Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator Palaeontology, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

Evolution became part of the national school curricula in 2008, taught at grade 12 level. Although it would have been a new topic to grade 12s, some aspects of evolution have been part of the grade 7-9 Natural Sciences/Social Sciences curricula since 2004. Although evolution is not an entirely new topic in South African high schools, it did not seem to generate much concerns or controversy among teachers or parents until such a time that it became externally examinable. It was only in 2008 when it was included as part of an externally examinable curriculum, where it made up 25% of the final matriculation examination, that concerns about lack of knowledge and beliefs started to emerge.

The following are some of the quotes that indicate the depth of concerns regarding evolution as a subject matter in South African schools. “I cannot see why it should be introduced at school. It will cause confusion”; “because it is not suitable for people who believe in God”; “evolution is a racist theory”; “it terribly undermines black people, everything bad gets a black colour. It means that we are apes” (Mail and Guardian, 2007).

Irrespective of whether teachers are creationists or not, they might not teach evolution effectively. This could be because they do not want to undermine the values and beliefs of the learners and parents.

In addition to these concerns from the public, teachers and scholars face challenges relating to the subject, such as  teachers’ inadequate background knowledge, inadequacy of teacher training by the Department of Education, and teachers with strong religious beliefs.

  1. Teachers’ inadequate background knowledge

Teachers often lack extensive knowledge regarding evolution. They face their own concerns regarding the subject. Teachers grapple with concerns such as:

  1. a) What to teach learners;
  2. b) At what depth to teach it;
  3. c) What would be assessed; and
  4. d) Where to start.

These concerns usually contribute to teachers to be less confident in teaching the subject. Most teachers have never studied evolution themselves, and do not understand the subject. One teacher was quoted saying “I am scared to teach something I am not sure of. I have never done evolution at school even in college training” (Ngxola, 2012).

  1. Inadequacy of teacher training by the Department of Education

Lack of resources such as textbooks and teaching aids for both teachers and scholars, as well as the misconceptions surrounding the subject, add to the challenges of the subject being accepted in schools. Teacher training regarding evolution seems hardly co-ordinated or sustained over time. Long term in-service training is required, as compared to once-off training events. Too much information is usually provided as hands-outs for self-study. This means that teachers are left on their own to study these materials, and try to grasp it on their own. For a complex subject like evolution, more extensive training is required for teachers to guarantee their understanding of the concept.

  1. Teachers with strong religious beliefs

Teachers’ personal views on a topic or subject matter will heavily influence or determine how the topic is treated in the classroom. Scott (1999:8) indicates that a “teacher who does not accept evolution is unlikely to teach it, or will mislead students”. Presenting evolution workshops in Taung in 2016, I realised how teachers are conflicted between executing their duties as teachers, teaching evolution and observing their religious beliefs and practices.

Current status of affairs

Many teachers have started to admit their limitations and request help, although the training of teachers still needs to be prioritised by the Department of Basic Education. Subjects such as Palaeontology, Archaeology and Anthropology are still not presented extensively as career opportunities to scholars in South Africa. These subjects, especially Palaeontology and Anthropology are evolution oriented, and have the potential to change the current status of affairs regarding evolution in the country. There are still misconceptions at schools and the general public regarding evolution. These are mostly fuelled by lack of knowledge about the subject. Addressing these requires a joint effort from all stakeholders involved; these being museums curating natural sciences collections, institutions of higher learning, the Department of Basic Education and the general public at large.

Figure 1: Depiction of a possible scenario in the South African education system.

The picture in Figure 1 could easily be compared to the South African educational system in a way that there is no adequate distribution of resources to schools across the country. The question is, how do we assist all learners to climb the tree? In the case of evolution, how do we do away with misunderstandings and misconceptions, and introduce it to learners as a science concept, with scientific evidence to support it? Figures 2-7 depict some of the ways in which museums and higher education institutions can play a role in educating and demonstrating scientific evidence to support evolution teachings in South African schools.

Figure 2: A local school attending the announcement of Homo naledi at Maropeng a Afrika.

Figure 3: Evolution lecture presented in the Broom room at DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

Figure 4: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 5: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 6: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 7: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.


