These are among the central questions which a team of more than forty scientists from around the world – the members of the SACP4 Project – are working to answer.
The South African Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology, and Palaeoanthropology (SACP4) Project is led by Curtis Marean, an associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. It produced its first significant paper in 2007: ‘Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene’ appeared in the peer-reviewed publication ‘Nature.’
It was the result of more than eight years of study.
Prof. Marean and his co-authors wrote that “Genetic and anatomical evidence suggests that Homo sapiens arose in Africa between 200 and 100 thousand years ago.”
In Mossel Bay, they said, they’d found the earliest evidence for systematic harvesting of seafood, and the earliest evidence for a complex stone tool technology in which tiny, beautiful and precisely-made stone blades were embedded into other materials (probably wood or bone) to create advanced tools that improved our hunting ability – and made us the ultimate predators that we became.
The archaeological evidence had been discovered by Jonathan Kaplan – a consulting archaeologist and the director of the Agency for Cultural Resource Management – and PhD. student (now Dr.) Peter Nilssen during a routine survey for an environmental impact study of the land that would become the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort.
Dr. Nilssen called in Professor Marean, and their preliminary findings were sufficiently promising to warrant a series of test excavations. Finance was raised from various international organisations (including South Africa’s National Research Foundation), and that first dig was so successful that it lead to another, and another, and another – and the work continues today. (The bulk of the US$ 10 million that’s gone into the Project so far has come from America’s National Science Foundation, and the Hyde Family Trust – and South Africa’s Iziko Museums, Mossel Bay’s Dias Museum Complex, and the people of Mossel Bay have lent considerable support, too.)
Later discoveries showed that this is also where humankind first learned to treat silcrete with heat in a controlled way – and so transform a rather poor quality raw stone into a top quality material from which to make our tools; and that this is where we first worked with the pigment ochre (the earliest form of paint) – which indicates that this is where symbolic behaviour – culture – began.
But the caves at Pinnacle Point – where the scientists have concentrated their work – are important for another reason, too: studies into Carbon and Oxygen isotopes embedded in dripstone formations formed during times when the Caves were sealed off to the outside world have revealed detailed information about the water and climate regimes that reigned over the period 400 thousand to 30 thousand years ago. Put together with the evidence of human habitation starting 162,000 years ago, this information could hold clues as to how we survived climate change in the past – and what we might face in the future.
The Pinnacle Point Caves were declared a Provincial Heritage Site on 14 December, 2012.
Visit the Pinnacle Point Caves in the company of one of the archaeologists who discovered the archaeology.