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Mossel Bay Archaeology

Photo: Allan Watt, Pinnacle Point

Publisher’s note: Most of the text on this page and links were composed earlier by Martin Hatchuel on the Planeta Wiki.

The Pinnacle Point caves near Mossel Bay are the focus of the largest archaeological project of its kind in the world today – The Mossel Bay Archaeology Project (MAP), under the leadership of Professor Curtis Marean, Professor of Paleoanthropology at the Institute of Human Origins at the Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and South Africa’s Dr. Peter Nilssen.

“The Mossel Bay region is famous in Stone Age studies because it lent its name to one of the first formally recognized stone tool industries in South Africa – The Mossel Bay Industry”. (Peter J. Nilssen and Curtis Marean)

According to Prof. Marean, the Cape St Blaize Cave (beneath the Lighthouse in Mossel Bay), was first excavated by George Leith in 1888, and later – in 1932 – by A.J.H. Goodwin, and “yielded a series of selected lithic collections central to the definition of the Mossel Bay Industry (Goodwin, 1930; Sampson, 1971).”

The deposits in the Pinnacle Point Caves – some kilometres to the west of the Cape St Blaize – were only discovered in the late 1990s, however, and Professor Marean and his team only announced their findings – that the inhabitants of the Caves had been collecting coastal resources for food 165,000 years ago, and that they’d been producing advanced complex tools and using ochre pigments for symboling – in 2007.

This is the earliest known evidence for modern human behaviour.

The Mossel Bay Archaeology Project is funded by the USA’s National Science Foundation and the Hyde Family Trust. It works in collaboration with, and receives various forms of support from, the Iziko South African Museums, the University of Cape Town, and Mossel Bay’s Dias Museum Complex.

The Project is described on the Arizona State University web site as “a long-term field study of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) in the Mossel Bay region. The MSA in South Africa has gained increasing attention due to the discovery of bone tools at Blombos Cave, the abundance of ochre suggesting artistic expression, the presence of a variety of lithic assemblages (‘stone tools’) with advanced technological characteristics, and debates over the interpretation of the fauna.”

Climate Change
Importantly, carbon isotopes isolated from stalactites in the Pinnacle Point Caves reveal much about the water which filtered through from the vegetation above, and by correlating the findings of the archaeological excavations with the information gleaned from these isotopes, man’s origins can be placed in the context of the climate and the environment.

An important aspect of the Mossel Bay Archaeology project is thus the development of a continuous picture of climatic and environmental changes in the period from 400,000 to 30,000 years ago.

According to Prof. Marean, the Mossel Bay Archaeology Project therefore has a much bigger impact than it would if it were studying only the origins of man: it will also help us to understand the response of ecosystems to long-term climate change.

He said that it is relatively easy to predict the impact of global warming on sea levels, but that the manner in which rainfall and vegetation respond warming is not well understood.

Prof. Marean is quoted on the Gustavus Adolphus College website as saying, “Our best sources for predicting these environmental changes are the records from the past, since the Earth warmed and cooled many times and ancient humans designed strategies to adapt to these orbitally driven changes.

“Today, climate changes are driven by human behavior, and once again we must learn to adapt. The past holds lessons for us both on how the environments may change and on how we may adapt to these changes.”


Recommended Viewing

Video: Dr. Peter Nilssen: Our Origins

In Brief

  • The floors of the Pinnacle Point Caves near Mossel Bay (on the Southern Cape coast of South Africa) contain a record of nearly 165,000 years of habitation.
  • The dripstone formations hanging from the roofs of the Caves contain fossilized carbon isotopes from which scientists can study the quality of water that entered the Caves over the period from 400,000 to 30,000 years ago. From this information they can deduce the kind of vegetation which grew above the Caves, and the climate that existed at the time of deposition.
  • Mossel Bay is thus possibly the only place in the world where modern human behaviour can be studied against the background of prevailing climate regimes. This permits deductions as to our likely ability to adapt to climate change in the future.
  • Geneticists have known for some time that all humans alive today stem from a core population of about 600 people who lived on the African continent about 165,000 years ago – the Mossel Bay Archaeology project has shown that they probably lived on the coast around the present day Mossel Bay.
  • The ‘earliest modern human behaviour’ is considered to include the use of bladelet technology (making complex tools); the use of ochres for paints and dyes in symbolling; and the systematic harvesting of the sea (which is significant because the shellfish provided the Omega-3 fatty acids needed for the development of the modern human brain). All of this took place in and around the Pinnacle Point Caves.
  • The findings are being studied by a team of almost 50 scientists around the world and, properly protected, the Caves will provide research material for generations to come.



Early Humans

South Africa

Mossel Bay, South Africa

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