set back in small well-lit recesses, at the entrance to the exhibition hall.
The small sea snail shells, none bigger than a pinkie nail, are laid out in the shape of a necklace. The ochre, one of several engraved pieces found at Blombos cave, is scored with a distinct cross-hatched design and parallel lines.
Blombos Cave, one of several Western Cape sites recently nominated by the provincial government for World Heritage status, has been excavated since the early 1990s by archaeologist Chris Henshilwood. Its deep, well-preserved deposit has provided experts with a window into the past stretching back more than 130 000 years, offering unique insights into the lives of early humans.
The age of both the ochre and the shells was determined from the layers in which the artefacts were found. - Sapa