A series of coastal caves at Pinnacle Point on the southern Cape coast near Mossel Bay contain archaeological artefacts and other physical evidence critically important to the understanding of how and when fully modern humans evolved.
Several of these caves were occupied by Stone Age people between about 165 000 and 50 000 years ago.
Professor Curtis Marean, associate director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University helped survey the site.
“We found that the people who lived in the Caves approximately 164 000 years ago were systematically harvesting shellfish from the coast; that they were using complex bladelet technology to produce complex tools; and that they regularly used ochre as pigments for symboling,” Marean said.
This is the era in which scientists believe humans developed the intellectual capacity that characterises modern people.
World Heritage site?
It is when these early people started developing technologies that were key to allowing them to migrate out of Africa.
Pinnacle Point is one of only three African sites containing artefacts of human occupation more than than 120 000 years old.
It is one of six South African sites making up a proposed nomination for recognition as a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Damage from golf course
Several of the most significant caves occur in the sea cliffs below the Pinnacle Point golf estate and, several years ago, water seeping into them from the golf course destroyed some of their priceless archaeological assets.
In May 2008, the Wildlife & Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) unsuccessfully attempted to get an urgent high court interdict to force the then resorts company, Pinnacle Point Resorts, to stop irrigating sites on the golf course to prevent further damage.
Professor Marean said in an affidavit filed as part of Wessa’s application that the caves provided some of the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour.
“With its astonishingly rich set of caves and rock shelters, Pinnacle Point is easily one of the most significant archaeological localities in the world.
I do not know of an equally rich concentration of sites anywhere,” he said.
“In my opinion there is ongoing damage (from the golf course irrigation) to the archaeological sites, and likely to be severe damage the longer water is allowed to flow into the caves and shelters… In my opinion, the only sure solution to the ongoing damage is to stop all irrigation.”
Judge Anton Veldhuizen dismissed Wessa’s application, but the resorts company went bust and the homeowners’ association took over and negotiated with the heritage community.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of Heritage Western Cape that has statutory oversight responsibility for Pinnacle Point, said all the problems with the golf course had been resolved.
Carl van der Linde, chief executive of the Pinnacle Point Homeowners Association, described the heritage declaration as “great news for Mossel Bay and Pinnacle Point”.
While none of the sites was currently accessible to the public, they were working with the scientists to develop science-based tours, he said.