Cradle of Humankind

While doing a residency at The Nirox Foundation, within the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg in 2012, I asked nine people I came in contact with, to either write something about themselves,  hand written or typed, or  I interviewed them and transcribed the interview from notes. I took a photograph of each of the nine people.

These stories were either densely typed and repeated or the hand writing was layered into a dense scribble. By placing these over the images in Photoshop, the text becomes the pixels for the image, so that each individual is veiled by his own story or to put it another way: each person is revealed by the veil of his or her story.

Below are the five typed interviews followed by the images and the hand written images.


I grew up with day-dreams in the high veld heat dependable afternoon thunderstorms steam rising from soaked tar roads West of Johannesburg. My father deprecated school quoted Nietszche and filled the air with Wagner. My mother was all Wordsworth, Byron and Alice in Wonderland. He died and I went astray seduced by women and the materiality of being for three decades emerging scathed but free to return to dreaming. The dividends from a difficult time. Now my dreams take shape in the secret of my studio in the shaping of the land and the abundance of trees West of Johannesburg.



From a conversation with Lee Berger in the Canteen at WITS University, Johannesburg.

 My father wanted me to be a lawyer so he sent me to an Ivy League university to study law. After a term I was bored stiff, just couldn’t bring myself to do it, but my peripheral subjects were Geology and Anthropology and they interested me. So I quit the Ivy League and reapplied to a local minor university in Georgia to do Geology and Palaeontology. There I found a really enthusiastic teacher, who literally fired me up. I ended up doing a PhD in the bones of the shoulder – the clavicle, scapula and humorous.

Afterwards I headed to Africa because the one area, which was wide open, was early hominids. Hardly anything had been found; you could count them on two hands, so I went to Kenya, Olduvai and Leaky. Leaky soon advised me to go elsewhere as the Rift Valley was more or less sewn up and palaeontologists were still looking in the same old places. He advised me to go to South Africa which was still wide open and nothing new had been found there for decades.

So I landed a job at WITS University in Joburg, and everyone was looking in the Karst caves nearby and nothing significant had been found in 70 years. I had funding from the University and started looking again, but found nothing. Then the economy crashed and I fell foul of the University who withdrew all research funding from my department.

I wasn’t about to give up though, the sites were too good and the area wasn’t called the Cradle of Humankind for nothing. At the time early and very expensive GPSs were coming into being along with a rudimentary version of Google Earth. So I bought two military maps for $10,000, plus a GPS. Using the maps I visited the sites and plotted the coordinates into Google Earth, but when I did that I wasn’t getting the right sites. This was because the military put in a large margin of error. So I disposed of the maps and just used Google Earth. In this way I was able to locate several new cave sites, close to the old ones but which had never been looked at.

So in my own time I went out there with my two kids and the dog. When we reached the first site I was amazed to see that the sink hole at the bottom of the hill had barely been touched.

In the late 1800’s they would take mules, jackhammers and dynamite with teams of people. They would drill the rock, place a charge and bang – blow it apart to remove the limestone stalactites and ship it all out for lime mortar. They would carry on going deeper and deeper into the Karst.

Here however they seemed to have just done the one blast and then left. Why I don’t know, perhaps the higher caves looked more promising. So anyway there was just this small hole. So I said to Matt “let’s go look for fossils”. Matt was nine years old at the time and three minutes later he yelled that he had got something. He was quite a way off from the hole so I didn’t really take it seriously, but thought I should at least encourage him. As I walked over towards him everything seemed to go into black and white mode and in slow motion. From five yards away I could see a hominid clavicle sticking out of the lump of rock he was holding. Remember I did my PhD on the bones of the shoulder. I knew it was a hominid clavicle because it is the only bone which is shaped like an S and I could see it from five yards away.

As I held the rock I turned it around and there, protruding from the stone was a complete jawbone, teeth and all. It was the jaw of a young child, maybe thirteen years of age. So we drove back to the University and got everyone interested to come out. Of course everyone and everyone was eager to help. About sixty of us went back out. With that many people we shouldn’t have had a problem placing the rock back in the wall and so find the rest.

Could we do it, no, for three hours not a thing. I was so frustrated, so we took a break so I could think. We had some tea and I stood quietly in the hole on my own and I lined up the sight line with the tree, or the remains of a lightning hit tree, charred black with a hole in it, beneath which Matt had found the fossil. As I was lining it up, the sun had dipped lower and the play of light and shadow was in sharp relief. Suddenly I saw a clavicle at the top of a humorous. I picked up the rock and fitted it into place. As I was doing so the earth above it crumbled away and several teeth fell into my hand. We had not one but two skeletons.

Someone else began to clear beneath, and in a second there was a femur. At this point we stopped. What we had was two complete hominid skeletons, something that had never been found before. Never in my wildest imaginings had I expected to find one, let alone two complete skeletons. It was something out of the bounds of possibility. Later we were to discover other skeletons in the cave – a sabre toothed tiger for one.

The find was between two layers where the radio isotopes had reversed, meaning that these two layers were pole reversals. So we could date the finds to two million years old. It must have been a time of colossal climate change, probably with a massive drought, every living creature would have been going down the caves in search of water. There may have been an earth quake or they could have just drowned in an underground lake. In any case what we see from the skeletons of the two hominids is something very close to homo sapiens; the cranium a bit smaller, the arms longer. But here was a creature that walked erect on two legs with a hand structure identical to our own which was capable of all the dextrous movements we employ today.

It is too soon to be sure but these remains seem to represent a new species of Australopithecus that is probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. Combined craniodental and postcranial evidence demonstrates that this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than any other australopith species and thus might help reveal the ancestor of that genus.



