New Paleo route for the Southern Cape coast 

new paleo route for southern cape coast
Published: September 18th, 2019
by Angus Begg

Angus Begg is an award-winning television producer, journalist and photographer. He shares his experiences with people and travel through television, print, radio and across the digital world. Plett Tourism recently commissioned Angus to create a series of stories focused on the lives and cultures of people in Plett. In this issue, he shares the story of the Paleo Route on the southern cape coast which includes Plett’s Nelson Bay Cave and Klasies Cave.

Look how fine this detail is,” says the former political activist, standing in the cave and gesturing to a small round stone with a groove carved across its middle.

Mike Kantey, his youthful political fervour set aside, is a long-time journalist with a deep interest in natural history. He is also an ardent enthusiast about his home of the past decade, Plettenberg Bay. So much so that he’s written a small book, Navigating the Past: A Brief Illustrated History of Plettenberg Bay.

Kantey excuses the dated nature of the exhibit in which we find ourselves (as if he had built it himself). We are in a tiny rectangular room in what is known as Nelson Bay cave, a Cape Nature site, with an A-frame corrugated iron roof, lit by a naked bulb.

The evolution of our species is laid out in strata, in front and to the sides, behind glass. It’s pretty big stuff.

“In the caves along this coastline has been found the evidence of significant behaviours that moved us up the evolutionary ladder,” says Kantey, “that evidence found specifically in tools and ornaments.”

The exhibit display is highly informative, but most importantly, easy to understand. Behind the glass is a cross-section of earth, detailing how the stone tools became smaller and more detailed with the passing of time, the youngest being 2000 and the oldest roughly 120 000 years old (when the tools were so broad they could’ve come out of the Flintstones).

They end up as fine tools, needles for sewing hide and what could have been grooves in sinkers for fishing. Having visited and written on the dig at Mossel Bay’s Pinnacle Point on a few occasions, and visited Maropeng and Sterkfontein in the past, I find this rustic exhibit utterly absorbing.

I think back to former Western Cape premier Helen Zille announcing the launch of the ‘Paleo Route’ at her last official public engagement at the World Travel Market in April, speaking of this being a brand new tourist experience only to be had in South Africa, of its potential world heritage site status.

I think of how many times I visited Plett as a student, passing the very path down to the cave as I hiked the Robberg peninsula, without knowing what was down here.

“This site contributes to our understanding of human subsistence from about 120,000 years ago,” says Dr Jan De Vynck, an ecologist specialising in palaeoecology, at Nelson Mandela University’s African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience (ACCP). He puts my fascination into words.

“Some technological artefacts enrich our understanding of our cognitive evolution.” Dr Vynck here is speaking of the display demonstrating how the tools, like rocks, became smaller and finer, more precise, with the passage of time.

“Bladelets (on display at Nelson’s Bay cave) were found showing a superior technology to make highpowered projectiles of multi-faceted design. The heat treatment of rock called silcrete improved the molecular density of the rock, improving stone tool quality. This was done 168 000 years ago”.

De Vynck says his research for his PhD in Oceanography (awarded last year) focused on “prehistoric evidence, which revealed the south cape area to be of global significance for the emergence and development of modern human cognition.”

He is one of a group of scientists studying the evolution of our species at the ACCP. Alongside Professor Curtis Marean, of the University of Arizona’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change – whose work at Pinnacle Point is attracting growing attention – and fellow NMU scientists Professor Richard Cowling and Dr Alistair Potts, they sift and dig up globally ground-breaking discoveries along this coastline.

He says the preserved natural resources thus far unearthed along the southern cape coast tell the story of our early development. “Various shellfish and fish species, plant remains and terrestrial fauna further clarify our understanding of how humans exploited the landscape.”

Walk this way through Nelson Bay Cave.

