One example of the rock art in the Wits University collection, which is probably the largest in the world (Image: Origins Centre)

From the City of Johannesburg comes this exciting news for archaeology and anthropology fans like me: Origins Centre traces history of mankind, written by Ndaba Dlamini.

My summary: On March 7th, 2006 President Thabo Mbeki officially opened the University of the Witwatersrand’s Origins Centre, the world’s only museum dedicated to exploring and celebrating the history of modern humankind. The first phase of the museum showcases the origins of humankind as well as an extensive collection of rock art from the Wits Art Research Institute. Many of the diverse exhibits bring to life the heritage of the San, whose DNA contains the earliest genetic print, linking this hunter-gatherer to the Homo sapiens who lived 160,000 years ago. For the first time in South Africa, archaeology had been brought to people to appreciate and no longer would people regard rock art as “crude”, Mbeki said.

Very unique is that the Origins Centre is inviting South Africans and international tourists to have their DNA tested to determine their ancestry – and have the results exhibited alongside those of Nelson Mandela. Read more about it in Are you related to Mandela? Fascinating!

If I was traveling to South Africa, the Origins Centre would be on top of the list of places to visit. Their website appears to be still under development, but there is more at South Africa Info including great links including the fabulous Rock Art Gallery.

More related links and images:
Rock Art Research Institute
Bradshaw Foundation
my earlier page on South African rock art
Met Museum

World Myths and Legends in Art


Detail of birds, Malagan Pole
19th century Papua New Guinea

Myths are stories that explain why the world is the way it is. All cultures have them. Throughout history, artists have been inspired by myths and legends and have given them visual form. Sometimes these works of art are the only surviving record of what particular cultures believed and valued. But even where written records or oral traditions exist, art adds to our understanding of myths and legends.

This is from World Myths and Legends in Art from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a fascinating online museum type exhibition with a wealth of information.

In the absence of scientific information of any kind, long ago societies all over the world devised creation myths, resurrection myths, and complex systems of supernatural beings, each with specific powers, and stories about their actions. Since people were often isolated from each other, most myths evolved independently, but the various myths are surprisingly similar, in particular creation myths….

As the richness of the myths represented in this collection conveys, myth and falsehood are not synonymous. What is truth to one is fancy to another; however, it is not up to any of us to decide that one community’s mythology is any more or less valid than another’s. Myth is a positive force that unites many cultures rather than divides them. Throughout the world myths provide people with explanations, histories, role models, entertainment, and many other things that enable them to direct their own actions and understand their own surroundings.

You can view the many examples of art by theme or by culture. For example, the story behind the Malagan Pole is a fascinating one (detail above).



This is my monogram in cuneiform the way an ancient Babylonian might have written it. See what yours looks like at Write Like a Babylonian. With my interest in petroglyphs and pictograms, I was fascinated to learn that “Pictograms, or drawings representing actual things, were the basis for cuneiform writing”. Cuneiform was written on clay tablets, and then baked hard in a kiln; here’s how to make your own, a fun project with the young ones in your life. Interesting historical stuff here too.

One can view many excellent images along with translations of the cuneiform collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

UPDATE: Blogisisko (in Finnish) has picked up this story, with another interesting link to a Finnish-Sumerian dictionary. Apparently in the ongoing research to find origins of Finnish language, some possible connections have been found to Sumerian.


I occasionally visit and explore PrimitiiviNet*, an interesting website about archaeology and anthropology news, articles, books, and links to other related sites. It is written in a slightly disconcerting (to non-Finns) mix of English and Finnish by a Finn, Pekka Vaartela. What is unusual about the author, to me, is his personal interest in ancient spear throwers called Atlatl in Aztec or Woomera in Australia, having been introduced to it by an article “Atlatl – The Stone Age Kalashnikov” in New Scientist*. Have a look at this photo of Vaartela* practising spear throwing in this Finnish article. There’s even a World Atlatl Association of members who study the weapon’s mechanics, replicate them and practise using them.

*expired links have been removed

Have a chuckle over the image below, from his site (creator unknown).


Journey of Mankind

“Who were our ancestors? From where did we originate? If we came out of Africa, what factors governed our routes? And when? Now finally this interactive map reveals an exciting journey of opportunity and survival, confirmed by genetic science and documented by ancient rock art.”

The Bradshaw Foundation, in association with Stephen Oppenheimer, presents a virtual global journey of man over the last 160,000 years as the world was peopled.

Great stuff – lots to study and come back to often! I’ve mentioned the excellent Bradshaw site a few times in the past, regarding the rock art of South Africa and Australia, and concerning endangered art.

prehistoric art and us

Wandering through some old book-marked articles, I came across a very interesting old one (2003) that seems very timely so soon after my Creswell Crags post.

In Taking shape: Prehistoric art and us Victoria James discusses what prehistoric art and artifacts can tell us about the emergence of modern human behavior, centred on a book by Randall White, “Prehistoric Art: the Symbolic Journey of Humankind”. There has been great controversy over when exactly early hominids were considered to be “human” in the modern sense, in their skills and behaviour.

As I understand it, some experts believed very early patterned and non-representational “art” did not qualify as the work of a modern human. I’ve always felt strongly that anything that was made by the hands of early humans showed they were indeed human, not animal, as well as displaying “modern” skills.

James writes,”Indeed, some of the most powerful evidence for human cognitive sophistication found in White’s book lies not in the “artistic” quality of such objects as cave wall paintings, figurines or items of personal adornment, but in what such works reveal about the technological skill and complex organization of the societies that made them.”

And, “A guesstimate that we have considered is that this process may have been completed as much as some 300,000 years ago. That may be the depth of the modern mind.”