Ngxola, N. 2012. Teaching evolution in a new curriculum: Life Sciences teachers’ concerns and needs. A research report submitted to the Faculty of Science in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science.

Scott, E.C. (1999) Problem concepts in evolution: cause, purpose, design, and chance. The evolution–creation controversy II: perspectives on science, religion, and geological education. Paleontological Society   Papers. 5, 169–181.

Mohlala. T. Religious backlash expected as evolution forms part of curriculum. Mail and Guardian. 26 October 2007.




Lazarus Kgasi: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

A strip of dolomitic limestone caves containing the fossilized remains of ancient types of animals, plants and, most notably, hominids, covers the Cradle of Humankind Site. Approximately 2.3 billion years ago, the dolomite in which the caves were formed began as coral reefs developing in a worm-shallow sea. The discovery of these fossils has helped in the understanding of human evolution, geology, and how the past environments shaped what we see today.

Shallow inland seas were formed on our continent crust 3 billion years ago and the Cradle of Humankind was part of a large inland sea that stretched as far as the equator.  Ocean and seawater are rich in calcium carbonate and these are the chemicals that form dolomite. It was formed when carbonates of calcium and magnesium precipitated out of seawater as chemical sediments in the shallow ocean that covered much of South Africa at the time. As water chemistry changed periodically, layers of chert (silicon dioxide) were formed within dolomite. Chert (rock) is important because it is insoluble in slightly acidic ground water or rain water.  When present as a thick layer, it tends to form a roof over caves; the collapse of such roofs creates vertical openings.

Exposed dolomite in the Cradle of Humankind has captured and preserved some of the elements of inland sea; ripple marks of ancient sea waves’ movement can be seen. These phenomenal geological processes assist us in understanding how caves are formed and what caused mountain ranges to rise to great heights, continents to drift apart, volcanoes to erupt and inland sea to dry up.  There are two types of dolomites in the Cradle of Humankind; there are 2.3-2.5 billion years old Eccles formation and 2.6-2.8 billion Monte Cristo formation.

Figure 1. Photo showing dolomite from one of the sites around the Cradle.

One of the ways researchers have identified areas in the dolomites where there may be caves or sink holes is to look for the occurrence of lime-loving trees such as the Wild Olive (Olea capensis) and White Stinkwood (Celtis africana).  Most of the time they mark the top of an underground cavity into which their roots grow. Most White Stinkwood trees were used in the 20th century as fuel for lime furnaces, so only their stumps remain as clues to where potentially fossil rich caves are.



Lazarus Kgasi: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

South Africa is famous for its richness in hominid discoveries and we find these fossils preserved deep inside caves arising from the fact that bones and teeth are fairly resistant biological material. Certain geological conditions are required for them to be preserved in the process called fossilization. They have to be buried deeply in a sediment(soil) that may become cemented by calcite over time and this calcified material is referred to as breccia.

Before the phenomenon of fossilization occurs, the bones have to be transported into a cave. To do so, there are several potential biological and non-biological factors contributing to these bone accumulations. Carnivores bring their prey into their dens; porcupines carry bones into the caves to gnaw on; owls and eagles roost at the entrance of caves and regurgitate pellets full of hair, feathers, bones and dental remains and animals can also fall into the cave opening and die. Bones left lying at the entrance of a cave, carcasses brought by predators or animals having died a natural death can fall into the cave either by gravity or washed into the cave by flowing water adding to these bone accumulations. Some animals use caves as a shelter to protect themselves from the climate and predators.

 Figure 1.  Map of Bolt’s Farm cave deposits indicating the location of Cobra Cave.

Bolt’s Farm Cave System is one of the fossil bearing sites located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Bolt’s Farm is a complex site composed of over 20 sites, each with a specific name to differentiate them from each other. Today, Bolt’s Farm spreads over three properties, namely: Main Quarry, Klinkert’s property and Greensleeves property. Cobra Cave is one of the sites forming part of the Bolt’s Farm Cave System.

