Pinnacle Point Cave PP13B
Skipper and First Mate Millard (Big Bear and Pepe)
Sat 11 Jan 2020 23:57
Pinnacle Point Cave PP13B – The Origins of Man
Larry in the front with Bear driving, Allen, Patricia and me bundled in the back, we set off for something very special – a cave visit with an amazing history. Soon we arrived at Pinnacle Point Golf Club, a very swanky set-up.
The photograph in the foyer shows the Golf Club high above the cliffs, greens all around, we were here to explore the bottom left of the picture. We met our guide, Christopher who bade us enjoy a coffee while he rounded up the others who were joining us for the tour.
We enjoyed the view and the coffee. Eleven of us bimbled out behind Christopher who took us left along the cliff top to an area where marked coastal walks begin, yay, information boards..... As I listened to our guide I clicked away.
This cave is named Pinnacle Point 13B or PP13B. The excavations by archaeologists here have revealed findings of enormous significance to our understanding of the origins of humanity. PP13B is one of the most famous archaeological sites in human origins research anywhere in the world – read on and discover why.
History of Investigation: This cave was first recognised for its archaeological potential by Peter Nilssen and Jonathan Kaplan in 1997 when they conducted a heritage impact study of the Pinnacle Point area. This survey was in response to a hotel/casino/golf course development proposal for the area above the cliffs. In 1999 Peter Nilssen and Curtis Marean revisited Pinnacle Point to further investigate the potential of the sites. They were impressed with the potential, and began a large international scientific project that eventually grew to include scientists from 11 countries.
They selected four caves for “test” archaeological excavation – PP9, PP13A, PP13B and PP13C. Test excavations are small controlled excavations designed to reveal what is present below the surface. Prior to excavation, they mapped the cave, and this map and the final excavated areas are shown in Figure 1.
The team had high hopes for PP13B for several reasons. Some of the sediments were eroded and revealed layers rich with stone artefacts and ancient fire places – these naturally eroded sediments are still revealed on the south wall (right and facing the sea). Another positive aspect of the cave was its height at 15 metres above sea level – this is important because around 125,000 years ago there was a very high sea level, as much as 6 metres higher than today, that washed the archaeology out of many caves that were low-lying. The height of PP13B suggested it could preserve layers older that that high sea level. The team arrived in 2000 and selected three areas of the cave for excavation of that most of the cave was tested. The first field season lasted three weeks and was very successful. Based on that success, the team returned to PP13B in 2003 and excavated every year until 2008.
How do archaeologists excavate?
Archaeological deposits are precious archives of ancient lifeways, and typically take tens of thousands of years to accumulate. They are a nonrenewable resource, and must be carefully conserved for the future and not disturbed except for scientific investigation. When we excavate, we destroy the sediments and materials that are removed, so excavation must be done very carefully. Only trained archaeologists should excavate, and archaeological sites protected under South African law.
The Scientific team at Pinnacle Point has pioneered some of the most advanced field techniques used anywhere in the world. Every artefact that is revealed (by carefully brushing away the sediments) is measured with a device called a Total Station and its three dimensional position is recorded directly to a computer with millimeter accuracy! This allows us to reconstruct all the excavated materials on the computer.
The Life History of the Cave: Archeologists typically work with large multidisciplinary scientific teams. The excavations and study of the sediments revealed the life history of the cave and the way people used it as a home. Caves, like people, have a time of birth (cutting), life (when they are a cave), and death (when they collapse).
PP13B, like all caves at Pinnacle Point, was born when the ancient high sea level cut into weak layers of cliffs carved out a cave. This event is dated to before 500,000 years ago, but we have yet to discover how long ago. The first sediments in the cave date to about 400,000 years ago when the sea level was near the mouth of the cave, but people did not live in the cave at that time.
People first began living in the cave about 164,000 years ago. Between about 195,000 and 125,000 years ago the world was in a cold glacial phase. Sea levels are typically lower during glacial phases, but there was a short warm phase when sea levels rose that coincides with this time of occupation, and the coastline came to within about 3 kilometres. People inhabited the cave regularly, probably as a home for their families. They collected rocky intertidal one shellfish such as brown mussel and alikreukel. There is even a barnacle of a species that lives only on the skin of whales, so they were likely scavenging the remains of beached whales.
The stone tools they made included small flakes that may have been glued into hafts with resin, and points used to butcher and hunt large animals. They hunted large antelope that are now rare in the fynbos, such as wildebeest and eland that probably lived on the exposed coastal platform in front of the cave that was revealed by the lower sea levels. They collected red ochre and ground it to make powders, probably for decorating their bodies or paint paintings (though we have not discovered cave paintings this old).