Related posts:
becoming human
what makes us human?
the spell of rock art

Becoming Human


Are you a bookmarker like me? When I come across some interesting web sites that I don’t have time to read in depth at that moment, I’ll save it into a temp folder. The list gets rather long, so now and then I go through a few of them. Some get saved into properly named folders, some discarded, and some are great to share, like this one – Becoming Human: Paleoanthropology, Evolution and Human Origins. It’s a very well done interactive flash documentary that tells the story of our origins. There is even a section on Culture about our ancestors’ great creativity, their rock paintings, engravings and sculpture.

So get a cup of tea, a comfortable chair, turn up the volume and enjoy! (or bookmark it for future reading, like me!) And sorry, I don’t remember where I found it but thanks to whomever shared it, perhaps another bookmarker.

Douglas Curran and Nyau

Douglas Curran, Ndapita ku Maliro (Nkhuku Mutsekele)
I’m going to the Funeral, Lock up the Chicken

(scanned from invitation)

Another very interesting and very worthwhile exhibition we went to see on Sunday afternoon (yesterday) after the visit to the Burnaby Art Gallery, was at Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver. It is the largest non-profit photographic gallery in Western Canada, widely recognized for its exhibitions of photography and media art, emphasizing contemporary Canadian work within a context of historical and international art.

I’m not usually a huge fan of photography and film exhibitions, but my personal interest in anthropology and “primitive” cultures was piqued so I really wanted to see this one:

DOUGLAS CURRAN The Elephant Has Four Hearts: Nyau Masks and Ritual

Vancouver based photographer Douglas Curran first met members of the Chewa people while working on a film in Zimbabwe in 1992. The Chewa he met were migrant workers from Malawi employed on plantations and in mines. Over a period of several years he gradually became integrated into this community in Malawi, photographing and filming their extraordinary rituals associated with a belief system known as Nyau. The Chewa rituals and their masks are part of a complex and spectacular set of beliefs that Curran has been encouraged by the Chewa to document. Curran, no longer an outsider to this culture, has created a stunning pictorial record that invites dialogue about recording the lives of others, and forces comparisons with contemporary performance art. (from Gallery statement, curated by Bill Jeffries)

This stunning exhibition consists of 60 large colour photographs, about 10 masks and a video of village perfomances using the masks. To me, it felt like walking into the pages of National Geographic magazine or its films. They would be at home at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC as a vivid documentary of a threatened culture.

I suggest a browse through Douglas Curran’s excellent website to see some of the photos, read the catalogue and a review about the Nyau, plus his many other projects. Also read ‘Nyau Photos Challenge Cultural Appropriation’, a review by art critic Robin Laurence in the Straight.

The exhibition continues to February 27th, at Presentation House Gallery, 333 Chesterfield Avenue, North Vancouver, BC

archaeology & anthropology books

As my dear readers know, I’m fascinated by archaeology and anthropology. So, this article in the Guardian caught my eye:

Michelle Paver’s favourite books on archaeology and anthropology. All the listed books, some new to me, make me greedy for them. (Did you know I have a weakness for books, with bookshelves in almost every room in the house but no more bookshelf space?) I will look for these in the library and maybe put some on my wish list for Christmas and birthday, with Return to Chauvet Cave at the top (because I love picture books). But, aah, too many books, too little time!

I’m not familiar with Michelle Paver, who is the author of four historical novels. Her latest book, for older children, Wolf Brother, is the first in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, set 6,000 years ago in the world of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

This sounds remarkably like Jean M. Auel’s The Earth’s Children series. I loved these books. The author has done a tremendous amount of research into Mesolithic and Cro-Magnon civilization in central Europe which, along with her expert knowledge of herbs and plants, made for a fascinating saga of what life may have been like in that period. (Now the secret’s out – I’m also a fan of well-researched historical novels!)

Museum of Anthropology at UBC

(detail of totem in Great Hall – I love the circles of figures wrapped around the pole)

For the past few days we have been showing off our lovely city to some family visiting from Europe. One of the highlights was The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

The building alone is wonderful to see, designed by renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson**, who took his inspiration from traditional northern Northwest Coast post-and-beam style architecture. The Museum’s soaring glass walls and spectacular setting – on the cliffs of Point Grey overlooking mountains and sea – are uniquely suited to the Museum’s extraordinary collection of massive Northwest Coast totem poles, carved boxes, bowls and feast dishes, as well as diverse objects from around the world.

I always love revisiting the Great Hall beneath which stand towering totem poles from the Haida, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, and other First Nations and especially the Rotunda, where Bill Reid’s massive sculpture, “The Raven and the First Men” is displayed. Take a peek around the MOA with this Virtual Tour.

There is a great deal to see at MOA, but another particular favourite was Robert Davidson: The Abstract Edge, Recent Works by Renowned Haida Artist. This exhibition, put together with the National Gallery of Canada and others, show his sculptures and paintings. Davidson’s statement resonated with me: My passion is reconnecting with my ancestors’ knowledge. The philosophy is what bred art, and now the art has become the catalyst for us to explore the philosophy.

His contemporary work moves between the abstract and the old traditions. The creative freedom he grants himself comes from his experience in helping to restore the place of art within ceremonial practice – and with it the understanding that ‘culture’ can be both inherited and newly imagined. (museum statement)

Then, to finish on a high note, an exciting moment in MOA’s bookstore, I found this beautiful book:
Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic
by Norman Hallendy. I could not resist it after just recently writing about Inuit Places of Power.

** Additional links of interest on Arthur Erickson:
some great buildings
a fan’s site