Various people have excavated at Bolt’s Farm since its discovery in the 1930s. Of interest to this paper is the 1947-1948 expedition, known as the California African Expedition. This expedition was led by Charles M. Camp, who mapped and undertook the first systematic sampling of the numerous fossiliferous sites at Bolt’s Farm. Most of the specimens that were collected were exported to the University of California-Berkeley in the United States where they still reside. Cobra Cave was one of the caves that was mapped by this team and it was initially given a derogatory name that does not have a place in the new South Africa, and thus need not be mentioned here. For now, this site will be referred to as site X.

Figure 2. Skull of the extinct African pig Metridiochoerus modestus from Cobra Cave.

In 1996 a collaborative programme between South Africa and France was established. During this time, team members undertook fieldwork at Bolt’s Farm, which resulted in the discovery of a new site, Waypoint 160, which is currently the oldest site so far discovered in the Cradle of Humankind (dated between 4.5 and 4 million years).

From 2006-2010 the survey of Bolt’s Farm Cave System intensified and additional new sites were discovered. Systematic sampling was done on each site and the collection of breccia blocks greatly increased. Lingering in our minds was the existence of site X with the derogatory name and we could not until then come up with a suitable new name. It was in the middle of October and we were excavating outside the cave, as we were sweating from the heat of the sun we decided to go inside the cave to prospect the inner part of the cave. As we were walking in a single file towards deeper parts of the cave, my eyes were drawn towards the wall of the cave and I saw a long greyish thing on the side of the cave entrance. When I pointed my light towards it, it appeared like a snake and I screamed “COBRA”, and ran towards the exit. Two colleagues were in front of me and one of them, had a snake as a pet, so she was naturally curious and pointed her light towards the so-called snake. It was then discovered that it was not a snake, it was a weathered orange sage bag. That is how we decided to name the site Cobra Cave and removed the derogatory name it once carried that was not representative of the team in the new South Africa.

Excavating at Cobra cave will always bring memories of what happened on that day and hopefully we will discover fossilized cobra to complement the name!



The Shona Mbira

The Shona Mbira

By Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator Anthropology, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

Mbira, attached to a gourd resonator (Photograph by author)

The mbira, also known as mbila sansa, kilembe, likembe, dipela or thumb piano is an ancient musical instrument closely associated with the natural landscape in which the Shona people traditionally dwelled. The mbira was apparently bestowed upon the Shona by the Great Rainmaker and its sound reminds the Shona of this watery heritage by closely imitating rain or running water. The mbira is also made from elements in nature, from a block of wood with a number of metal keys attached to the surface and played within a gourd resonator or on its own. The metal keys were often recycled agricultural metals initially smelted from the specific mineral. Thus, each component of this object links it to natural resources of the land. Because of its organic nature, the gourd too, connects the instrument with nature and the close ties to traditional practices in a Shona household, such as cooking, carrying water and storage. Before colonisation, the mbira was regarded as a sacred instrument, especially among the Zezuru people of central Mashonaland region surrounding the capital Harare (Zimbabwe). The advent of Christianity resulted in the indigenous people demonising the mbira instrument as it was associated with profane music.

Mbira and gourd resonator (Photograph by author)

The mbira is a type of lamellaphone (any of a family of musical instruments) unique to Africa and is widely played across the continent. However, the Shona mbira is regarded as highly developed in the class of lamellaphones and the music richly complex and important in indigenous religious life in Zimbabwe. It is so because the mbira type of instrument has been played for over 600 years.

There are at least five distinct types of mbira played by the Shona people. Each type consists of one or more rows of different sized metal tongues (or keys) mounted on a wooden soundboard. The keys are struck with the thumbs and forefingers, and the instrument is propped inside a gourd calabash resonator to amplify the sound. Nowadays the resonator is often made with fibreglass. The instrument is played by lightly striking the loose ends of the rods with the thumbs’ nails, which the players allow to grow long for that purpose. When the iron rods are shaken and the blows resounding above the hollow of the bowl, a gentle harmony of accordant sounds is produced.

Apart from differences in the number and layout of keys, the Shona mbira also differs in their repertoires and performance contexts as well as their regional distribution. By the 1960s, the mbira had drawn attention both in and outside Zimbabwe. Musicians such as Beauler Dyoko, Ephat Mujuru, Thomas Mapfumo and Stella Chiweshe are renowned for being instrumental in popularising and developing the range of mbira music on international stages.

