Johannesburg a mecca for study of early man

South Africa’s economic hub is the very model of a skyscraping major city. But Johannesburg also is a mecca for those with an interest in the pre-modern—the very, very pre-modern.

First stop, the Origins Centre, a museum on the University of Witwatersrand’s central Johannesburg campus that uses science and art to trace man’s development. Visitors can get details of their own
genetic makeup to underline one of the centre’s themes: that all of us are connected through a common, African ancestor.

Then, a short drive north-west to caves where scientists have discovered the fossilised remains of some of man’s earliest relatives, and where the story of evolution is told with the fanfare of a theme park.

If you’re not South African, you may never have heard of either spot.
The fossils were found in a more than 4 500-hectare region declared
a World Heritage Site in 1999 that recently underwent a major renovation. The visitors’ centre, known as Maropeng, opened in 2005 and welcomed 230 000 people in 2008, its best year to date. Most were day-trippers from Johannesburg or Pretoria.

Origins, opened in 2006, averages 1 000 visitors a month, again mostly South Africans. They enter through a garden planted with 700 species used for food, medicine and ritual by the San, the earliest inhabitants of the tip of Africa. Then they pass under a canopy woven from aluminum wire by South African artist Walter Oltman: a deconstructed world map, with Africa at its heart.

A few steps to the right, children will be tempted to pick up a faintly engraved stone the colour and size of a faded brick. A sign says it’s OK to “touch”. The stone is a holograph. Passing a hand through it starts a 3D video of archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood describing finding the stone in South Africa in 1999.

Its fine tracings are believed to be early man’s attempts to record and share knowledge—the beginnings of art, books and computers.

Henshilwood’s discovery “completely overturned the idea that culture and the modern human mind developed in Europe”, said Origins curator Geoff Blundell, who is a social anthropologist and archaeologist.

Researchers now believe we began to become who we are 75 000 years ago, in Africa.

Along another hall, visitors are invited to pull out drawers and handle the replicas inside—the skulls of human ancestors. Touch screens scattered throughout the halls and galleries draw children into
games, and their parents into short video interviews with world-renowned scientists.

In a darkened gallery resembling a cave, a giant screen video of a San dance gives a sense of the energy of a ritual believed to have healing powers.

For those with appetites for exploring, a tour of Sterkfontein Caves, a 10km drive away, is a highlight of a Maropeng visit.

Sterkfontein is the best-known of a dozen sites in the area where a wealth of important fossils and stone tools have been found. - Sapa-AP

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