The Origins of Walter Battiss
Life Through Clay: a metaphor for gender and age
Highlights from the permanent exhibit
- Palaeoanthropological specimens: High-resolution casts of significant hominid fossils found in Africa are housed in a series of specially designed drawers. The drawers are arranged chronologically, with the oldest relations of humankind in the lower drawers, and the more recent relations in the upper drawers.
- Archaeological artefacts: A second set of drawers contains fascinating examples of real stone tool and other archaeological artefacts. The smaller artefacts, those that are more recent, are found in the upper drawers. These come from increasingly diverse stone tool industries. The older forms are found in the lower drawers.
- Blombos Ochre Replica: Recovered from excavations at Blombos Cave lead by south African archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, the Blombos Ochre, dated to around 75 000 years ago, is one of the oldest forms of evidence suggesting that symbolic thought and other forms of modern human behaviour actually arose in Africa.
- The World of the San: Much of the museum showcases the history, lifeways, and beliefs of the southern African San (Bushmen). The San suffered harshly at the hands of colonial Europeans in southern Africa. In some areas, they were systematically hunted and by the turn of the 20th century there were very few San left in South Africa, but in Namibia and Botswana they endured. While the harsh colonial treatment of indigenous people the world over is well documented, the same is not true of the San. While they tend to be portrayed as idyllic hunter-gatherers, the truth is that they suffered brutal treatment at the hands of colonists, as did indigenous populations elsewhere in the world. Today, San communities struggle to forge a better life for themselves.
A dying eland
- The Trance Dance Video: The participants of the dance move in a circle around which women clap and sing, and men dance rhythmically. As the men dance, invisible energy floats through the air and dancers harness it through a spot on the back of their necks called the n/ao spot. The energy travels down the spine to the stomach, where it is said to “boil”, before moving back up to the head where it explodes, catapulting the dancer into the spirit world. Once in the spirit world, dancers must perform various tasks for the benefit of the community.
- Southern African Rock Art: The museum houses examples of both painted and engraved rock art made by various groups of people throughout the history of southern Africa. These traditions of rock art are variously attributed to groups of San, Khoekhoen, and Bantu farmer communities. Rock art has been made in South Africa for thousands of years, and in its various forms, was practiced until very recently, as evidenced by the story of Mapote who painted at the request of Marion How, and also the story of Maleboho and the art of his people. Throughout southern Africa, rock art sites are threatened by natural weathering, human interference and domestic animals. Unlike wildlife, rock art is non-renewable. Each site that is destroyed is gone forever. The painted and engraved stones on display in the Origins Centre museum were removed from private lands in the early part of the 20th century. When rock art is removed, the images are torn from their setting in the landscape. It is for this reason that rock art today is seldom removed from its original context. Only in exceptional circumstances, where the survival of the art is at risk, is it extracted and taken to a museum.
- Interpreting rock art: A painting discovered in the Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg is sometimes referred to as the Rosetta Stone of San rock art because the image provided rock art specialist Professor David Lewis-Williams with one of the most significant clues to unravelling some of the meaning of complex San art. The image is of a dying eland: the animal is stumbling and its head is lowered. The front leg buckles under its weight and its back legs are crossed, indicating that the eland is faltering and stumbling in death. Its hair stands erect, an indication that it has been shot with a poisoned arrow. A common metaphorical description of a trance or curing dance experience is death. A !Kung San “owner of energy”, Kinachau, spoke of trance as “the death that kills us all”. In this painting, the metaphorical association between death and trance can be clearly seen. The human figure holding the tail of the eland also has erect hair. His legs, which end in eland hooves rather than human feet, are crossed, mimicking those of the dying antelope. The human figure, as it transforms in trance, is thus metaphorically linked to the dying animal.
- The Origins Centre’s Tapestry Room: This room contains 11 hanging panels representing the history of the San people. These were painstakingly created by women’s groups located throughout southern Africa. The three hanging on the western wall tell the story of San life in the distant past; the five panels on the northern wall describe events influencing the San over the past 2 000 years, with an emphasis on the colonial past, and three panels on the eastern wall illustrate issues concerning the San today.
Fossil Collection: A fascinating and educational exhibit detailing the wealth of fossils found in South Africa. Conceived and curated by the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits. The James Kitching Collection, previously housed in the former Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology, highlights many of the important fossil discoveries made by the staff of the new Evolutionary Studies Institute. South Africa has a fossil record so remarkable and complete that it is not possible to write a text on the evolution of life on Earth without referring to it. Two of the world’s greatest palaeontological treasure houses are the South African Karoo (which covers a time period from 300 million years ago to 180 million years ago) and the hominin-bearing Cradle of Humankind. During Karoo times all the major groups of modern reptiles, including dinosaurs and mammals, evolved. The Fossil Collection is the only display in the world where you can see the most complete record of mammalian ancestry, the ancestors of humans, the ancestors of tortoises, and the ancestors of dinosaurs in one place. Also on display are an entire collection of fossils from a single site in the Cradle of Humankind and a reconstructed skeleton of Australopithecus sediba.