Out of Africa

there is always

something new


The motto of the South African museum as it appears on the official coat of arms reads Semper aliquid novi Africa affert. Translated freely it means that Africa is always producing some novelty. Usually the motto of the museum is not given much thought on a daily basis, but its origin and how the specific sequence of word was selected to adorn, first the Museum seal and finally, the coat of arms, is an interesting story that goes back to the middle of the previous century and ultimately to the writings of the Greek sage Aristotle.

By J A van den Heever, Department of Zoology, University of Stellenbosch

On Friday, 11 July 1873 a meeting of the Trustees of the South African Museum was attended by Sir Thomas Maclear, retired Astronomer Royal at the Cape, C.A. Fairbridge, lawyer and bibliophile and R. Trimen, curator of the South African Museum from 1872-1895. One of the points raised by Trimen during the meeting was the question of a Museum seal. He pointed out that the Trustees at that time did not possess a Common Seal of Office although mention was made of such a seal in the Act of Incorporation of the South African Museum (Act No 17, of 1857), signed at Government House by the Colonial Secretary Rawson W. Rawson on the 29 June 1857.

As a suitable design Trimen suggested the shield of the arms of Cape Town with the gnu and kudu as supporters, a secretary bird striking a snake as a crest and as motto the word "Africa sempter aliquid novi affert'. In addition the word "The Trustees of the South African Museum' were to encircle the seal. The proposal was generally approved, with Fairbridge suggesting that the coat of arms should not occupy the whole shield but be inserted in miniature.

The matter appears to have been abandoned at this stage because during a meeting of the Trustees three and a half years later, on Friday 22December 1876, attended by C A Fairbridge, J X Merriman, the politician and Trimen, the latter reminded the Trustees that they still did not possess the Common Seal mentioned in the Act of 1857. He then submitted a different draft design consisting of the shield of the coat of arms recently granted to the Cape Colony, surmounted by the crest of the head of a secretary bird and the same motto, but with the word in a different order Semper aliquid novi Africa affert. The seal was again to be encircled marginally with the words 'The Trustees of the South African Museum'. This new design was adopted by the Trustees of the South African Museum correspondence shows that the seal was ordered and received from England before the end of July 1877.

R Summers, in his History of the South African Museum, notes that the motto suggested by Trimen included the word affert. He regarded this as most appropriate as it better reflected the activities of the museum than the original line from the writings of the Roman scholar Pliny, which reads Ex Africa semper aliquid nova. The word affert means 'publishes' as well as 'bring forth' or 'contribute' and as the Museum publishes its findings on a regular basis in its own journal, the Annals of the South African Museum, the wording is very apt. The interesting fact here is that the popular and well known Ex Africa version of this Latin quotation is not the original by Pliny, but appears to be a later adaptation. Summers suggested that the Trustees of the South African Museum were so well versed in Latin that they devised the correct form of the quotation containing the word affert. However, Professor Van Stecklenburg of the Department of Latin at the university of Stellenbosch (pers. Comm.) has pointed out that the use of the word affert merely reflects he correct grammatical adaptation of the original Latin proverb and that no man of any schooling in the nineteenth century would het had any difficulty in adjusting Pliny's quote in this way to make it usable. Summers also states correctly that the records of the Museum give no clue as to the identity of the classical scholar who suggested this version of a well-known saying. The fact that there is no clue as to the origin of the particular version of the quotation which forms the motto of the Museum, seems to indicate that it was originally suggested by the curator, Roland Trimen, himself. However, a wider scrutiny of Museum events at that time reveals a very interesting line of speculation also the identity of a second person who may have inadvertently been responsible for the change in the order of the words between 1873 and 1876. This person appears to be none other than the famous British palaeontologist of the previous century, Sir Richard Owen.

The words semper aliquid novi Africa affert originate from the works of the roman administrator and prolific author, Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder). Pliny lived from 23-79 A.D. and wrote, in addition to his numerous other tomes, a work of thirty-seven volumes entitled Naturalis Historia in which extensive descriptions of the natural world are documented as understood in his day. It was completed in the year 77 A.D. but only published after his death. He admits that in compiling his writings he made free use of the works of others, one source being that of the Greek sage Aristotle. In the preface to his Naturalis Historia Pliny notes that he treats 20,000 items from the writings of 100 authors. In actual fact he quotes from 146 roman and 327 non-Roman authors.

Pliny was an extremely studious person and in addition to his official duties he was continually reading and making extracts from numerous books. His habits, as described by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, included the taking of notes even during dinner and, when travelling, he was accompanied by a shorthand writer. He apparently suffered from ill health as his nephew confided in a letter to a friend that the Elder Pliny had a naturally weak throat which was narrow and frequently inflamed. Pliny died on 25 August A.D. 79 at Stabiae (Castellamare) on the southern shore of the bay of Naples as a result of asphyxiation during the great eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed the nearby towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

In Chapter 17 of the eighth book, Pliny gives a highly inaccurate but nonetheless vivid description of the mating behaviour of the African lion. In his account he stresses the shortage of available water in Africa and points out that the rivers are so few and far between that the animals tend to congregate in great numbers at the drinking places. He concludes that it must either be violence or lust that then induces them to mate indiscriminately amongst each other, eventually producing many varieties of hybrids. He notes that because of the lion's strong sexual drive it is very ill tempered and, in a charming paragraph, relates how lions and leopards often interbreed so that a mature lion with mane (both male and female) indicates that the father was a leopard!

