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Rock art is one of the most evocative of all the pieces of heritage left for us by our ancient ancestors. By looking into its symbolism, we can look into the minds of people who lived thousands of years ago.
Rock art can take us back to a time when the world was very different, to the time when Egypt was home to the greatest civilization on earth. At that time people were painting rock art in the centre of the Sahara. But, even then, the rocks were not clean. The painters were covering over rock art that was already some 6000 years old. And, while Pygmy dancers entertained the great Pharaohs, their womenfolk painted the shelters of central Africa with a geometric art that remains amongst the most sophisticated of all the world’s arts. These great traditions, and hundreds of others, remain on the rocks to be discovered by anyone willing to take the time.
More than a century ago, Charles Darwin stood almost alone when he argued that Africa was the most likely place for the origin of humanity. Since this time palaeo-anthropologists have, every year, uncovered more and more evidence to support Darwin’s proposition. A wealth of hominid fossil material has now been found and from many different parts of Africa.
Despite extensive research, the challenge from other parts of the world to Africa’s claim to be the place of human origin remains weak. In recognition of this, Sterkfontein in South Africa has now been placed on the UNESCO world heritage list as the “Cradle of Humankind”.
Anatomically modern humans, people like us, have been living in Africa for at least the last 120,000 years. Europe, by contrast has had anatomically modern human occupants for just the last third of this time period. These early Europeans, like the first inhabitants of Asia, Australasia and the Americas were all, ultimately, descended from the same, African, ancestry. Everyone living on earth today shares this ancestry.
Africa gave the world humanity. Africa also gave the world technology and culture: the very tools, stone tools dating to nearly two million years ago, are particular to Africa.
But, where did art begin? This is a difficult question to answer. The oldest dated figurative art is in the cave of Chauvet in France. It dates to some 33,000 years ago. The oldest dated figurative art in Africa comes from Apollo 11, a site near to the Namibia – South Africa border. Here, pieces of painted stone were found buried in ground deposits dating to 27,000 years before present. Although this is younger than the French find many have predicted, on the basis that modern humans evolved in Africa, that evidence of the oldest art would, eventually, be found in Africa.
This prediction has now been borne out. In January 2002, news of a key new discovery on the southern Cape coast was made public. Chris Henshilwood announced the uncovering of a piece of ochre decorated with a delicate geometric pattern. He dated the piece conservatively at 77,000 years old; in fact, it could be as much as 100,000 years old. Certainly, the piece was made before any modern human had walked in Europe. The long argument as to site of the origin of art seems now to be drawing to a close: Africa is not only the cradle humankind, but seems also to be the place where art and culture as we know it began.