Point of Human Origins


The point of Human Origins is a Western Cape Provincial Heritage Site at the Pinnacle Point Golf Estate Caves. It is also listed with UNESCO for nomination as a World Heritage Site.

Pinnacle Point is significant because it is a uniquely dense concentration of well-preserved archaeological sites which contain a record of human occupation over a period of 170 000 years, from the time when modern human behaviour emerged to the pre-colonial period.

Cave 13B at Pinnacle Point (PP13B) is one of the most famous archaeological sites in human origins research anywhere in the world.

This cave was first recognized for its archaeological potential by Doctor Peter Nilssen and Jonathan Caplan in 1997 when they conducted a heritage impact study of the Pinnacle Point area.

The team had high hopes for cave PP13B for several reasons:

  • Some of the sediments were eroded and revealed layers that were rich with artefacts and ancient fireplaces.
  • Another positive aspect of the cave was its height at 15 meters above sea level.
  • Carbon isotopes isolated from stalactites in the Pinnacle Point caves, revealed much about the water that filtered through from vegetation from above. 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 environment.

An important aspect of the Mossel Bay Archaeology project is the development of a continuous picture of climatic and environmental changes in the period 400 to 30 thousand years ago, and the role that it might have played in the survival of early humans.

The latest news from the Mossel Bay sites is the discovery of microscopic shards of volcanic glass from a super-volcano eruption in Sumatra about 70 000 years ago, about 9 000 km away. It is believed that the eruption has devastated stone age human populations around the world. Discoveries at the Pinnacle Point caves indicate that there existed a thriving community which was sheltered from the devastation the volcano caused.

Changing global temperatures through time has affected sea levels. During cold glacial cycles the water is bound in continental ice sheets and sea level drops about 130 meters below our current sea level. During warm times like those experienced in the past 6 000 years, the ice melts and the sea level rises to within a few meters of our sea levels today.

People first began living in PP13B about 164 000 years ago. Between about 195 and 125 thousand years ago the world was in a long, cold, glacial phase. Sea levels are typically lower during glacial phases, but there was a short warm phase when sea levels rose that coincides with this time of occupation.  The coastline came to within 3 kilometers. It is estimated that the coastline was about 10 kilometers from the caves during the glacial phase.

People inhabited the cave regularly. They collected rocky intertidal zone shellfish such as Brown Mussel and alikreukel. A barnacle of a species that lives only on the skin of a whale was also found, so they were likely scavenging the remains of beached whales.

Evidence was found of stone tools that were made, which included small flasks and points used to butcher and hunt large animals. They hunted large antelopes such as Wildebeest and Eland that probably lived on the exposed coastal platform in front of the cave that was revealed by the lower sea levels. Evidence of the remains of these animals was found in the back of the cave. They also collected red ochre and grounded it to make powders, probably for decorating their bodies or painting.

PP13B also shows the earliest evidence for the origins of an advanced form of stone tool manufacture called heat treatment. This treatment heated the tool in a fire to make it stronger, shape it and make it more durable.

Genetic and anatomical evidence suggests that Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa between 200 and 100 thousand years ago. Excavations at several caves at Pinnacle Point has revealed occupation by Middle Stone Age People between 170 and 40 thousand years ago. Pinnacle Point provides evidence that a culture displaying modern behavior arose on Africa’s southern coast just tens of thousands of years after humans with modern human anatomy had evolved.

According to Dr Peter Nilssen, it is now known from Mitochondrial DNA research that all humans alive today, stem from a core population that lived 150 to 200 thousand years ago. The international research into the contents of the cave shows that many of them probably lived in the Mossel Bay area.