The Emergence of Modern Humans: The Pleistocene occupation sites of South Africa

Date of Submission: 15/04/2015
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Department of Environmental Affairs of the Republic of South Africa
State, Province or Region:
Eastern Cape Province, KwaZulu Natal, Western Cape Province
Coordinates: S 34 06 29 E 24 23 24
Ref.: 6050

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Serial nomination including: Blombos (BBC), Border Cave (BC), Diepkloof (DKF), Klasies River (KR), Pinnacle Point (PP), Sibudu Cave (SC) and comparable sites relating to the emergence of modern humans.

Homo sapiens, ancestors of all modern people, emerged about 200 000 years ago. Debates around the origin of these anatomically modern humans and the modernity of their behaviour are crucial to understanding the history of all modern people. The South African sites; Blombos, Border Cave, Diepkloof, Klasies River, Pinnacle Point and Sibudu Cave have contributed outstanding evidence for palaeoenvironmental conditions via the rich mid to Late Pleistocene African mammal fauna with a number of species now extinct, as well as extensive other palaeoenvironmental data from well-dated stratigraphic horizons. Evidence in artefacts such as stone tools, in indications of pigment use and hearths has been interpreted as showing the occupants made significant social, behavioral and technical innovations. Blombos has some of the earliest evidence for symbolic behaviour. Klasies River main site, Blombos, Pinnacle Point and other sites provide some of the earliest evidence for the systematic use of marine resources in the last Interglacial. Border Cave and Klasies River have remains of early anatomically modern humans. As a group, these sites have been vital to our understanding of the origin of anatomically modern humans and their modern cognitive abilities.

“As the world population surpasses 7 billion, the vast majority of those people still live in or near coastal environments. We all require omega-3 fatty acids for visual acuity and cognitive development, yet we manufacture only 10% of what we need, and the terrestrial food chain is a poor source of those fatty acids.  A recent hypothesis around modern cognitive behaviour has posited these fatty acids as being the primary trigger for the enhanced cognitive development of modern humans, resulting in the unique ability of modern humans to understand and utilise symbols. This unique characteristic of modern human behaviour is responsible for language, art and religion. The origins of this ability to think symbolically therefore have global relevance to each of the 7 billion people that currently occupy our planet. The South African coastal record tells the story of how the human species became intertwined with the marine environment and it gives a time depth and clarity unique in the world. The record of coastal life stretches back to 160,000 years ago, showing a lifestyle increasingly embedded in the coastal adaptation” (C. Marean).

  • Genetic and fossil evidence indicates that anatomically modern Homo sapiens evolved from Archaic Homo sapiens  in Africa around 200000 years ago.
  • Genetic and linguistic evidence also suggest that the Khoisan (indigenous inhabitants of the southern African sub-region) are the oldest surviving lineage on the planet, being recognizable as a distinct lineage genetically perhaps as far back as 120-130 ka, near the origin point of the modern human lineage. While it is more difficult to estimate age range from language, recent analysis of phoneme diversity shows convincingly that their language is the oldest surviving language. They are not a “fossil” people, but their status as an ancient lineage signals a special role for this geographic location.
  • South African sites have contributed enormously to the debates around the origin of anatomically modern humans and the modernity of their behaviour.
  • The Middle Stone Age sites of South Africa have consistently provided the best evidence for the behavioural modernity of Homo sapiens. This evidence includes the symbolic and utilitarian use of ochre, the use of fire to engineer tools and evidence for complex task processing. Evidence in the artefacts such as stone tools, ochre and hearths has been interpreted as showing the occupants had a capacity for symbolic behaviour that is a defining and unique feature of modern humans. .
  • Middle Stone Age sites in South Africa provide the earliest evidence for the systematic use of marine resources, and the first evidence for a commitment to a marine-based diet.

Middle Stone Age research at a number of comparable sites in South Africa, including Cape St Blaize Cave, Elands Bay Cave, Nelson Bay Cave and Rose Cottage, may in time reveal the relevance and significance of these sites to the Modern Human Origins story.

Site Descriptions

The Klasies River sites are situated some 50km west of Cape St Francis, on the eastern end of the Tsitsikamma coast. The sites were eroded probably in Pliocene times, more than 2 million years ago, by wave action in the cliff face at 18m and 6m above the present sea level. Unusual geological conditions have allowed the preservation of bone and shell. The extensive shell midden is the largest well preserved evidence for shell fish exploitation in South Africa, if not the world at the Last Interglacial. Together with stone tools, charcoal and ash, the deposit records the history of the Stone Age people who lived there intermittently from the Last Interglacial time (130 000 to about 118 000 years ago), from the Last Glacial (118 000 to 10 000 years ago) and on into the Present Interglacial (the last 10 000 years). The bones include skull and post-cranial remains of among the oldest well-dated anatomically modern people, Homo sapiens. These finds demonstrate that modern humans were living at the southern end and probably elsewhere in the African continent at a period considerably earlier than comparable fossils are recorded in other parts of the world.

