Human origins

Pinnacle Point declared a Provincial Heritage Site

Pinnacle Point Caves
Pinnacle Point Caves

The archaeological sites at Mossel Bay's Pinnacle Point – which have revealed some of the earliest evidence for modern human behaviour – have been declared Provincial Heritage Sites.

The declaration was made in terms of section 27 of the National Heritage Resources Act (Number 25 of 1999), and was announced in the Western Cape Government's Provincial Gazette.

"This is a significant step toward having Pinnacle Point declared a World Heritage Site," said Professor Curtis Marean, who heads the South African Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology and Palaeoanthropology (SACP4) Project, which is studying the findings at Pinnacle Point.

"Pinnacle Point is significant because it's a uniquely dense concentration of well-preserved archaeological sites that contain a record of human occupation over a period of about 170 000 years – from the time when modern human behaviour first emerged to the precolonial period," he explained.

The archaeological remains first came to light during an environmental impact study of a portion of land that would later be developed as the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort. The 1997 survey by Dr Jonathan Kaplan and Dr Peter Nilssen revealed a number of stone-age sites as well as evidence that humans had inhabited the caves in the cliffs below the present-day Pinnacle Point Club House for tens of thousands of years.

Prof. Marean began researching the Pinnacle Point Caves in 2000, and announced the initial results of the SACP4 Project in a paper that he co-authored with Dr Nilssen and 10 others.

"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," said Prof. Marean.

He added that mitochondrial DNA genetic research suggests that all humans alive today stem from a small core population that lived at about the time when the Pinnacle Point Caves were first inhabited.

"Much of the global climate was hostile to human habitation in that age, but the south coast of South Africa provided the conditions and vegetation that our earliest ancestors needed for their survival. Because they were forced to live by the sea in the Mossel Bay area, they began collecting shellfish and other marine organisms, which provided a high-quality diet that included omega-3 fatty acids," he noted.

Numerous other discoveries have followed the 2007 announcement, including a 2009 paper published in the journal Science, which documented the earliest evidence for heat treatment – the first sign of complex pyrotechnology.

But the SACP4 Project is important, too, because it may provide clues as to how our species reacts to climate change.

Scientists working on the project are developing a continuous picture of the local climate from 30 000 to 400 000 years ago.

"Isotopes embedded in dripstone formations and other mineral deposits in the caves – speleothems, raised beaches, fossil dunes, and other palaeontological assemblages – reveal information about the water that filtered into the caves in the past, and this in turn provides information about what kind of climate existed and what type of vegetation grew above the caves during periods of human habitation," explained Prof. Marean.

"By correlating our knowledge of the climate with what we're learning about the habits of the people who lived in the caves, we hope to learn how humans can be expected to adapt to climate change in the future."

He said that Pinnacle Point will now be put forward for National Heritage Site status before application can be made to have it declared a World Heritage Site.

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