In the heart of the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, we look through a garden sculpture inspired by the SAN people, known to possibly carry the oldest DNA of the human species, and question, in a dialogue between Art and Science, the limits of our humanity.
For Lee Berger, the paleoanthropologist who discovered the richest early hominin site yet found on the continent of Africa and a new species of human relative, Homo Naledi, Africa is the place that we are all indigenous from: “Africa is a special place to humanity, it’s a place that we have existed in through our entire evolution...”’
It is in a South African place known as the “Cradle of Humankind” that artist Caroline Bittermann has been invited by the Nirox Foundation, near Johannesburg, to add an artwork to their sculpture park permanent collection. Caroline has long been working with the concept of the historical English Landscape Garden, where ruins often had critical political impacts in expressing the rebellious opinions of the garden-owners.
Here in South Africa, the artist has created a sculpture in the form of a gate in ruin. The gate in ruin forms a word and is installed at the border between the pristine European looking landscape gardens of the Nirox Foundation and the African bush. The word SAN falls apart into three elements: a bench, a pyramid, and two columns. These elements are made out of natural stones, used burned bricks, dented corrugated sheets, rusty steel, and plants. The word SAN is also written on the ground inside the pyramid by the rising sun and gets smaller and smaller as sunlight travels through the day: the SAN culture is slowly disappearing from our planet...
Thus begins a film dialogue between an artist and a range of scientists in the field of genetic research, anthropology, and archaeology around the discourse of the beginning of our civilization and its meaning for our societies today.
The film visits the JU/‘HOANSI SAN people in Namibia where, today, they are trying to preserve their language and way of life as “actors” of their own hunter gatherer culture in a “Living Museum”. According to geneticist Himla Soodyall at Wits University in South Africa, the SAN carry some of the oldest DNA markers on the tree of our evolution. To affirm or oppose this theory, we sample and compare ⁄⁄uce N≠amce’s (a SAN woman) and Caroline Bittermann’s DNA with Himla Soodyall’s team at the Wits University research laboratory.While the DNA comparison reveals its scientific undeniable truth, we also reflect on the SAN’s importance in the origin of art, natureculture, and ritual communal behavior.
Exploring caves in the mountains of Cederberg and Drakensberg, we question Rock Art specialists and anthropologists on the cultural and spiritual impact of the SAN people’s rock paintings and artefacts making Africa the continent where our “Modern Man’s” civilization could have begun.
To clarify the position of the modern humans in the story of mankind, we construct, with Lee Berger’s help, an animated timeline of our evolution, in light of his recent discoveries.
If we all come from Africa and the SAN people are the genetic foundation of human origin, can they not make the “original” land claim? There is so much that we can learn from them, should the world tolerate that their cultural footsteps are definitely being covered by the red dust of the Kalahari...? Is their extinction unavoidable? Are human reservations the solution?
We are one species with overwhelming genetical similarities and insignificant differences. This filmed dialogue between Art and Science questions why our modern societies concentrate on our negligible morphological differences, the result of our permanent environmental adaptation, instead of embracing what makes us human.
Doesn’t the light that the artist shines on the SAN people cast a shadow on the concept of “race”?