Klasies River as a 120,000-Year-Old Archive of Human Behavior in South Africa

Session Date: 
May 31, 2019

The southernmost boundary of Africa, southern Cape coast, is well-known for cave sites such as Klasies River main site, Blombos Cave, Pinnacle Point, Nelson Bay Cave and Klipdrift Cave that collectively provide significant insights into the evolution of modern humans. Hunter-gatherer-fisher groups frequently visited Klasies River main site, leading to the build-up of 21 meters of shell midden deposits that date to between ca. 120 000 and 45 000 years ago, and also to the late Holocene. Direct evidence of the people themselves occurs in the form of more than 50, mostly adult, Homo sapiens fossils that demonstrate that humans of the early Late Pleistocene were more robust and morphologically variable than today. The Middle Stone Age archaeological remains from Klasies River main site provide a unique opportunity to understand the lifeways, cognition, and sociality of humankind’s early ancestors. Klasies River main site was a sheltered and favored refuge despite the changing climatic conditions of the Late Pleistocene. The variety of coastal and other food resources exploited by the inhabitants of the site indicate that the environment was highly productive in spite of fluctuating climates and sea levels. The continued utilization of coastal resources such as shellfish, fish, and seal in combination with floral and faunal food sources throughout a period of more than 70 000 years show that this area was a virtual Eden. The basal shell middens dating to around 120 000 years ago represent one of the earliest instances of extensive exploitation of marine resources in Africa, if not the world. These and other food rests, for example cooked starchy roots and tubers, occur in association with repeatedly used hearths as well as stone and bone tools and pigments. Different techniques and approaches, changing through time, were used to produce the stone tools, most from the local quartzite. Four main techno-complexes, based on these technological changes are recognised, the MSA l, MSA ll, Howiesons Poort, and the MSA lll. Rare bone tools occur as early as 100 000 years ago together with pigments such as striated ochre, indicating complexity in cognition and behaviour. During the Howiesons Poort, a time of increased climatic and environmental instability, fine-grained raw materials were preferred and more extended reduction sequences were followed to produce geometrically backed and notched stone tools. During this period pigments were more extensively used, further signifying complexity in behaviour and cognition. The extent of the well-preserved archaeological remains, evidence for the early utilization of marine resources and sustained dynamic responses to changing contexts, bears testament to early human ancestors’ expert abilities to thrive in the Stone Age. Klasies River, a remarkable archive of early modern human behaviour, has outstanding universal value that highlights the cultural achievements of African populations and the role that they played in the development of humankind.