The greater St Francis area was inhabited by anatomically modern people (Homo sapiens sapiens) some two hundred thousand years ago. 

The present extent of this area is small compared to what it was at the time of the last Ice Age, about 18000 years ago; our region was then at the extreme eastern boundary of the Greater Agulhas Bank, which was above sea level and stretched to the edge of the continental shelf surrounding present Cape Agulhas. 

This savannah grassland prospered during a number of ice ages, as a result of the warm Agulhas current, and was home to early humankind as well as to giant mammals including buffaloes, carnivores and antelope – eland being one example. 

Walks in the area will reveal shell middens from some of the earlier peoples with the added novelty of finding exposed samples of pottery and stone tools. 

Pre-History – The Pleistocene Era

Early Peoples of the greater St Francis area

Scientific evidence suggests that modern humans Homo sapiens evolved on the Cape south coast, somewhere between Saldanha Bay and East London. This founder group was part of a population that comprised an estimated mere 10 000 – 20 000 individuals scattered across the whole of Africa. Indeed, had there been conservationists then, they would have classified humans as an endangered species.

Sometime during a prolonged ice-age period when conditions over most of Africa were considerably colder and drier than in times present, a tiny population of these hunter-gatherers – estimated from ancient DNA to number no more than around 600 breeding individuals – survived somewhere on the continent, and went on to be the ancestors of all of humanity. That “somewhere” appears to be on the coastline of the then exposed Agulhas Bank. The “sometime” was between 200 000 and 140 000 years ago.

The Agulhas Bank or Palaeo-Agulhas Plain, the continental shelf that was exposed (generally pictured as the lighter blue section of the ocean) during the long ice-age period when modern humans are thought to have evolved on the Cape south coast. Some of the archaeological sites that have yielded evidence of modern man behaviour between 200 000 and 50 000 years ago are Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay, Klasies Cave west of Oyster Bay, Blombos in the De Hoop Nature Reeserve and a number up the West Coast. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Our human lineage at that time was confronted with the problems of surviving under difficult and harsh conditions. Fortunately, the ice-age environment of the Cape South Coast was different from the rest of Africa due to the presence of the persistently warm Agulhas Current. The coastal environment, which included the then exposed Agulhas Bank or Palaeo-Agulhas Plain, which was a consequence of lower sea levels during glacial times, provided an array of lower sea levels during glacial times, provided an array of resources that were capable of sustaining humans.

A fossilised trackway of a human footprint made on a sand dune more than 100 000 years ago. The footprint, the oldest known one of a modern human, is preserved in cemented sand dune at Brenton-on-Sea, near Knysna. Photo: Charles Helm

These included an abundance of shellfish, fish, and marine mammals, as well as a mosaic of fynbos, grassland and thicket vegetation that offered year-round access to edible bulbs, fruits and wood for fuel and weapons. In addition, abundant potable water together with a fertile, grassy coastal plain that supported a migratory system of large mammals including wildebeest, zebra and several extinct giant grazers that provided an additional source of protein.

Foraging and harvesting these resources, would have required diverse forms of intelligences not previously fully manifested in the human lineage. Harvesting of shellfish along the wave-battered Cape coast requires knowledge and an understanding of the tidal rhythms, sea conditions and the zonation and location of different species. Gathering bulbs and berries requires knowing which species provide the best nutrition, and when and where they are most abundant. The Cape has the richest bulb flora in the world, so efficient foraging must have required considerable plant-identification skills to distinguish edible from poisonous, tasty from astringent, and nutritious from insipid). Hunting of plains game required co- operative skills and reasonable weaponry to bring down fleet-footed and large animals.

