In 1997 during an environmental impact assessment outside Mossel Bay, two scientists came upon a cave so archeologically important it would change the way science contemplates the origins of humans. South takes the increasingly popular Point of Human Origins Experience at Pinnacle Point, a unique and intimate tour led by one of its discoverers, archaeologist Dr Peter Nilssen.
WORDS Clare van Rensburg PHOTOGRAPHS Shaen Adey, Jenya Zhivaleva, Brian Witbooi
Leaving the manicured greens of the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort, we descend off the edge of a steep cliff onto a narrow wooden platform. A magnificent vista lies beneath – the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean sweep up to the boulder-strewn bluff and pound out an ancient tempo; orange and grey lichens cling to the sandstone cliffs; sea spray is thrown high into the cool air as seagulls wheel and dive below; and 175 creaking wooden steps descend to sea level, offering our exclusive tour group an opportunity to step back in time.
“The Pinnacle Point Caves contain both a unique record of human habitation – spanning a period of at least 120 000 years –and a unique record of the climate from about 400 000 to 30 000 years ago,” says Peter. The caves were declared a Provincial Heritage Site in 2012, an initial step in the bid towards gaining recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
He and Jonathon Kaplan, director for Cultural Resource Management in Mossel Bay, first identified Pinnacle Point’s historic significance during an environmental impact assessment in 1997 ahead of the construction of the golf course and adjacent Garden Route Casino. As the duo stepped into what is now known as ‘Cave 13B’, Peter admits to a “shiver of gooseflesh”. The archaeologist immediately recognised the value of the fossilised sediment piled high against the cave wall. It was later shown to contain a deluge of archaeological evidence, including the remains of stone artefacts, pieces of shell, charcoal from fires, shards of bone and debris from the manufacture of tools.
The cave that had so entranced Peter in 1997 was later found to be one of 54 heritage related sites ranging from open shell middens to geological and cave sites. This now represents one of the densest concentrations of Stone Age sites in the world.
Due to a series of excavations beginning in 2000, the Pinnacle Point caves have been the focus of intense scientific research by a multi-disciplinary team of more than 40 scientists from around the world. The team is led by Dr Curtis Marean, an associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. Known as the SACP4 Project – South African Coast Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology and Palaeoanthropology Project –it is the largest scientific project of its kind in the world, having so far received more than US$10 million in funding from the USA’s National Science Foundation and the Hyde Family Trust among others. Research has resulted in publication in prestigious international scientific journals such as Nature and Science. Current research focuses on caves 5 and 6, which show evidence of occupation from 90 000 to 50 000 years ago.
“The coastline is home to some of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made regarding the origins of all people alive today,” says Peter, our energetic and passionate tour guide. “This coastline was one of a handful of refuges where anatomically modern humans survived an Ice Age that lasted until approximately 123 000 years ago. Since all modern humans stem from a founder group of some 3000 African individuals, this location represents a point of our human origin.”
Early excavations led to the discovery of fossilised fragments of shellfish and animal bones amongst the Stone Age refuse piles or ‘middens’. These artefacts provide a glimpse into the lifestyle and ‘Paleo-menu’ enjoyed by Pinnacle Point’s Stone Age occupants, a staggering 162 000 years ago.
“The nutrient-rich waters of the Agulhas Bank provided a predictable and abundant marine food source. When the tide was out, the fridge was open.” White and brown mussels, limpets and giant periwinkles were collected from the exposed rocks and provided a portable and rich source of protein and omega oils.
Evidence shows that resources were sustainably harvested. “The middens contain multiple shell horizons representing occupation at different times. Shellfish specimens are initially large and with time the specimens get smaller and then the people stop harvesting. They obviously revisited the shore months later and saw that the coast had recuperated.”
Numerous scratched and cut bones found in the caves show the inhabitants also occasionally relied on a variety of game from the surrounding plains. The bones of dassie, Cape fur seal, black wildebeest, eland and giant Cape buffalo stud the middens.
The archaeological evidence at the Pinnacle Point caves has turned research on prehistoric living on its head. “Until very recently it was believed that ‘modern human behaviour’ – such as the making of composite tools with intricate stone blades and points, which represent major development in mental capacity – first appeared in Europe about 50 000 years ago. Evidence at Pinnacle proves such behaviour to date back as far as 160 000 years,” says Peter.
His eyes light up as he passes around a sharp silcrete bladelet, demonstrating how our forefathers fashioned these cutting tools by skilfully chipping away the grey rock with a heavier hammer stone. Our Stone Age predecessors then used fire to anneal and harden their stone blades.
There is also extensive evidence of symbolic art. Dozens of pieces of used ochre were found in the sea caves. The iron oxide-rich mineral was ground into a pigment and may have been used for “social, symbolic, ritual and spiritual activities”.
Peter began leading visits to the caves in partnership with the SACP4 Project, the Pinnacle Point Homeowners Association, Heritage Western Cape and the Oystercatcher Trail in 2013. Each tour begins with an absorbing lecture and concludes with a guided tour of two caves – the famous 13B as well as a smaller cave used for scientific measurements to ensure that the irrigation and fertilisation treatments of the golf course above are not interfering with the caves.
Blending his personal philosophy with comprehensive research, Peter paints a fascinating picture of human origins and encourages his audience to imagine the scene from the Middle Age.
He describes humans’ current behaviour as a species as “dysfunctional”, adding that humans were more successful in antiquity due to a close connection with nature and a deep reverence for life. He views the archaeological record discovered at Pinnacle Point as a road map to a more sustainable future and his infectious motivation for conducting the tour is grounded in his belief in the need to reconnect people with nature. “I want to plant a seed about who and what we are; a closely related family who have lost our innate connection to nature. Within us lies the potential to adapt and change our behaviour as a species.”
Stepping into the famous Cave 13B is a surreal experience. About 30m deep and several metres above sea level, the cave is not currently being excavated and is conserved. Densely packed sandbags protect still unexcavated midden, and remains of the midden strata (about waist deep) are just visible on the opposite wall. The layers show fragments of shell, bone, charcoal from fires and layers of sand preserved and cemented in place by dripstone fossilisation. It is also possible to make out evidence of the fossilised dune that sealed off the cave, preserving it 90 000 years ago. Important artefacts were excavated and removed from the cave; including human remains – a skull fragment and two incisors.
The ocean roars outside the quiet cocoon of the cave. Here lies the ancestral home of some of the oldest people to walk the planet. Here lived a society of innovators, inventors, prehistoric artists, jewellers, and story-tellers, a symbolic and spiritual people integrally connected with nature.
As the other tourists meander out of the cave, silence descends. It is possible to imagine our forebears, adorned with ochre paint, sitting around a roaring fire at the mouth of the cave, sharing a harvest of seafood foraged from the shoreline, beneath the brilliance of an African full moon.
Take the trip
Duration: 4 hours
Cost: R450 per person and 50% discount for children under 12 (September 2015) (group size eight to preferred maximum of 12 people).
Dress: Comfortable clothes and walking shoes.
Fitness Level: The only access to Pinnacle Point Cave PP13B is via a series of steep wooden stairways and boardwalks. The climb back up can be taxing unless you are mildly fit.
Pack: Camera and hat.Inaccessible to prams and wheelchairs.