CRADLE OF HUMAN CULTURE
"What has Africa given the world, people often ask in a sneering and derogatory way, as if they already know the answer – nothing! But Africa has given the world humanity – and that is no small thing. And secondly, it has given the world the first human culture. And that is also no small thing! “ – Professor Emeritus Phillip V. Tobias
WHY DO WE WANT TO TAKE YOU ON THIS EXCITING ADVENTURE OF THE CRADLE OF HUMAN CULTURE ON THE WEST COAST?
Driving from Cape Town on the R27 Marine Drive, the natural landscape changes dramatically in The Table Bay Nature Reserve, which is an 880-hectare (2,200-acre) nature reserve in Milnerton, Western Cape, South Africa. It consists of several smaller constituent reserves including Rietvlei Wetland Reserve, Diep River Fynbos Corridor, Zoarvlei Wetlands, Milnerton Racecourse Nature Reserve, and Milnerton Lagoon, as well as surrounding protected areas.
As soon as we reach Atlantis, the non-vegetated mobile dunes and rocky outcrops are the two outstanding features of the nature reserve. The mobile dunes cover an area of approximately 440 hectares. Witzands Aquifer Nature Reserve is part of the southern core of the Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve, which is unique in terms of its diverse landscape, fauna and flora. Further on, the landscape changes even more dramatically to a semi-arid area, and this was a tropical climate as demonstrated at the West Coast Fossil Park.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
Paleoanthropologists – scientists who study human evolution – have proposed a variety of ideas about how environmental conditions may have stimulated important developments in human origins. Diverse species have emerged over the course of human evolution, and a suite of adaptations have accumulated over time, including upright walking, the capacity to make tools, enlargement of the brain, prolonged maturation, the emergence of complex mental and social behaviour, and dependence on technology to alter the surroundings.
Where do we find proof of the earliest site of humans walking upright?
In the West Coast National Park of course! We will take you there! The footprints were beautifully preserved, considering the unpromising medium in which they were made - a fairly coarse sand. There were two complete footsteps and the remnants of a third, eroded since they were exposed a few years before. They formed a right-left-right track descending diagonally down the dune face towards the ancient lagoon, which was only metres away when they were made. The stride length of 0.51 metres and the length of the feet themselves (0.22 metres - size 5 by today’s standards), suggests that the dune -walker was a smallish female, about 1.6 metres tall. The feet had well developed arches, and the big toe was the longest of the toes - all features of modern humans.
Where do we find proof of human capacity to make tools, enlargement of their brains, development of technology?
Shell middens found at Yzerfontein and Elands Bay are archaeological sites that proves how the diet changed to seafood with food-waste visibly dominated by the shells discarded by shellfish gatherers. The fact that we can locate a concentration of such debris means that people in the past chose to discard shells in specific places, rather than scatter them generally across the nearshore landscape. From this we learn that the earliest such sites are not necessarily evidence for the earliest shellfish consumption, rather for the earliest localized discard. Nevertheless, we might consider this important.
The period of human evolution has coincided with environmental change, including cooling, drying, and wider climate fluctuations over time. How did environmental change shape the evolution of new adaptations, the origin and extinction of early hominin species, and the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens (‘Hominin’ refers to any bipedal species closely related to humans – that is, on the human divide of the evolutionary tree since human and chimpanzee ancestors branched off from a common ancestor sometime between 6 and 8 million years ago.)
How do we know that actual human beings have lived here at Elands Bay?
Confirmation of the continuation of human habitation in the Cape West Coast region and the persistence of the use of symbolic representations is provided by a collection of 60 000 year old ostrich egg shell fragments displaying geometric patterns of engraved lines – possibly for decoration or identification purposes that were found in the Diepkloof Rock Shelter near Elands Bay. Some of the fragments have bored holes in them and are thought to have been from egg shells used as containers, most likely for carrying water, as was done by the San people in recent times.
Other valuable items such as a reconstructed post 2000-year-old pot was discovered at the Dunefield Midden showing the advancement of technology and the emergence of complex mental and social behaviour.
Elands Bay Cave and the associated shell middens and archaeological and palaeontological sites nearby give more detailed evidence of the cultural history of San hunter-gatherers and Khoekhoe herders and their ancestors, of their reliance on marine and estuarine resources, and of past environments and flora and fauna, over the past 120 000 years than any other place on the West Coast of Africa.
WHAT MAKES THIS SUCH A UNIQUE PLACE OF INTEREST?
It is the only site on the entire African continent where rock paintings can be found so close to the coast
Prof John Parkington