That landscape refers to the existing Cape Floristic Region, and the now-submerged Palaeo-Agulhas Plain. De Vynck says the oldest evidence globally for the exploitation of shellfish is 168 000 years back, at Pinnacle Point, Mossel Bay. Fish bones occur from 120 000 years ago, with evidence of 20kg plus musselcrackers found at Blombos cave, further west. Which speaks to when we as modern man started eating seafood, the very event that resulted thousands of years later in multinational take-away franchises with names like ‘Mr Fish’.

There are two hypotheses about shellfish contributing to the cognitive development of our species: 1) rich in omega 3 and iodine, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids and requisite for brain growth, 2) only when you have a productive and resilient resource will you form more complex social behaviours.

New discoveries around early eating habits were also made roughly 100km west of Plettenberg Bay, at the Klasies River Cave in the Tsitsikamma region, and published in May 2019 in the Science Daily online journal. The article, quoting Witwatersrand (Wits) University researchers, found charred food remains from hearths, providing the first archaeological evidence anywhere, that “anatomically modern humans were roasting and eating plant starches, such as those from tubers and rhizomes, as early as 120,000 years ago.”

The principal investigator of the Klasies River site is Professor Sarah Wurz of the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Professor Wurz says “the research shows that early human beings followed a balanced diet and that they were ecological geniuses, able to exploit their environments intelligently for suitable foods and perhaps medicines.”

Dr De Vynck also has a master’s in Botany, and a natural interest in early foods. He says Klasies River Cave is one of the most important Middle Stone Age sites in SA. “It has by far the most human remains, which tell us about anatomical modernity , diet, as well as preserved plant remains which shed light on the use of starches.” Professor Wurz goes on to say in the online article that “combining cooked roots and tubers as a staple with protein and fats from shellfish, fish, small and large fauna, these communities were able to optimally adapt to their environment, indicating great ecological intelligence as early as 120,000 years ago.”

“The diversity of preserved natural resources (in other words foodstuffs) paints the palaeo-landscape,” says De Vynck. His recent research has been so thorough that he was able to calculate the quality of these early people’s nutritional intake. “My results showed that the coast is extremely productive, yielding an average of 1493 kilocalories per hour of foraging.” Beyond the seafood, De Fynck says the numerous finds of preserved fossil trackways ‘paints’ the landscape further. “Like with the giraffe tracks we found. They can only live in a savanna landscape. These tracks were dated to the second last ice age, telling us that the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain was a savanna landscape.”

I remember being told by a local guide at Pinnacle Point’s cave 32b, with the waves crashing below the wooden swing bridge, that 100kms out to sea today was actually savanna 120 000 years ago, this submerged Paleo Agulhas Plain. The same is true for Nelson Bay cave on the Robberg peninsular which 120 000 years ago was surrounded by savanna. The only thing De Vynck couldn’t access in his foraging exercise was the ‘large fauna’, and apart from slaughtering a farmer’s cow, or poaching a duiker in Agulhas or Tsitsikamma National Park, he’s not likely to find anything bigger than an otter.

Large, free roaming fauna was essentially hunted out from this region over 100 years ago, with surviving populations remaining in the national parks. Leaving Nelson Bay, Mike Kantey and I discuss the significance of ‘cave 32b’ at the Pinnacle Point caves, on the edge of Mossel Bay, and the man in charge of the digs in the area, De Vynck’s senior associate at the ACCP, Professor Curtis Marean. Marean says, “The ice age was so comprehensive that most of life was wiped out by ice and sub-zero temps, except for a few survivors in the Great Lakes areas. Apparently, these survivors trekked south to this coastline, because it was less frozen, more temperate.

The dawn of civilization was here on the southern cape coast, with the population probably numbering a few hundred people, not thousands.” With just the two of us down the path at Nelson Bay Cave, the sky a crisp blue, not a soul in sight and bees hovering around autumn flowers on the Robberg, it’s a good day to speak about the history of man’s development. As we like to say, it’s all in the detail.

Words: Angus Begg | Photos: Maxine Brett