South Africa's Shades of Gold

Updated: Mar 15

An exploration into human evolution as discovered in Cape Town, South Africa

A set of students overlook a travel photographer in Cape Town while on assignment to create images for nonprofits.

Questioning the origin of human life is essential for our present-day existence, as uncovering mysteries of the past provide insight for the future. Though there are many unknowns about our human beginnings, one thing is certain: we are from Africa.

We Homo sapiens are the single surviving branch on an evolutionary tree full of previous dead ends. With offshoots of extinct ancestors that failed to thrive, our success was the result of successive species possessing abilities that produced an adaptable and highly intelligent organism. Over 10,000,000 years our species has evolved. Lucy, the skeleton of our ancestral Australopithecus afarensis, was the first of our kind to stand upright which provided the ability to carry things and appear larger to predators. More recently, Homo habilis learned to use tools and Homo erectus, developed the use of fire. This eventually lead us to 200,000 years ago where Homo sapiens became our very own, unique species.

Despite this history to becoming mankind, we possess 99% of the same genetic sequence as chimpanzees and bonobos. So at what point in our evolution did we become human? When did we develop the characteristics that define our unique species Where is the origin of humanity as we know it and why have we chosen to deny our shared existence?

Boys playing on a swingset in Cape Town township Langa. Photograph by Zachary Mason.

Although there is debate what distinguishes us from other Homo species, most scholars agree that distinctly "modern" human characteristics are language, abstract thought, symbolism, creative expression and collective learning. Archeological evidence of this includes art, jewelry, pigments and dyes, and tools and fire.

The first piece of art ever documented was recently discovered in Blombos Cave, South Africa dating 73,000 years ago: a simple set of geometric lines were carved on a rock. Crushed pigments of ochre, bone, and charcoal were found stored in abalone shells. Beads made from shells were strung together, potentially used for decoration, expression, or trade. Hundreds of arrowheads with different degrees of sharpness serve as evidence of tools.

So what inferences about humans today can one make from rocks in a cave? Why does it matter where we came from, how we evolved, and what does that mean to us now?

There is a time in human history when our success depended on every member of a tribe. There was an age when the wisdom of our ancestors was integral to the success of our species. There is an era where what we learned from the past dictated our success in the future. That time is now.

All humans alive on this planet can be traced from an immigration out of Africa between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago. As our collective species became separated by distance over time, they developed varying physical features. Darker skin to protect from prolonged sunlight. Tighter hair to keep cool. Lighter eyes for areas with less sunlight. More body fat to stay warm. Taller as an adaptation to cold weather. These mutations have enabled our species to thrive and inhabit all corners of the globe.

And yet somehow, in modern time we have chosen to interpret our differences as threats. Despite our better judgment, those in power have given us reasons to fear those who are different than us. Collectively, we overcame great odds and grew to inhabit the Earth as we do today. We learned to dance to fend off predators. We learned to survive cold winters, build boats, and fly. Now we race to be the first off the planet, the last to drop bombs on the planet, and the one to take the most from the planet.

From the time we evolved throughout 200,000, we developed our skillset as "humans" in Africa. As a successive lineage of highly adaptable and genetically diverse organisms, prepared to conquer elements and use our growing brains for survival, we have come, we have conquered and we have killed ourselves. Many people like to claim it is in our nature to protect our own and fight against one another. But, I believe our species has evolved to know better.

Any barriers that divide and separate us is a denial of our collective evolution. We must take the knowledge we've learned from our past, acknowledge the errs of our era, and move forward with a better understanding that we have always been in this journey together. Our collective unity will make us stronger, for there is no race, only the human race.

A tour guide holds a black and white wand to show the divide between races.