Everyone wants to know where we come from. Everyone alive today is related. And everyone alive today is a descendant of a small, core population of perhaps only a few hundred (at most maybe a few thousand) individuals who survived a massive ice age around 162,000 years ago.
(“People from distant lands have strikingly similar genetic traits, study reveals.” See also Spencer Wells’ documentary, Journey Of Man: A Genetic Odyssey – on thistourismweek.co.za)
And they survived it here, on the Southern Tip.
But more than that: while in residence, our ancient ancestors learned the techniques of what we now consider definitive of modern human behaviour:
- They developed complex technology (tools made of two or more separate parts from two or more different materials);
- They used fire in a precise, controlled way to transform silcrete. From being just another rock into being an extraordinary material from which to make extraordinary, extraordinarily sharp, and very tiny stone blades;
- They used ochre (a clay) for colouring – perhaps for symboling, perhaps for art; and
- They harvested the sea systematically, and learned to plan this work around the tides. In other words: they began to think like humans do today.
Much of what we now know about the habits of early modern humans comes from the work of the SACP4 Project: The South African Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology, and Palaeoanthropology Project, which is led by 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. (See Prof. Marean’s lecture, Survivors on the Edge of Land and Sea, on thistourismweek.co.za)
Although the fieldwork began in 2000, the project produced its first significant paper only in 2007: ‘Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene.’ (Published in the journal Nature.)
And the story of how this project began is interesting from a tourism point of view, too.
Jonathan Kaplan, a consulting archaeologist and the director of the Agency for Cultural Resource Management, and PhD. student (now Dr.) Peter Nilssen made a routine archaeological survey for an environmental impact study on the land that would later be developed as the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort.
Of course (this is the Western Cape after all!) they found a number of ancient, outdoor middens – but they also came across a series of caves in the sea-facing cliffs at the southern edge of the estate, which, they immediately realised, contained ridiculously large archaeological deposits.
Dr. Nilssen called in Professor Marean, their preliminary findings were sufficiently promising to warrant a series of test excavations, and the rest, as they say, is – um – pre-history. (Sorry)
In fact what the researchers found was that the Pinnacle Point Caves have the longest occupation of any Middle Stone Age site in the world – more than 120,000 years over the last 162,000 years – and the work is both continuing, and growing.
But the caves at Pinnacle Point are important for another reason: by studying Carbon and Oxygen isotopes embedded in their dripstone formations, the scientists have been able to extract detailed information about the water that filtered into them, and the climate that affected them over the period 400,000 to 30,000 years ago.
Put together with the evidence of human habitation starting 162,000 years ago, this information could hold clues as to how we survived climate change in the past – and what we might face in the future.
As the news of the findings began to spread out from the scientific community to the rest of the world, demand for access to the Caves began to grow (a natural progression), and the scientists, landowners, and government heritage agencies came up with a plan: a tourism product called the Point of Human Origins, which now offers daily tours of the Caves with qualified guides, and (by arrangement) the ‘Point of Human Origins Experience,’ which includes a caves tour as well as an in-depth presentation by and discussion with Peter Nilssen.
And this is where the international significance of South Africa’s Middle Stone Age sites begins to sink in (there are a number of these sites – see note below): it’s clear that the ancients lived in a kind of harmony with nature that most of us have lost and, as Dr. Nilssen warns, we need urgently to find a way back to that kind of balance (and we need to do it collectively, as one, single species, regardless of race or any other divisions we falsely place upon ourselves).
We have, as he says, entered the sixth mass extinction event – and this time, it’s of our own doing. (How humans are driving the sixth mass extinction)
Of course the management of tourist access to sites like Pinnacle Point requires careful planning and execution. We can’t afford the irony of turning the places that teach us the value of our connection with the wild into sausage-factory-style mass tourism attractions – but neither can we afford to miss the opportunity to present South Africa as both the Cradle of Humankind (with its 3.5 million-year-old evidence of our evolutionary predecessors, the Homo naledis of this world), AND the Birthplace of Modern Human Behaviour (which dates back to about 162,000 years ago).
- But what do YOU think? Please comment on this issue at thistourismweek.co.za
- Anatomically modern humans – Homo sapiens sapiens, people who look like you and I – emerged in Africa around 200,000 years ago. The earliest remains of modern humans were found in Ethiopia’s Omo National Park, and have been dated to 195,000 years ago – give or take 5,000 years. “The lower reaches of the Omo River were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.” (Wikipedia)
- For information about the Cradle of Humankind, see thecradleofhumankind.net, or visit the Cradle’s official visitor centre, Maropeng www.maropeng.co.za
- For information about South Africa’s existing UNESCO World Heritage Sites, see mediaclubsouthafrica.com
- A number of Middle Stone Age sites in South Africa have obtained preliminary listing as a serial World Heritage Site, which, if awarded, will recognise them as cultural and natural heritage sites of exceptional universal value. The application includes Pinnacle Point, which was declared a Provincial Heritage Site on 14, December 2012.
- For detailed information about Human Origin Sites in Africa, download UNESCO’S report, HEADS 2: Human Origin Sites and the World Heritage Convention in Africa (.pdf, 7 mb)
Header image: oystercatchertrail.co.za
Luxury, guided walking tours along the beaches and in the fynbos west of Mossel Bay. A part of the Garden Route where modern human behaviour first emerged. (You’ll come away with a new appreciation for our planet. And for what it means to be human.)
How can This Tourism Week help you?
I’m Martin Hatchuel, a tourism practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in the sector, and I write and publish This Tourism Week as an informed, insightful look at issues affecting tourism in South Africa. (And I’ve been doing it since August, 2002.)
Backed by a team that includes web professionals (iBall Media), a graphic designer (Jo Hugo of Design,Etc.), PR consultants (interface by goji), and others, I’m here to help you develop all your communications tools: text (media releases, reports, business case studies, stories), strategies, web sites, apps, images, adverts, brochures, printing, events, and more.
Please contact me: 084 951 0574 or email@example.com
Now go away on holiday – it’s in the economy’s best interests. And have a great tourism week!
Chartered Public Relations Professional