Border Cave is a very large solution cavern overlooking a spectacular drop into Swaziland. The site has a remarkably continuous sequence of occupation spanning about 200 000 years, with prominent white ash layers providing an extraordinary well-stratified context. The site has yielded important human remains that have been assigned to anatomically modern people, Homo sapiens, and come from different strata that may be 70 000 years and older. They include a morphologically very significant partial cranium, more modern than the remains from Klasies River. Owl pellet analysis has indicated environmental fluctuations and the evidence of the stone artefacts has been cited as indicating early hafting of tools around 100 000 years ago.

Sibudu has a comprehensive Middle Stone Age record well dated by Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating to between 77,000 and 38,000 years ago. This period is seldom represented in such detail in other South African sites and it is therefore a model for the national Middle Stone Age sequence during a significant stage marked by a florescence of material culture that seems to imply complex human cognition. The site has exceptional organic preservation and has yielded early shell beads at 70,000 years ago, a suite of early bone tools (from 77,000 years ago), including the world’s oldest bone arrowhead (65,000 years ago), the world’s earliest evidence for sedge and grass bedding (from 77,000 years ago), the earliest evidence for the use of medicinal plants at 77,000 years ago, and early evidence for the use of a variety of compound adhesive recipes.

The Pinnacle Point Site Complex preserves in a short stretch of coastline Africa’s densest concentration of well-preserved archaeological sites dating to the time of the origins of our species (Homo sapiens).  As a result of the calcretes formed on the cliff top and their alkaline buffering action, all the PP sites have excellent fossil bone preservation, unlike many caves along the Cape coast.  This makes Pinnacle Point as rich in archaeological sites as the world’s two densest and most significant clusters of sites from this time interval: the Mount Carmel Caves in Israel and Les Eyzies in France.

Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape, is situated about 17 km from the shoreline of the Atlantic in a semi-arid area, near Elands Bay about 150 km north of Cape Town. It occurs in quartzitic sandstone in a ridge overlooking and about 100 m above the Verlorenvlei River. It contains one of most complete and continuous later Middle Stone Age sequences in southern Africa stretching from before 130,000 BP to about 45,000 BP and encompassing pre-Stillbay, Stillbay, Howiesons Poort, and post-Howiesons Poort periods. Research is based upon finds discovered in a trench that is 16 m across and 3.6 m in depth. The deposits consist of burnt and nonburnt organic residues and ash from hearths, ash dumps and burnt bedding. 270 fragments of ostrich eggshell containers have been found covered with engraved geometric patterns. The fragments have a maximum size of 20–30 mm, though a number have been fitted into larger 80 × 40 mm fragments. It is estimated that fragments from 25 containers have been found. Eggshell fragments have been found throughout the period of occupation of the cave but those with engraving are found only in several layers within the Howiesons Poort period.

Blombos Cave is situated in a steep cliff, 100m from the Indian Ocean and 34.5m above modern sea level. The sediments of the cave were well protected as the cave elevation sheltered it from erosion by the high sea level stands during Marine Isotope Stage 5e and Marine Isotope Stage 1. The cave is situated in the calcified sediments of the Tertiary Wankoe Formation, which contributes to the good preservation of faunal and human remains recovered from the site. The Blombos Cave site preserves an extensive record of archaeological evidence in the Middle Stone Age, integral to research on the oldest evidence for modern humans in sub-Saharan Africa and bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition which has disappeared. The symbolic significance of the marine-shell beads and the engraved ochre pieces, taken with the regular manufacture and use of bone tools, finely made bifacial points, and the probable ability to fish, suggests a cognitive-behavioural package not previously associated with Middle Stone Age people and may be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas or with beliefs, of outstanding universal significance. The conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represents ability for long-term planning and suggests conceptual and cognitive abilities previously unknown for this time. This may be considered to be an outstanding example of a technological ensemble which illustrates a significant stage in human history.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Each of the proposed sites included in this serial nomination are significant in their own right in terms of their contribution to the knowledge we have about the origins and behaviour of early modern humans. When all this information is combined with the greater story of modern human origins it is certainly significant on a global scale. The combined information from each of these six sites has given researchers a unique insight into modern human origins and behaviour.

Criterion (ii):  These “caves dwellings of outstanding universal value” preserve well stratified well dated sequences (200 000ya to 20 000ya) that preserve a range of evidence that exhibits important developments in the interchange of human values in ‘architecture’ (settlement) and technology, in the occurrence of small hearths, putatively related to early nuclear family life; the prepared-core stone blades, backed tools and points characteristic of these industries and the early evidence of ‘art’ in the incised ochre fragments, all of which have been cited as indicative of modern cognition.  

