The Pinnacle Point Caves in Mossel Bay have revealed the world’s earliest evidence of man’s modern behaviour dating back 164 000 years ago. And discoveries in the system of 15 or more caves has been described as a huge step for mankind going back in history, as it was previously believed man’s complex thinking and behaviour dated back to 40 000 years ago in Eurasia.
It all started in 1999 when local archaeologist, Dr Peter Nilssen, accompanied Jonathan Kaplan, the director for Cultural Resource Management in Mossel Bay on an archaeological survey as part of an environmental impact assessment survey for the then proposed Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort.
“I was going through the photos from the impact assessment and looking at sediments adhering to the wall. I knew straight away it was middle stone age. Any archaeologist would have jumped up and down,” said Nilssen.
He contacted his friend and PhD advisor, Professor Curtis Marean from the Institute of Human Origins from Arizona State University, who confirmed a treasure trove of knowledge could be buried within the caves.
The Mossel Bay Archaeology Project (MAP) was born in 2000 and in 2005,the SACP4 Project was established (South African Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology and Palaeoanthropology Project), which includes scientists from around the world looking at cultural evolution, ancient climates and environments, as well as extracting DNA from the ancient fossils.
Findings from the caves have been featured in the prestigious Science and Nature journals, and it is now one of the most well-funded archaeological sites in the world. Professor Curtis Marean has been in Mossel Bay as excavation is underway. Excavations take place for up to six weeks a year, after which evidence is taken to labs for further study.
Marean said everything is surveyed in 3D on the site.
“We are looking at the transition to modern humans. For example, we are the only species who will co-operate with non-kin. Can you imagine putting 400 chimps on a plane together? There would only be one left at the end of the flight.
“No other animal co-operates like humans with such large interconnected social networks,” said Marean.
He added that the human race is highly complex, with a symbolic and cumulative culture which has resulted in the development of technology to build complex societies.
“So when did these abilities appear ?” said Marean.
Defining modern behaviour has several scientific criteria behind it, for example:
– symbolic behaviour, such as ochre being used for decoration;
– cognitive skills which enables the making of tools, including heat treated materials and the telling of the tides for gathering food from the ocean
The generally accepted theory for the development of modern behaviour was thought to have taken place some 40 000 years ago in Eurasia, while evidence of heat-treated materials found in France dated back to some 20 000 years ago.
There was a massive time difference between anatomical behaviour (eg man standing upright) of which evidence was found in Ethiopia some 195 000 years ago, to what was believed to be modern behaviour.
The findings at Pinnacle Point caves have dramatically changed this thinking by pushing the timeline for the development of complex thinking back by a further 100 000 years. Findings include evidence of the world’s oldest ochre and that it was ground down for decoration purposes, as well as small complex tools with embedded bladelets being unearthed and evidence of shellfish gathered as a food source.
Marean said the hypothesis is that South Africa was the progenitor lineage, particularly the Southern Cape having a high diversity of bulb plants and a rich fishing area, both of which would have been good food sources.
He said evidence points to a population going through the Sinai desert from Africa and into Eurasia some 50 000 years ago.
“We believe this population met Neanderthals. Today, all Europeans and Asians have a small percentage of the Neanderthal gene, which is not found in Africans,” said Marean.
In caves 5 and 6, there are fourteen vertical layers of sediment which the scientists have been patiently working through.
At the site, Nilssen said they have also found the oldest shell middens in the world.
“The ocean level has fluctuated over time and there was an extremely long ice age between 195 000 – 123 000 years ago with warmer intermittent periods.
The caves were inhabited at different times between 164 000 years ago up to the pre-colonial period and the landscape would have changed,” said Nilssen.
He said there’s evidence that 165 000 years ago, the caves were between 2-5 kilometres from the sea and that people in the caves were harvesting shellfish systematically.
“This means they understood the lunar cycle, could tell the tides and had the ability to think and plan forward,” he said.
The remains of the extinct Cape Buffalo has also been found in the caves, indicating the landscape changed between coastal and plains over time, putting the caves as much as 95 kilometres inland at some point.
And for those with a fascination for archaeology and ancient times, the caves are now being opened to the public for the first time, with tours for small groups of people.
Nilssen said, “The earliest traces of modern human behaviour started here at Pinnacle Point. This brings us to where are we going as a species? We have developed amazing cognitive abilities. We have come from a tiny population to killing each other on a massive scale. My hope is this archaeological dig will see us come together”.
The Pinnacle Point Caves have recently been declared as a Provincial Heritage site by the Western Cape Minister of Cultural Affairs and Sport, Dr Ivan Meyer and at the unveiling of the heritage site plaque, Meyer said he was fully behind Mossel Bay Municipality’s drive to gain World Heritage status.