This then prompts him to note a common Greek saying of the time which held that Africa is always bringing forth something new (par. 42: 'unde etian vulgare Graciae dictum semper aliquid novi Africam Adferre. This is indeed the origin of the common saying of Greece that Africa is always producing some novelty.') It appears, however, that Pliny copied this portion of text from an even earlier author, the Greek sage Aristotle. Aristotle lived from 384-322 B.C. and this little gem of information was extracted from one of his numerous writings entitled Historia Animalium. In this work he notes: 'On the whole the wild animals of Asia are the fiercest, those of Europe the boldest, and those of Libya the most varied in form: and it has passed into a proverb that Libya is always producing something new. For the want of water brings many heterogeneous animals together at the drinking places, where they copulate and produce young, if their periods of gestation happen to be the same, and their size not very different'. It is interesting to note that Aristotle speaks here of Libya and not Africa. According to historians the Greek did not know the word Africa but used Libya and referred to all black people as Ethiopians. The Romans, on the other hand, used the word Africa. These terms referred only to the northern regions of the continent however.

How Sir Richard Owen, the British palaeontologist, became involved with the motto of the South African Museum appears to be entirely fortuitous. The first fossils of prehistoric animals from the South African Karoo that were described in a scientific paper were discovered by A.G. Bain, the intrepid Scottish-born builder of military roads who had no formal training in geology. A landmark in his career came in 1837 when a friend lent him a copy of the Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, the British geologist. Although Rain read other books on geology it was Lyell who fired his imagination so that he wrote: 'I was smitten. Lyell had made a convert to me. I lamented that I had never read his of any other geological work before. My zeal know no bounds, and I literally left no stone unturned in search of fossils or minerals. I was determined to become a geologist.'

His first fossil find near Fort Beaufort he described as follows: 'It was here where I discovered the first head of that wonderful race of extinct animals, which I have called 'bidentals' from their having only two tusks in the upper jaw and no other teeth whatsover!'

There was nobody in South Africa at that time to whom Bain could turn for assistance and he sent his discoveries to the Ecological Society of London. He was undoubtedly the greatest British anatomist of the time and with papers on British fossils to his credit he was the obvious choice to research Bain's discoveries. Amongst these specimens were the so-called Blinkwater monster, a primitive stem-reptile Pareiasaurus serridens as well as a variety of mammal-like reptiles including his first discovery, the Bidental, later named Dicynodon lacerticeps.

The mammal-like reptiles are a transitional group between reptiles and mammals and although they are now known to form an important link in the evolutionary chain leading to mammals, they were unknown to science at the time. Owen described a number of specimens over the next thirty years and culminated this work in 1876 with an important publication by the British Museum of natural History entitled descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Fossil Reptilia of South Africa in the Collection of the British Museum. The scientific importance of this faunal assemblage was therefore underscored by a major publication and, in keeping with the unique nature of the African fossils described therein, he included the very appropriate Latin quotation Semper aliquid novi Africa affert on the title page of the manuscript. Owen correctly derived this quote from the original text of Pliny as can be seen in Page et. Al., Pliny: Natural history where the passage reads: 'unde etiam vulgare Craeciae dictum semper aliquid novi Africam adferre'. The passage translates as: "this is indeed the origin of the common saying of Greece that Africa is always producing some novelty.

It is further mentioned in the annual report of the South African Museum for the year 1876 (published 1877) that the museum received, as a donation from the Trustees of the British Museum of Natural History, a collection of casts of south African fossils, accompanied by the descriptive and illustrated catalogue of Professor Owen. The original specimens were retained by the British Museum. The copy of Owen's catalogue, lodged in the library of the South African Museum, bears the acquisition date of 19 July 1876 and is inscribed, 'For the South African Museum of Natural History, Cape Town, from the Trustees of the British Museum'. In other words, casts of Bain's fossils together with an original copy of a landmark publication on a unique group of South African fossils, would have been a very welcome gift to the South African Museum.

Trimen was therefore in possession of the exact sequence of words of the Latin motto by July 1876. The quotation was already acceptable to Trimen and the Trustees because of their previous meeting and in addition it was now used by an internationally famous scientist to adorn the descriptive account of natural history specimens from Africa which were so unique that until quite recently they were new to science and the world. Consequently when the question of a motto for the seal was broached by him at the meeting of 22 December 1876 it seems to have been a forgone conclusion that the wording as published in Owen's catalogue would win the day and become the official motto.

The motto of the South African museum therefore has a historical connection the African continent and its natural history. As a result of Owen's research it can also claim strong ties with palaeontology, a branch of biology that has a long and esteemed history at the museum. To this day then the Greek proverb used by Aristotle to describe the animals of Africa more than 2 000 years ago very aptly summarizes the spirit of scientific endeavor at the South African Museum and the institution's commitment to reveal that which is new from Africa.



Photographs by J A van den Heever, L Bester and C Booth.