How the Knysna area is contributing to our understanding of early modern human behaviour

All humans alive today stem from one small group of individuals who - genetic research has shown - lived in Africa less than 200,000 years ago.

And we now know that those people lived here, on the Garden Route coast - thanks to the work of the South African Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology, and Palaeoanthropology (SACP4) Project, under 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.

At first, the SACP4’s studies concentrated on the Pinnacle Point Caves in Mossel Bay, but (as in all things) the more we learn, the more we realise that we have even more to learn - and the work has now extended to various other sites along the coast, and further inland.

This is exciting news for Knysna, which has now been identified as one of the sites of interest, and which has been studied by a team lead by Dr. Naomi Cleghorn, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington since 2014.

  • We're hoping to open an exhibition about Middle Stone Age Archaeology in Knysna in the near future. Please watch this site for details. 

Dr. Cleghorn wrote the following introduction for us:

Excavation and study of Middle Stone Age sites in Knysna

32,000 years ago on the southern coast of Africa, a group of people sat in the mouth of a high cave around a fire eating a meal of cooked mussels and sea snails, and looking down over the coastline that had provided them with a rich, dependable supply of food.

If they sat in the same place a thousand years later, they would have been surprised by the view. The coastline was gone, and a broad plain cut by a river stretched out to the horizon. A new group of people sat at the mouth of the cave, cooking big game around small fires while making small beautiful tools out of stone, ostrich eggshell, and bright yellow and deep red pigments.

For another 10,000 years, new groups people came to this cave, building their campfires in the same place.

In 2012, I hiked up a steep hillside with my graduate student, Chris Shelton. We stopped, stunned by the site of thousands of years of campfire remains, ochre, animal bones, and stone tools exposed by erosion on the slope above. The ephemeral archaeological sites of the Late Pleistocene are rarely so easily seen in such depth.

The site, which we named Knysna Eastern Heads 1 (or KEH-1) for the rocky gates of the coastal lagoon nearby, has provided a window to a period of time never before documented on that coast.

Those coastal foragers lived richly on shellfish and made tools similar to the people who had lived on that coast for the preceding 100,000 years or more. But the hunters that came after them were doing something new with their technology. We want to know why this changed, and whether the change in the position of the coastline played any part in that shift.

Human groups depend on long-term culturally accumulated knowledge about the landscape they live off. What does it mean for a people when their foraging territory and the whole landscape their not-too-distant ancestors knew is constantly shifting underneath them?

At KEH-1 we have been working to answer these questions. Our team, an international mix of students, research scientists, and professional archaeologists has spent 15 weeks over three years carefully excavating the exposed hearths and the underlying deposits.

This research is supported by grants from the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Video: Archaeology at the Pinnacle Point Caves, Mossel Bay