A Caves in coastal settings, such as the famous Klasies River (left) provided shelter adjacent to a rich marine intertidal resource. A relatively young (ca. 4000-year-old) midden comprising mainly alikreukel (Turbo samarticus) shells near Blombos Cave

In short, the human brain must have undergone a massive rewiring to master the technical and social skills required for survival on the windswept plains of the ice-age south Cape coast

The hugely diverse bulb flora of the Cape coast provided foragers with a year-round supply of carbohydrate. On the left is bobbejantjie (Babiana sp), so named because it’s underground corms are a favoured food of the Chacma Baboon (photo: Jan de Vynck). On right is a woman of Khoe-San ancestry harvesting bulbs in the Still Bay area using a traditional digging stick (photo: Elzanne Singerls).

Archaeological evidence provides insightful glimpses into this cognitive and cultural evolution. In addition to producing evidence of shellfish harvesting, research at Blombos Cave near Still Bay yielded engraved ochre dating back some 70 000 years, evidence of the symbolic creativity inherent in art.

This research debunked the myth that the human cultural revolution occurred in Europe, sometime after modern humans migrated out of Africa. Curtis Marean’s research group, which has been excavating Pinnacle Point for more than a decade, pushed this date for cultural innovation back to 165 000 years ago. They also unearthed seashells that had been used as ornaments for decorating cave sites, dating to 110 000 years ago. Most intriguingly, they showed that as early as 160 000 years ago, humans were able to beneficiate silcrete sediment, using a complex process of heat treatment, in order to produce the finely crafted stone tools required for more effective and efficient hunting, fishing, cutting and cleaning.

All these innovations required complex cognitive skills, such as novel associations between unrelated phenomena that yield new products of artefacts and most importantly language, co-operative behaviour and sharing of resources amongst themselves. In short, the hallmarks of human culture that set us apart from all other hominins are evident at sites on the Cape south coast.

The fact that this rewiring of our brains was likely underpinned by the need to comprehend and exploit the diverse marine and land biotas of the Cape palaeoscape is a testament to the fundamental role of biodiversity in ensuring our persistence as a species.

The greater St Francis area is blessed with a wealth of archaeological features showcasing the evolution of hominins (Homo erectus and H sapiens) over the past million years. Shown here are the palisade of fish traps at Thyspunt (left), a Middle Stone Age workshop for making stone tools, located in the Cape St Francis Nature Reserve (middle) and a Middle Stone Age shelter (right) under a fossilised kershout-milkwood forest (note the remnant tree stumps) with numerous stone tools on the surface of an ancient, reddish soil (photos: Robin Moulong (left) and Richard Cowling (middle).

A visualization of the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain off Mossel Bay some 60 000 years ago during a weak cold phase (glacial). In the distant background is the ridgeline of the current coastline some 30 km away, and the snow-capped Outeniqua Mountains. The vast and monotonous plain is drained by a languid, meandering Gouritz River which has formed extensive wetlands behind the barrier of coastal dunes. The plain is underlain by fertile soils which support a dense and productive grassland which is home to large herds of grazing mammals. These include several extinct forms such as a longhorn buffalo, giant eland, giant Cape zebra, giant hartebeest and bluebuck, as well as springbok, waterbuck, zebra and other typical plains game of the African tropical grasslands. The midground shows a group of modern humans at a campsite on a sandy, limestone ridge beneath a large white milkwood tree. On the left, children are collecting fire wood from the dune thicket and protea veld, while two men return from a hunt with bluebuck (centre), and two young women are offloading their harvest of intertidal shellfish. In the foreground, young women are decorating their faces with ochre, prepared using a grinding stone and stored in a perlemoen shell. Nearby, a girl is making a necklace of shells. The women on the right, backed by the huge horn of the longhorn buffalo, are preparing for cooking the corms of geophytes collected in the surrounding veld. By contemporary Cape standards, this was a highly productive landscape yielding large amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrate for human consumption. However, harvesting these resources would have required advanced cognitive skills. Thus, the technology used by these people was very advanced, comprising for example, small blades fashioned from cores of heat-treated silcrete rock that were used as spear tips.

Painting by Maggie Newman.

With thanks to Richard Cowling for this article.