Chidanyika, T. 2008.  Zimbabwean mbira music on an international stage: Chartwell Dutiro’s life in Music. 5(1): 91.
Hancock-Barnett, C. 2012. Colonial resettlement and cultural resistance: the mbira music of Zimbabwe. Social & Cultural Geography. 13(10): 12.
Jones, C. 2008. Shona Women Mbira Players: Gender, Tradition and Nation in Zimbabwe. Ethnomusicology Forum. 17(1): 125-129.
Muranda, R. 2010. The Nhare Mbira Music Trends in Zimbabwe since 1980. Muziki. 7(1): 77-78.



Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator: Anthropology, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

Skin-bag bellows, used for blowing air into a fire. (Photograph by author)

Bellows were regarded as the most important component in the work of African smelters and smiths. The iron-smelting process was widely referred to as ‘blowing the bellows’ and competent smiths were known as ‘men skilled in bellows’. Although iron smelting ceased in Africa after the arrival of the Europeans, smithying and forging continued, thence information on the making of bellows for smithies is published intensively.

The two types of bellows that were used for traditional smelting and forging iron found in Southern Africa were skin-bag bellows and drum bellows. Examples of both types of bellows are found and housed in the Anthropology Collection of the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History. They were collected in different parts of Southern Africa such as Zimbabwe and Namibia. The earliest bellows were collected in the 1920s in Venda, northern South Africa.

 Drum bellows                                    Skin-bag bellows (photographs by author

Goat skin was mainly used for making bellows. Conversely, some reports mention the use of antelope skins, especially the skin of the sable antelope. The skin-bag bellows were prevalently used in South Africa as opposed to drum bellows which have been reported to be found largely in Namibia and northern Botswana. A distribution map revealed that skin bellows were used mainly in the eastern part of central and southern Africa. Nonetheless, little is known about drum bellows that were common in tropical Africa, southwards and westwards to the Congo and northern Angola.

Both types of bellows have technical advantages and disadvantages. The drum bellows appeared to be in some respects a more efficient type in that they are easily operated and are durable in handling and in storage. However, their manufacture required the availability of large-diameter hardwood trees and the skill of experienced wood workers. The skin-bag bellows on the other hand could be made from skin and horns, therefore materials were easily available everywhere in Africa. This may explain the high proportion of skin-bag bellows in the poorly wooded regions of Africa south of the Zambezi. The disadvantage of skin-bag bellows is that they have a low resistance to wear and storage and their handling needed much more training and effort, but this may not have counted for much in a labour-intensive economy.

It appears that there was not much difference in the way skins were removed from the animals as the skins were always taken off as a ‘whole’. At times, goats were skinned alive as it was believed it would ‘strengthen the power of the bellows’. In the case of skin-bag bellows, the skin was obtained by first cutting at the hindquarters and pulling the skin over to the neck. Secondly the skin was softened by scraping, pushing, and stretching. The skin would only occasionally be rubbed with tree bark or cattle manure. For any stitching required, a sinew-thread that was pierced into the leather with an awl-like needle, was used. Thereafter, the thread would be inserted with the hand followed by fastening each stitch to make it strong. A wooden handle-valve, consisting of two slats or sticks, was then fastened with leather thongs to the hindquarter incision of the skin bag, and a nozzle. Commonly, a straightened antelope horn from waterbuck, sable antelope, eland, or gemsbok or an ox horn was tightly bound into the neck end. The African leather workers who could make bellows in the traditional way have now disappeared almost as completely as that of the metal smelter. The skill of iron smelting highlights the scientific contribution by Africans.


Friede, H. &  Steel, R. 1977. An experimental study of iron-smelting techniques used in the South African Iron Age.  Journal of South African Institute of Mining and Metallugry: 235.

Friede, H. & Steel, R. 1986. Traditional Wooden Drum Bellows of South-Western Africa. The South African Archaeological Bulletin. 41(143): 12-16.

Murfin, B. 1996. An African Chemistry Connection: Simulating early iron smelting. The Science Teacher. 63 (2): 37.