Criterion (iii):  These sites bear testimony to once widely practiced cultural traditions, now lost. They are unique in the view they give of the development of technology from the Pleistocene and of anatomically modern people.

Criterion (iv): Their long and complimentary sequences of deposit record significant stages in human development, anatomically and technologically.

Criterion (v):  Analysis of the geomorphological and faunal components of these sites allows interpretation of early human landuse and coastal economy, and human adaptation and interaction with the environment in glacial and interglacial times.

Criterion (vi):  In their explication of the origin of anatomically, cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, these sites are of significance to the origin of all modern people.

The sites also fulfill the principle that African heritage recognition should highlight cultural achievements and the role of Africa in the development of humankind, enriching common global civilisations (Recommendations, Second Global Strategy meeting, UNESCO, 1997:143)

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Controlled archaeological excavations carried out at Klasies River main site, Border Cave, Pinnacle Point, Sibudu Cave, Blombos and Diepkloof have demonstrated conclusively that the deposits at these sites are in situ. Results of this research done over numerous decades by a variety of respected archaeologists have been widely cited as providing an unusually long and well-preserved sequence of modern human habitation that can be securely dated in relation to global climatic cycles and sea-level changes. These findings have stimulated international debate about the origins of modern behaviour.

Caveat: The Klasies sites, Diepkloof, Blombos, Sibudu and Pinnacle Point, because of their sensitivity, have not been open to the public. As a resource they are fragile, vulnerable to damage by visitors and are non-renewable. Policy has been to limit access to minimize visitor impact.  The World Heritage Convention makes provision for the proclamation of sites because of their merit even through because of sensitivity it is not possible to have open public access to them.  This would, however, create wider interest in the area and might, in future, create a need for easier access but this must depend on negotiation with the owners and could only be implemented with the provision of a managing authority, adequate infrastructure and an appropriate full conservation management plan.

Border Cave is on the Ingonyama Trust Land, now leased by Amafa, and there is a recently opened interpretive centre, which is a joint venture between Amafa and the local community. The site was first excavated in the 1930s and over the next 50 years further excavations were undertaken.

In terms of national and provincial heritage legislation, archaeological material enjoys automatic, blanket protection of a fairly strict order.  These measures are applicable to all six sites and any associated material. In addition, Border Cave is a Provincial Heritage Site. Pinnacle Point is in the process of being nominated as a Provincial Heritage Site and Klasies River and Sibudu Cave are in the process of being nominated as a National Heritage Sites, two of the highest order legislative protections offered by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999).

Comparison with other similar properties

Klasies River main site and Pinnacle Point site complex are two of the very few coastal caves so far excavated that include well-preserved bone, shell and modern human remains that date with certainty to the Last Interglacial, more than 100 000 years ago. Border Cave has a remarkably continuous stratigraphic record with excellent stratigraphy and good preservation. Blombos and Diepkloof Cave provide some of the best evidence for the behavioural modernity of Middle Stone Age hominins. Pinnacle Point preserves a unique sequence of human occupation from 170,000 to pre-colonial human occupation embedded in a rich record for climate and environmental change and warrants inclusion in a World Heritage Site.

In sum, these six sites provide an unmatched record of palaeoenvironmental and human history in an important phase of human evolution, the development of anatomically modern humans. Sites of this time period that have extensive deposits are rare. Comparable South African sites, which, however, have either no bone, no shell, no human remains or a less complete stratigraphic record, include Elands Bay Cave and Nelson Bay Cave in the Western Cape and Rose Cottage Cave in the Free State and Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape. Die Kelders, which has human material but only isolated teeth, and Boomplaas, with a well-documented, important sequence but a small Middle Stone Age sample, are also in the Western Cape. An open, last Interglacial shell midden with stone tools has been found at Hoedjespunt on the Western Cape coast.  The spring site of Florisbad in the Free State preserves the important cranial remains of an individual, Homo helmei, considered to be Middle Pleistocene in age and possibly a later archaic form of H. sapiens. The site also preserves a rich, mainly Late Pleistocene mammal fauna, representative of the Florisian Land Mammal Age in southern Africa. Florisbad and two other spring sites are in process of being nominated as national heritage sites.

Similar deposits have been found at Haua Fteah in Libya, in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, Mumbwa in Tanzania and Mumba in Zambia. Remains of anatomically modern humans are not found in Europe or Asia until much later but have also been found in what in the past was a biogeographic extension of the African continent at Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel where they are dated to c. 90-100 000 years ago.

There are no comparable sites presently on the World Heritage List.