Petreus, Farm worker at Bosworth Farm and stud. Petreus has San blood.


Yes, I have been here working for twenty years. My parents were here before but they have gone now.

The San drawings are religious pictures. They show the San relationship to his world and they re used for power and healing. No one really knows exactly what these drawings mean, sometimes you can guess, but most likely you would be wrong. Some of the animals are emerging, as if from another world.

The man and the woman together, some say they are dancing, others that they are doing something else.

The abstract symbols designate this place as a space where healing was done. The drawings are on a slope facing where the river used to be. This is a place where lightning strikes because there is iron in the rock. Many years ago three children were killed up her by lightning. When the Koi replaced the San they tried to copy their drawings, but they were hopeless artists; they were herders and their drawings are crude and primitive. Sometimes they drew over San pictures, sometimes they put them next to them. Many people and students come from WITS University come up here to study the drawings. They say we should leave everything just as it is, but the trees are growing up and their leaves drop acid water onto the drawings so they are now brown and fading and you cant see them. I think we should cut the trees from around the drawings.

On the cobra snake: I was once cleaning out the swimming pool, it had been a long day, I was tired and walking home in a dream, not thinking. I looked up; a cobra was rearing up a few feet from my face. I froze, the cobra froze. The cobra has very poor eyesight. I was terrified as it could strike at any second. It is the most venomous snake. Very slowly I backed away. The cobra did not move. Inch by inch I backed up until I felt a tree at my back. I spun round behind it and ran like hell. Later others came to find and kill it, but it had gone, vanished.



Text taken from notes made after a day spent with Roger out at Vredefort Dome

I did my PhD at Cambridge on the effects of heat on rock, but when I returned to South Africa the thinking was already in place that Vredefort was an impact crater, despite the incumbent professor at WITS insistence that it wasn’t.

The impact happened 2 billion years ago. At the centre, ground Zero, an asteroid 10 Kilometres long and travelling through space at 25,000 mph slams into the earths crust at this point, travelling some 40 kilometres into the Earth. Like a pebble falling into water, it throws back up a bubble. In this case a mound of debris 40 Kilometres high. What we see in the distance, that semi circular line of hills, is in fact all that is left of the edge of that dome of destroyed rock.

So at the impact point here at ground zero, the bedrock granite, laid down when the Earth was formed four billion years ago, melts into a kind of plasticine. Within in this mush is every melted rock in the area, including the asteroid itself. Looking at a rock pebble here, it is flecked with pseudotacholite. Its even distribution means that this is a re-melt rock.

At the point of impact everything is vaporised. A massive cloud of debris is thrown into space and scattered for miles around. What little life there is, singled celled stromatolites etc, go up in smoke. The dome at the centre is some 40 kilometres across and the crater rim reaches to Johannesburg making it 300 kilometres in diameter. This is the largest impact crater by far that we know about on the planet. The Moon and Mars have many that are bigger. There is a smaller one in Yucatan, which wiped out the dinosaurs.

A few seconds after impact, off to the side of the dome the rocks are violently shaken up, causing massive friction. It is here that the rock melts and runs into cracks and seams forming a rock, which we call pseudotacholite, a glass like conglomeration of all the rocks. It has been heated violently and cooled rapidly. It is nearly the oldest rock on the planet, melted by the biggest impact event. We will look more at that later. For now we will go to the edge of the dome.

As we approach these hills you can see that all the rocks have been upended and shaken violently. Here we can see huge slabs of pseudotacholite, these have been polished to a glass finish. We cross the Vaal river and see Quartzite, which makes solidified sand beaches under pressure, here upended by the impact. But these layers are beaches of sand dunes and you can see the direction of their flow.

We are looking at a peculiar phenomenon of impact rocks – shatter cones, a pattern seen in the rock which looks like a drawing of mountain ranges.

We return to the dome – off centre to see a line of boulders stretching across the flat plain. The sun is dropping in the sky as we approach the boulders. They are in fact all that is left of a huge seam of melted pseudotachalite, over the intervening two billion years they have eroded into blunt stubs. At some point a forest has dripped acid rain onto the rocks, dissolving the rock and forming eroded cups. These cups hold water when it rains.

Thirty thousand years ago the San moved into the area. They noticed the water holding cups, which prompted them to designate this site for rain-making. This is where they went into trance dances to bring rain, which would replenish the grass on which the big mammals would arrive to graze. All essential to survival for the San, both practically and spiritually. All over these rocks you can find San drawings of these animals. Here in particular is the most sacred Eland, drawn around a depression. So we have a site which is a place of destruction, transformed by people into a site of creation. Destruction/creation/destruction, creation.



My mother died when I was very young, I was seven years old when she died and my father died soon after. I was looked after by my grandmother, there were four of us and I am the third child. There were too many of us for my grandmother, so I was sent to my uncle. This was a bad situation. I had to help in the home and I could not go to school because at that time you had to pay and there was no money.

I have two languages: my mother was Xhosa and my father was Tswana. Tswana was my first language. I never learned to speak Afrikaans as that was what was taught in schools. Under apartheid you could only get a job if you spoke Afrikaans. So I left where I was living and moved to Johannesburg where there were more jobs. Here I got a job as a gardener and I learned about plants and gardening.

I have only my brothers and sisters. My uncle died and his family dispersed. I am saving, I would like to come to the UK to earn more money, so I can have more of a chance in life. I am someone with lots of bad beginnings.

Cradle of Humankind | 2014 | Prints, Text & Words | Media: , , , | Tags: , , , ,