The coastline retreated after 160,000 years ago as sea levels went down, and for many thousands of years people rarely visited the cave. But at about 120,000 years ago, sea levels rose again as the world warmed, and the coast came within a few kilometres of the cave once again. From that time until about 90,000 years ago people inhabited the cave very regularly. Through this time they continued to forage for rocky intertidal shellfish, hunt large mammals, and exploit ochre. Around 110,000 years ago, they began to also collect shellfish from the sandy beaches. They collected sea shells, including the helmet shell and the dog cockle. Scientists know there were sea shells, because they have beach wear, indicating they were collected after death. The science team thinks this represents a true “coastal adaptation” when people’s lives became entwined with the sea.
At 90,000 years ago, the cave was sealed by a large dune that formed against the cliff face. That dune drifted into the cave, and remnants of its back slope can be seen cemented by calcium carbonate against the north wall of the cave. The cave remained sealed between 90,000 and about 40,000 years ago, and so people could not use it. Sometime after 40,000 years ago it opened again, perhaps due to erosion of the dune, or even an earthquake.
Why is PP13B Important? PP13B has been featured in national and international newspapers and TV shows for its findings – why? Archaeological sites that date to the long cold glacial phase between 195,000 and 125,000 years are extremely rare throughout Africa, likely because populations were very small. PP13B is one of only a handful of sites in all of Africa that date to this crucial phase in human origins. PP13B documents the earliest evidence we have for people exploiting the sea – 164,000 years ago – and at the same time has the best dated early evidence for people using pigments, in this case red ochre. Scientists think that the use of pigments signals a complex mind capable of language and symbolic behaviour. And finally, PP13B shows the earliest evidence for the origins of an advanced form of stone tool manufacture called “heat treatment” – heating the tool in the fire to make it stronger and more durable. PP13B was the site that put Pinnacle Point on the world scientific map, and it did so with a splash.
Changing global temperatures through time have affected sea levels: Astronomers and marine-biologists have shown that warm-cold-warm cycles, about 100,000 years long, have been a feature of Earth’s history for at least the past 2-3 million years. During cold (glacial) cycles the water is bound in continental ice sheets and sea level drops about 130 metres below our present sea level, but, during warm (interglacial) times, like those of the past 6,000 years, the ice melts and the sea rises to levels within a few metres of that today. During the Cretaceous period 140-80 million years ago temperatures and sea levels were highest and lapped our coastal mountains. There was a great ice age during the Carboniferous period and scratch marks made by an ice sheet are preserved in the underlying bedrock about 290 million years ago near Kimberley.
A,B,C and D correspond to different sea levels shown in the shore profile.
About 100 years ago Milankovich discovered a long term, gradual variation of the Earth’s orbit around the sun from nearly circular to highly elliptical over 100,000 years. When the orbit was nearly circular, summers were cooler, and continental ice sheets that had accumulated during winters did not melt and sea levels were low. In contrast, when the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, it approaches closer to the sun, summers are warmer, ice melts and sea levels rise. Time for us to actually see the cave.
The path was so close to the edge that it upset Larry’s vertigo, he sadly returned to the Club House to wait for us. We could just make out the caves at the far end of the cliffs but had to stand for a few minutes whilst a golfer teed off from the top to our right......
Going down the steps we saw the boardwalk zig-zagging to the cave.
A few down and looking back.
Down at the bottom and finally up some steps to PP13B.
The back of the cave, now protected with sandbags, where the camp fires were found.
The left wall showing where the line where the dune had filled to, bringing different sediments with it. The well preserved ceiling.
Christopher got hold of one of the youngsters and gave an ochre face-painting lesson. Allen was sad that there wasn’t a ‘Show and Tell Bucket’ that we could hold or look at some of the artefacts, I guessed they were all away in some laboratory being analysed.
Four yachties pose at the cave mouth.
We began our way back. Incredible to think that all we could see and beyond the horizon was once grassland with antelope etc.
One of the other caves.
Back up the steps and one final wave-watch.
At the top. What an exceptional find and the story fits in well with a documentary we have called ‘The First Eve’. A wonderful, in-depth look at how from the first woman tribes moved away in search of food and how pigment changed, dialects evolved and eventually became new languages.
As we bimbled back to the club house we all agreed this golf course has quite a view and many a ball must have ‘plunked’ into the sea. We met up with Larry, enjoyed a delicious snack lunch and Patty said she wanted to see ostriches. OK then. Larry said the farms were about an hour away so we bundled back in the car and set off.
Twenty minutes along the road “Hey, they’ll do.” Out we got and chatted to a gang.
Their feet are so incredible prehistoric.
The laydees were very taken with Allen. Larry told us the only meat yielding bits on these huge birds comes from the thighs and neck, everything else is way too bony.
After Allen had received a good dose of eyelash fluttering, back in the car, and, yes, more partying like teenagers.....
ALL IN ALL A FASCINATING AND IMPORTANT LOOK BACK
WHAT A UNIQUE FIND FOR THE HISTORY OF MANKIND