Sculptures In The Sand

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The origins of human self-awareness have been traced to South Africa’s Cape south coast.

By: Heather Dugmore

The images, human footprints, and animal tracks found by scientists on South Africa’s Cape south coast are unique. Nothing like this exists anywhere else in the world.

“We can, with increased confidence, say welcome home, Homo sapiens,” says the Director of the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience (ACCP) at Nelson Mandela University, Dr Jan De Vynck.

Homo sapiens or modern humans, he explains, are defined both anatomically and cognitively (our thoughts and actions). One of the key indications of cognitive development is self-awareness, expressed through symbols (artworks), jewellery and body painting.

“We now know that humans have been expressing themselves for at least 100 000 years. We have evidence of this from numerous Middle Stone Age archaeological sites along the south Cape coast.” De Vynck and his team have produced astonishing detective work.

A rock in the shape of a sting ray, found in the Still Bay area, could be the oldest image ever found of a human creating an image of another creature
A rock in the shape of a sting ray, found in the Still Bay area, could be the oldest image ever found of a human creating an image of another creature

Ancient Sculptures

One of the most provocative finds to date is what might be an ancient sculpture of a stingray created in the sand in the Still Bay area between 70 000 and 158 000 years ago.

If this speculation is correct, then this is the oldest image ever found of a human creating an image of another creature.

Nearby is another unique find from the same era: a circle in sand rock with an indent in the middle, created compass-style, possibly with a forked stick. Both finds are currently being precisely dated in the UK.

Further evidence of self-expression is at Blombos Cave near Still Bay. Wits University’s Dr Christopher Henshilwood and his team, who started excavating here in 1991, found 60 deliberately perforated shells in clusters of a similar size and usewear pattern, indicating they were used to make necklaces 75 000 years ago.

They also found ochre engraved with a stone point into a cross-hatched or ‘hashtag’ pattern. Before this, modern human culture was thought to have developed in Europe some 40 000 years ago, but we have far earlier evidence of this on South African shores.

And the finds keep coming. The ACCP team recently found 40 human footprints near Knysna, estimated at 90 000 years old.

Together with the footprints discovered in the 1960s at Nahoon near East London, dated at 123 000 years, and at Langebaan, dated at 117 000 years, these are the world’s oldest reported footprints made by Homo sapiens.

“We know these are our distant grandparents, and it is a profound moment to see them up close,” says ACCP team member Dr Charles Helm. “They are so well preserved you can see the arch, the ball of the foot, the toes. We even see evidence of humans jogging.”

Dr Jan De Vynck near Still Bay on South Africa’s Cape south coast
Dr Jan De Vynck near Still Bay on South Africa’s Cape south coast

Shellfish and Shiny Rocks

Going back still further in time, at Pinnacle Point Cave in Mossel Bay the ACCP discovered what might well be the oldest example of cognitively modern, conscious human beings.

Here we find the first seafood restaurant in the world, with shell middens in the cave providing evidence that humans were harvesting shellfish in the intertidal zone from 164 000 years ago.

This reached its apex when they figured out the lunar cycles at 120 000 to 90 000 years ago.

The intertidal zone is only viable for shellfish harvesting for three days before, and three days after the spring tide, which happens every new moon and full moon in the 28-day lunar cycle.

Shellfish are extremely rich in the nutrients that the brain requires to grow, such as iodine and omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

These humans also had a rich source of terrestrial plant foods, including bulbs and berries, and plentiful game.

Another find in Pinnacle Point Cave from the same era is heat-treated pieces of a shiny red rock called silcrete, small flakes of which were used to make tools and light projectiles for hunting.

“It is much easier to chip off small, sharp flakes from heat-treated silcrete than raw silcrete,” De Vynck explains. To demonstrate this, the scientists placed silcrete in sand and slowly heated a fire above the rocks to 350 to 400ÆC, maintaining it at that temperature for six hours.

The rocks were then gradually cooled down, at which point they could chip off sharp pieces. This example of how pyrotechnology was used, is further evidence of the cognitive development of these early hunter-gatherers.

human footprints from 90 000 years ago (Knysna area)
human footprints from 90 000 years ago (Knysna area)

The Palaeo-Agulhas Plain

The ACCP has reconstructed what their extinct ecosystem would have looked like.

“If we zoom into the south Cape coast 150 000 years ago, we find a land mass called the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain extending over about 40 000 kmÇ during this Ice Age,” says  De Vynck.

It was a mostly flat savanna-type grassland with broad rivers forming wetlands and deltas. Various species of extinct large mammals lived here. Fossilised tracks include the Cape giant horse, long-horned buffalo, black rhinoceros, elephant, hippopotamus, and giraffe. Tracks of baby giraffe indicate that this species was successfully breeding here.

“We’ve also found hatchling Loggerhead and Leatherback turtle tracks from this period representing an instant in time when they hatched and ran for the sea. It is the only land journey they make until many years later when they return to breed.”

The ACCP is calling this ‘the Golden Age’ because of the wealth of finds they are discovering through their fieldwork, back in a time when human and animal tracks were made on the beaches and dunes, and then buried in sand.

“By chance,” says De Vynck, “a massive dune cliff collapsed in the last couple of years, re-exposing them. For a brief window we are able to find and document this phenomenal record of the past, before the wind and sea covers the tracks once more, and they are gone again, forever.”

coastal foragers participating in intertidal zone foraging experiments, replicating what humans did 164 000 years ago
coastal foragers participating in intertidal zone foraging experiments, replicating what humans did 164 000
years ago

The Essentials 

Getting Around 

Self-drive gives you the freedom to experience the magnificent beaches and activities. There is an airport in

George and the region is well serviced with rental cars, taxis and tours.

Accommodation and Meals

There’s an exceptional choice of restaurants, supermarkets, delis, B&Bs, guesthouses, backpackers, hotels and self-catering accommodation, ranging from R300 p/p per night to R4 000+ for luxury units.

Still Bay at the Stilbaai Tourism Bureau is the Blombos Museum of Archaeology. Exhibits include the world’s oldest necklace, a replica of the engraved piece of ochre from Blombos Cave and the circle in the sand.

Getting There

SAA flies to George from Cape Town and Johannesburg several times daily with codeshare partners

Mango and SA Airlink. From there, rent a car and explore the area.

Words by Heather Dugmore

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