The Cradle of Human Culture 

Shaen Adey, Point of Human Origins Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay
Published: June 18th, 2019

If the Cradle of Humankind delves into where we came from, the Cradle of Human Culture reflects how we became what we are today.

About 3 million years ago, our Australopithecus africanus (Aus. africanus) ancestors, amongst them Mrs Ples, the Taung Child and Little Foot, were inhabitants of the Sterkfontein caves near Johannesburg, sleeping in trees to dodge sabre-toothed cats like Vampyrictus and Afrosmilus. A northern relative, Lucy, was alive, well and living in Ethiopia at the same time.

They had no fire, were unable to work with tools or paint on cave walls. These were the first upright walkers, the precursors to genus homo, several million years away from modern Homo sapiens. (H. sapiens) The discovery of these famous fossils is so important that Sterkfontein has now become known as The Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to 40% of the world’s hominid fossils.

Not classified as human in the evolutionary chain, the discovery of Aus. africanus was a revolutionary link in the understanding of primate to human development. Excavation continues in the extensive system of limestone caves, where recently Neo has made himself known to the world. Neo is part of Homo naledi, sesotho for ‘star’, who lived about 300 000 years (300 kya) ago. H. naledi show the first twinkling of cultural behaviour in the purposeful stuffing of their dead into narrow caves. It is interesting that other different human species like Neanderthals, were living on the planet at the same time.


But fossils revealing the origins of humankind are not the only major human evolution discoveries in South Africa. The first evidence of H. sapiens and human culture is found along the South African coastline. Most significantly, the Klasies River caves on the Tsitsikamma coast have revealed the earliest evidence ever of H.sapiens and the origins of human culture, 125 kya.

Close by is the Matjies River Rock Shelter at Keurbooms, a national monument, inhabited 11 kya and the Nelson Bay Cave on the Robberg Nature Reserve at Plettenberg Bay, which was inhabited 100 kya by Middle Stone Age H. sapiens. Erin Wayman, writing for says of the South African finds, “Several coastal cave sites have been a treasure trove of artefacts that reveal when and how sophisticated behaviour and culture emerged in early populations of Homo sapiens.

Some of these finds – such as red pigments used 164,000 years ago and shell beads dating to 77,000 years ago—are among the earliest evidence for symbolic thinking in our ancestors. Other artefacts, like 71,000-year-old projectile weapons, indicate early humans could construct complicated, multipart tools that require a lot of planning and foresight to make.”

The Cradle of Humankind is only the first part of the story. The world significant H. sapiens discoveries along the west and south coast of the Western Cape, has prompted the creation of The Cradle of Human Culture route by Wesgro’s Destination Marketing Unit, the Department of Economic Development and Tourism (DEDAT), the provincial Department of Culture Affairs and Sport (DCAS), and the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (WHS).

The official route includes three sites at the moment but is a work in progress and more archaeological and palaeontological sites will be added as the project develops. Recently launched at World Travel Market Africa by Helen Zille, premiere of the Western Cape, The Cradle of Human Culture route includes three archaeological sites ready for visitors and tourists – Blombos Cave and Pinnacle Point along the Garden Route, and the Diepkloof Rock Shelter on the Cape West Coast. All of these, plus the Klasies River caves are being nominated for the UNESCO list of potential World Heritage Sites as they hold an “unmatched record of palaeoenvironmental and human history.”

Each site is home to ancient artefacts such as ornately decorated and cross hatched ostrich eggs, marine shell beads, engraved ochre, bone tools, and finely made bifacial points, sharp stone tools that were used by early humankind. The middens, tools, fire, fired pottery, drinking vessels and shell adornments all speak of a complex social culture.

At Pinnacle Point evidence of technological advancement in the use of heat treatment of rock to make stone tools has been recorded. The engravings found at Diepkloof are not random doodling but, found in numbers of up to 300 ochre blocks, suggest symbolic representation of communication and symbolic thought, a giant leap in human evolution, setting our species apart from the rest of the animal world.

Shaen Adey, Point of Human Origins Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay

Shaen Adey, Point of Human Origins
Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay



A project long in the making is Mike Wells’ ‘Robberg Cultural Bridge’, an interpretive centre proposed for development in Plett. The center’s overarching purpose is to tell a story which connects Africa and the rest of the world. It’s an adventure into “Africa’s history and culture, past and present, all designed to involve, entertain and educate a wide audience comprising cultural tourists, local visitors and, not least important, the opportunity to educate and preserve it for the younger Africans of today.”

The centre would connect visitors to their origins, provide scientific perspectives to the human genome project, tell the story of the historical perspectives to the human journey, focus on a message of unity and common cause, promote cross-cultural awareness and engage visitors to contribute. Apart from its cultural and educational significance, the Robberg Cultural Bridge would significantly enhance Plett’s appeal to cultural and heritage tourism, one of the fastest growing areas of tourism today. A great deal of conceptual and design work has already gone into the project. Watch this space!

The Robberg Cultural Bridge



  • There were nearly 2M visitors to the Western Cape in 2017. Over 55% said that culture and heritage is a key activity on their travel itinerary. These experiences rank 6th among the top tourism activities in the province and are more popular than dining out, entertainment and shopping. *Wesgro statistics
  • Lucy acquired her name from The Beatles song, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. It was played loudly and repeatedly and daily after the excavation team’s first day of work on the recovery site in Hadar, Ethiopia. A Rockstar in her own right, Lucy soon became a household name at the time, in 1974.
  • Mrs Ples is now thought to be Mr Ples. Her/his tooth sockets were shrunken by initial chemical analysis and are now found to be the size of Aus. africanus male tooth sockets. A case of mistaken identity.
  • Human culture? Evidence of cannibalism has been found in the coastal caves of South Africa. Charred human bones have been uncovered in the middens which were the dumping sites for leftovers of animal, shellfish and other more sinister meals!

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