The origins of human self-awareness and development have been traced to South Africa’s Cape south coast.


The images, human footprints and animal tracks found by scientists on South Africa’s Cape south coast are unique. Nothing like this exists anywhere else in the world.

“We can, with increased confidence, say welcome home, Homo sapiens,” says the Director of the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience (ACCP) at Nelson Mandela University, Dr Jan De Vynck. Homo sapiens or modern humans, he explains, are defined both anatomically and cognitively (our thoughts and actions). One of the key indications of cognitive development is self-expression, through symbols (artworks), jewellery and body painting.

“We now know that humans have been expressing themselves for at least 100 000 years. We have evidence of this from numerous Middle Stone Age archaeological sites along the south Cape coast,” explains De Vynck, who, together with the ACCP team has produced astonishing detective work – revealing many secrets of the Cape south Cape coast’s Palaeo Agulhas Plain (PAP), dating back 150 000 years. The PAP lies south of South Africa, and is now submerged, but was exposed for much of the past when an Ice Age caused sea levels to drop.

One of the most provocative finds to date is what might be an ancient sculpture of a stingray created in the sand in the Still Bay area between 70 000 and 158 000 years ago. If this speculation is correct then this is the oldest image ever found of a human creating an image of another creature. Nearby in the Garden Route National Park is another unique find: a circle in sand rock with an indent in the middle, created compass-style with what might have been a forked stick. They are currently having both works more precisely dated in the UK.

Further evidence of self-expression is at Blombos Cave near Still Bay, Wits University’s Dr Christopher Henshilwood and his team, who started excavating here in 1991, found 60 deliberately perforated shells in clusters of a similar size, shade, use-wear pattern and perforation size, indicating they were used to make necklaces 75 000 years ago. They also found ochre engraved with a stone point into a cross-hatched or ‘hashtag’ pattern.

Before this, modern human culture was thought to have developed in Europe some 40 000 years ago, but we have far earlier evidence of this on South African shores. And the finds keep coming.

The ACCP team recently found 40 human footprints near Knysna, estimated at 90 000 years old. Together with the footprints discovered in the 1960s at Nahoon near East London, dated at 123 000 years, and at Langebaan, dated at 117 000 years, these are the world’s oldest reported footprints made by Homo sapiens.

“We know these are our distant grandparents, and it is a profound moment to see them up close,” says ACCP team member Dr Charles Helm. “They are so well preserved you can see the arch, the ball of the foot, the toes. We even see evidence of humans jogging.”

At Klasies River Caves in Tsitsikamma, archaeologists have found anatomically modern human remains, such as a chin bone from 100 000 to 120 000 years ago that showed the inhabitants looked like we do.

Going back still further in time, we possibly have the oldest examples of cognitively modern, conscious human beings at Pinnacle Point Cave in Mossel Bay. Here we find the oldest human seafood restaurant in the world. These discoveries were made by ACCP associate Dr Curtis Marean (Arizona State University) and his team. Humans start adapting to this coast 164 000 years ago, as evidenced by the vast deposits of discarded shells in middens in the cave. We know from these that humans had been harvesting shellfish in the intertidal zone.

This reached its apex when they figured out the lunar cycles at 120 000 to 90 000 years ago. The intertidal zone is only viable for shellfish harvesting for three before-, on-  and three days after the spring tide which happens every new moon and full moon in the 28-day lunar cycle.

Shellfish and other aquatic resources are extremely rich in the specific nutrients that the brain requires to grow, such as iodine and omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

These humans also had a rich source of terrestrial plant foods, including bulbs and berries, and plentiful game.

Also found in Pinnacle Point Cave and dating from 164 000 years ago to about 72 000 years ago, the scientists found many heat-treated pieces of a shiny red rock called silcrete, small chips of which were used to make implements and light projectiles for hunting.

It is much easier to strike off small, sharp flakes of heat-treated silcrete than raw silcrete from a chunk of the rock. To demonstrate this, the scientists placed silcrete in sand  and slowly heated a fire above the rocks to 350 to 400°C, maintaining it at that temperature for six hours. The rocks were then gradually cooled down, at which point it could be chipped into sharp pieces. This example of how pyrotechnology was used to form some of humanity’s oldest tools, is further evidence of the cognitive development of these early hunter-gatherers.

These are just some of the unique finds about what life looked like in this region during the second last Ice Age 150 000 years ago. On one of their exploration days, De Vynck and Helm discovered 22 fossil track sites on fossilised dunes and beaches, near what was once a savanna-type environment, as De Vynck explains:

“If we zoom into the south Cape coast during the Ice Age 150 000 years ago, we find the land mass of the Palaeo Agulhas Plain extending over about 40 000 km2. In association with universities from all over the world, the ACCP has reconstructed what this extinct ecosystem would have looked like.”

It was a mostly flat savanna-type grassland, with broad rivers  meandering over it, forming wetlands and broad deltas. Various species of extinct mega fauna – big mammals –  lived here. They have found tracks of the extinct Cape giant horse, the extinct long-horned buffalo, black rhinoceros, elephant, hippopotamus, and giraffe. Tracks of baby giraffe indicate that this species was successfully breeding here.

“We have also found hatchling turtle tracks from this period, representing an instant in time,” adds De Vynck. “The moment they hatch in the sand, they run for the sea and it is the only land journey they make until many years later when they return to breed. We know that Loggerhead and Leatherbacks were breeding here.

“We are calling this the Golden Age because of the wealth of finds our field work is discovering for the world through this glimpse back in time when the human and animal tracks were made on beaches and dunes, and then buried in sand. By chance, a massive dune cliff collapsed in the last couple of years, re-exposing them. For a brief window we are able to find and document this phenomenal record of the past, before the wind and sea covers the tracks once more, and they are gone again, forever.”