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Feb 06, 2009

Kuruman cave shows technological development started in South Africa

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There is an amazing cave near Kuruman, in the Northern Cape, which is aptly called Wonderwerk.

It has just revealed some amazing finds. This cave is the oldest known inhabited cave in the world. Evidence of intentional human occupation of the cave two-million years ago has been uncovered by a team of scientists led by Professor Michael Chazan, of the University of Toronto.

The previous oldest known intentionally occupied cave is in Spain, but its date of occupation is 800 000 years ago. There are a few interesting points about Wonderwerk. It is horizontal and extends some 140 m into a hillside. The area is so dry that water deposition inside the cave is only 1 mm/y. So, to all intents and purposes, no water penetrates the ‘floor’ of the cave, which is composed of a 6-m layer of sediment.

Because the cave is horizontal, and because no water has flowed there for a very long time, it has been positively determined that the artefacts found at all levels were left there – they were not washed there from somewhere else.

Stone tools have been found at the bottom of the sediment, and date to two-million years ago. The real interest in this is that it shows that early man was intentionally making and using tools in South Africa long before they were used in present-day Europe.

Humans occupied the Wonderwerk cave for over a million years, much longer than any other site on the planet. There is also evidence of the use of fire in the cave and even the remains of a zebra-sized animal that had been cooked two-million years ago. So South Africa’s braai history goes back much further than people realise.

There is also evidence that the early humans explored deep into the cave, carrying burning brands of grass, so those guys had that type of curiosity. A really amazing find is evidence that stone hand axes were last made at the site 270 000 years ago but then the people moved on to more advanced technology. In the meantime, the same type of hand axe continued to be made in East Africa up to 130 000 years ago and in Europe up to 40 000 years ago.

In other words, the South African early humans were way ahead of people in Europe in terms of technology. In the South African scenario, the early people had progressed from simple stone axes to using shaped, pointed spearheads long before this technology appeared in what is Europe today.

So the idea that primitive people walked from South Africa to Europe, where they became smart and developed tools, which were then propagated back to South Africa, is wrong. The technology started here.

About 240 000 years ago, people moved up Africa. Some 68 000 years ago, a group left Africa by a Red Sea crossing. The result of this was that they split up and colonised Australia and East Asia. Then, some 45 000 years ago, they colonised Europe.

Henry Methuen found the Wonderwerk Cave in July 1844, and was amazed to see the Bushman paintings covering the walls. Pierre Bosman later became the owner of the farm in the area that included the cave. He and his family lived in the cave from 1907 to 1911, while he built his farmhouse.

Then, after the Second World War, there was a great fertiliser shortage, and the Bosman family started to dig out bat guano to sell as fertiliser. They found the first archaeological artefacts. The professionals then moved in.

In 1979, Dr Francis Thackeray, director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, carried out a professional examination together with his archaeologist wife, Anne. That set the scene for the continued professional investigation that continues now.

So some of the world’s earliest technology developed in the Northern Cape . . . interesting!

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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