Mossel Bay Tourism has welcomed today’s announcement by the Western Cape’s MEC for Cultural Affairs and Sport, Dr. Nomafrench Mbombo (See below), regarding an application to UNESCO for the declaration of a World Heritage Site for a series of South African caves which are significant to understanding the emergence of modern humans.
The list includes Mossel Bay’s Pinnacle Point Caves, which have revealed the earliest evidence for modern human behaviour, and which have been – and continue to be – the subject of ongoing research by a team of scientists from around the world since 2000.
MEC Mbombo said that the Western Cape Government and Heritage Western Cape are working on an application to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to declare the Pinnacle Point Caves in Mossel Bay, the Blombos Cave (near Still Bay in the Western Cape), the Diepkloof Rock Shelter (near Elands Bay in the Western Cape), the Klasies River Caves (near Humansdorp), the Border Cave (in the Lebombo Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal), and the Sibudu Cave (in northern KwaZulu-Natal) – as well as a number of similar sites that show significant signs of occupation during the Middle Pleistocene – as a collective World Heritage Site (technically a ‘serial nomination’).
“When these sites are looked at collectively they tell the story of the origins of humankind. They display the very first evidence of cognitive human development, early nuclear family life, art and human values associated with modern humans today,” said Minister Mbombo.
She said that the serial nomination has already been placed on UNESCO’s tentative list of heritage sites.
“Once a site is on the tentative list, a comprehensive process of collation of data and compilation of supporting evidence needs to take place…
“The Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport has initiated this process and we estimate that we would have completed our work by 2016. Because a country can only make one nomination of this kind in a year, 2016 is the aim as it will coincide with the conclusion of our research.
“The fact that these sites are recognised and have been placed on the tentative list is reason for us to be proud of the work we have done thus far. We look forward to the next two years as we conclude this process of our nomination,” she said.
Mossel Bay’s Dr. Peter Nilssen and his colleague, consulting archaeologist Jonathan Kaplan, discovered Middle Stone Age middens in the Pinnacle Point Caves (about 12 km west of Cape St. Blaize) during the environmental impact assessment for the development of the Garden Route Casino and Pinnacle Point Beach & Golf Estate in the late 90s.
Dr. Nilssen and Professor Curtis Marean, an associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, began test excavations in 2000. The team published its first significant paper on the finds in the peer review journal, ‘Nature,’ in 2007 (‘Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene’).
Prof. Marean later established the South African Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology and Palaeoanthropology (SACP4) Project in order to expand the scope of the study.
The SACP4 Project is now the largest scientific project of its kind in the world, having so far received more than $10 million in funding from the USA’s National Science Foundation, the Institute of Human Origins and the Hyde Family Trust. More than forty top scientists are currently involved in the research.
“The Pinnacle Point Caves have revealed the earliest evidence for modern human behaviour, which places South Africa’s Southern Cape region as the birthplace of culture and advanced, modern technology,” said Dr. Nilssen.
This includes the earliest use of ochre for colouring (which places Mossel Bay as the birthplace of culture), and the earliest evidence for systematic harvesting of marine resources (important both because of seafood’s role in the development of our modern brain, and because this behaviour indicates the development of advanced thought).
Pinnacle Point has also revealed the earliest manufacture of tiny stone blades that were embedded into other materials (wood or bone) to produce more efficient tools, and the first use of fire to anneal silcrete, and so turn this otherwise unpromising stone into an ideal raw material for manufacturing top quality tools – both of which place Mossel Bay as the birthplace of advanced technology.
The Pinnacle Point Caves were declared a Provincial Heritage Site in December, 2012.
Mossel Bay Tourism board member, Fred Orban – who coordinates public visits to the Pinnacle Point Caves via The Point of Human Origins Experience (which donates 20% of its turnover to the conservation and preservation of the Caves) – said that World Heritage Status would deliver significant advantages for the sites.
“It’ll help us in marketing South Africa – and particularly the Southern Cape – as the birthplace of modern human behaviour, but it will also help to protect the Caves against the effects of curio collectors. This is important, because the material in the caves is of irreplaceable value to our understanding of where we’ve come from – and where we can expect to go to in the future.”
Mr. Orban said that Mossel Bay is currently working towards the creation of an interpretive museum for the Caves.
“We congratulate Minister Mbombo, and look forward to working with the Western Cape Government to ensure the success of this application,” he said.