Our ability to think and act using symbols – and to make
art as a result – is an integral part of being human.
In South Africa the development of artistic activity has
left a visible trace of our evolution, establishing it as one of the places
where our ancestors first became fully human.
The story begins around 3 million years ago, with objects
that were collected and valued for their appearance. This continued in the
deliberate shaping of objects to make them aesthetically pleasing, forerunners
of true artistic traditions that began 100,000 years ago.
From at least 77,000 years ago, people began to decorate
objects and their own bodies and, eventually, to produce two-dimensional
paintings and engravings of humans and animals. This archaeological evidence
identifies South Africa as one of the cradles of humankind, and is an important
part of the country’s national identity.
The Makapansgat Pebble is an early piece of evidence for hominid curiosity. It was
found in a cave with the remains of early human ancestors, Australopithecus
africanus, which are 3 million years old. The stone is not from the cave
but was brought there from a site many miles away.
It was not used as a tool but was perhaps valued and kept by its
collector because the natural features on both sides look like faces, which
were aesthetically pleasing. This could be called ‘found art’, a practice that
many contemporary artists employ today.
The deep artistic past is important in contemporary South Africa
because it identifies the country as one of the locations where modern human
behaviour began. Archaeological evidence, such as the Makapansgat Pebble, also
shows it as one of the places where the modern human body developed. This means
that we are all descended from Africa, both in terms of our bodily structure
and in the way that we act, think and feel.
Some contemporary artists have
found inspiration in the celebration of southern Africa as one of the places
where modern humans evolved.
This computer-generated image was created for
a 1985 poster celebrating the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the skull of
a child that’s 2.5 million years old, known as the Taung Child. This child was
the same species of early human ancestor as the individual who collected the
The discovery of the Taung Child
provided evidence that humanity’s earliest ancestors evolved first in Africa
and not in Europe as previously believed. Nel has a long-held interest in the
interface between art and science and his image drew upon the most advanced
computer technology of the time. It subtly links the skills of the
palaeontologist, the artist and the computer software designer.
See cutting-edge contemporary works alongside some of the earliest examples of human creativity in our special exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation (27 October 2016 – 26 February 2017).
The Makapansgat Pebble.
Collected about 3 million years ago. On loan from Evolutionary Studies Institute, University
of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Exhibition sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan
Logistics partner IAG Cargo
Nel (b. 1955), Taung, Early computer-generated image, 1985. Artist’s collection. © Karel Nel.