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A journey into humanity’s past

Avatar of inke inke - 04. August 2017 - Discover Namibia

Dr Wendt doing excavations at the Apollo 11 Cave in 1972. (Private Collection Antje Otto)

It is the year 1969. Man sets foot on the moon for the very first time. The whole world is mesmerized by the Apollo 11 mission. Archaeologist Dr Wolfgang Wendt from Cologne in Germany embarks on a similar mission, albeit in the opposite direction. Instead of reaching into space he digs into the ground and his journey is not into the future but the primeval past of mankind. He starts his excavations in a cave in the Huns Mountains northeast of Rosh Pinah in southern Namibia, which he names Apollo 11, and discovers a small fine-grained slab of sandstone with traces of an animal drawn on it. The result of age determination causes a sensation. At around 27,000 years old, this slab is so far the oldest work of art found in Africa. 

In 1968 Wolfgang Wendt, then 33 years old, was sent to South West Africa by the Prehistory Institute at the University of Cologne. I never expected that I would be unearthing results faster than I was able to dig, he says about those days in 2013, sitting in his room in the Schanzenoord Home for the Aged, overlooking Windhoek.

Wendt holds a PhD in archaeology and specialises in prehistory and early history. After his arrival in South West Africa he first looked into the rock art in the Erongo Mountains, at the Spitzkoppe and at Twyfelfontein. In early 1969 he traveled south for the first time, to the farm Aar among other places because in his opinion the most beautiful rock engravings were found there. But unfortunately there were hardly any excavation sites where I would have been able to tap into the sequence of prehistoric events.

In April 1969 he visited the Apollo 11 Cave for the first time. He knew about it from books and through hearsay. I still remember an old black-and-white photo from German colonial times, which showed an officer with a dog standing in front of the cave as part of an exploratory walk. When I got there I immediately recognised the characteristics of the landscape, even though the picture was more than half a century old.

Asked why of all possible sites he chose the Apollo 11 Cave for his excavations, Wendt says: I was simply lucky! After all, I had to start digging somewhere. This cave is quite accessible through the dry riverbed of the Nuob and there is also a seeping spring nearby, which is probably the reason why it was chosen by primeval people as a resting place in earlier times.

The Apollo 11 Cave on the upper reaches of the dry Nuob River (a tributary of the Gariep/Orange River) turned out to be a veritable treasure trove. During the winter months, from May to September, Wendt worked in the cave in two- to three-week intervals. In between he returned to Windhoek to analyse his material. He always travelled with his levelling instrument and his wooden measurement board which he still cherishes today. On scale paper he drew the outline of the cave, cross sections of excavations and profiles.

In 1972 he discovered his favourite find: the other half of the sandstone slab which had caused a sensation three years earlier and was declared Africa’s oldest work of art, though initially he actually did not recognise it as such. In his office in Windhoek he was unpacking his latest finds from the Apollo 11 Cave. The legendary first half of the 27,000-year-old fine-grained sandstone slab sat on his desk. A farmer’s wife walked in to say hello and immediately spotted the second half of the famous slab among the ragbag of “new” pieces. I surely would have noticed it, too, at some stage, Wendt says with a twinkle in his eye.

The slab is “art mobilier”, portable art that was carried along. The complete drawing shows a mystical being, half animal, half human. Similar themes are found among the rock paintings at the Brandberg Mountain, which are not “mobile”, however, and much younger at 4000 years old at the most. Wendt continued to dig and came to the conclusion that the cave was inhabited for at least 70,000 years, including lengthy breaks.

He conducted research for the Prehistory Institute at the University of Cologne until 1982. Following the excavation successes in the Apollo 11 Cave he turned his attention to the Schwarzrand Mountains between Maltahöhe and Helmeringhausen. He resigned from the university and stayed on in South West Africa as an independent expert.

Apart from writing numerous papers on his archaeological finds he is also the author of publications such as a book on narrow-gauge railways in South West Africa (Die Feldspurbahnen Südwestafrikas) and a feature on the old cemetery in Windhoek which appeared in the Afrikanischer Heimatkalender.

Dr Wolfgang Wendt passed on in August 2015 at the age of 81 years. His scientific heritage is safeguarded by the National Museum of Namibia. 

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