If you do just one hike this year, the archeologist-led tour of Pinnacle Point Caves in Mossel Bay should be it
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey
When I scrambled around the rocks and saw the huge cave mouth, high in the dramatic orange rocks of Pinnacle Point, I was blown away,” explains our guide, archaeologist Dr. Peter Nilssen, the excitement of the discovery in Mossel Bay still gleaming in his eyes some 17 years on.
In 1997, he and Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, director for Cultural Resource Management in Mossel Bay, had conducted an Archaeological Impact Assessment of Pinnacle Point, unearthing 28 archaeological sites. There were some interesting discoveries that included 15 cave sites, he explains, and the oldest shell midden on the planet, a 162 000-year-old rubbish dump of shellfish remains, bones and stone tools. But when he entered the cave known as 13B Peter knew he’d struck gold. There, near the entrance, were exposed sediments that dated back 165 000 years to the Middle Stone Age.
The engrossing story continues as we enjoy the Point of Human Origins Experience and walk across Mossel Bay’s spectacularly located Pinnacle Point golf course to the cliff edge. “See this layer of calcrete,” says Peter, pointing to a thin, grey layer that looked like a veneer of cement. “This is the reason for the fossils below. Rainwater trickling through this overlying rock into the cave contains dissolved calcium carbonate. This mineralises organic remains such as marine shells and animal bones, leaving us with their fossils.”
The view from the 60m-high cliffs to the sheer rock faces and down onto the great jagged sandstone teeth that poke out of the ocean is simply mind-blowing. We descend the 175 steps to sea level and follow a boardwalk up to the cave entrance. “Sea level changes and other erosive agents removed sediment at the mouth of cave 13B, resulting in a 13-metre cliff at the cave entrance,” explains Peter. “Not a very safe place to live in. Then, around 90 000 years ago, a massive dune sealed the cave, restricting all access, and consequently there are no Later Stone Age sediments in the cave. To have Middle Stone Age sediments exposed in this fashion was incredible. For an archaeologist it was a dream scenario.”
He immediately contacted Professor Curtis Marean, a United States paleoanthropologist, who he knew from his work at Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Peter describes how the professor rocked in his chair when he saw the photographs and gasped, “Oh my God. Where is this? Let’s go have a look.” Their discoveries were to rewrite the prehistory books. Among the artefacts found were fine silcrete tools, which revealed that their makers used complex fire techniques to transform the locally found silcrete. “Humans have unique cognitive powers,” Peter explains. “Animals like chimps, otters and gulls use basic tools, but you don’t see a chimp tying sticks together to poke a termite mound. The construction of multi-component or composite tools requires planning and experimentation – a mental template that leads to innovation.”
Also illuminating was the presence of ochre, used in body painting or art, which implies a spirituality that, again, is an indicator of modern human behaviour. Up until 2 000, common belief was that modern human behaviour was first exhibited around 40 000 to 50 000 years ago in Eurasia. But after Professor Chris Henshilwood’s discovery of 7 000-year-old ochre inside shell beads and bone tools in Blombos Cave near Stilbaai, the scientific community had to sit up and listen. The presence of the shell midden, microlithic tools, heat-treated silcrete and utilised ochre at Pinnacle Point Caves provides indisputable evidence that modern human behaviour was first exhibited in Africa – up to 100 000 years earlier than it was demonstrated in Europe or Asia.
Whew. We sit in the dusty cave looking at the sandbags protecting the fragile excavation sites, and the exposed layers of sediments that have revealed so much about our ancestors and our evolution. It is almost too much to take in. But Peter hasn’t finished. “The real question is ‘where to now?’ We as a species are in severe trouble. We’re placing our environment under extreme stress and there’s plenty to confirm this – like the disappearance of the bees. Einstein said that when the bees go we have four years left.” It’s a sombre thought.
“Our cognitive skills have developed well, but we’ve lost our intuitive abilities,” he continues, and it’s much to mull over. Are we entering another bottleneck? That’s why the evidence in the archaeological record is so important. In the bottleneck phase humans had to fit in with nature, to harvest sustainably, to find a balance. When it comes to technological advancement, humans have been impressive. But have we lost our connection with nature, our reverence for life? There are signs of an awakening even in tourism; a movement back to consciousness. And that reconnection is a real thrill.”
As he speaks I begin to understand. The archaeology of the Pinnacle Point Caves is a reminder of who we are and where we’ve come from. These tours are effectively an outreach programme – a way of getting the message in archaeology out there, and this will hopefully be enhanced by the planned opening of an Interpretive Centre.
By the time we retrace our journey up the steps I have a lump in my throat. This is not the outcome I expected when I signed up for the Point of Human Origins Experience. Sure, it is an enthralling excursion, but I come away deeply disturbed about the fragility of our planet and the stupidity of our wasteful behaviour. The tour has been profound and, for me, just as the discovery of the caves was for Peter, life changing.