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Klasies River Caves

Howiesons Poort/Stillbay Tradition of South Africa

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Klasies River Mouth Cave

Klasies River Mouth Cave

John Atherton
Beginning about 125,000 years ago, a handful of our human ancestors lived in a handful of caves on the Tsitsikamma coast of South Africa, near the small stream called Klasies River. The site located at the very southern tip of Africa provides evidence of the behavior of Homo sapiens at our very earliest moments of existence, and a slightly uncomfortable peek into our distant past.

The people who lived in these caves were modern humans who lived by recognizably human methods, hunting game and gathering plant foods. Evidence for our other hominid ancestors--Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, for example--suggests that they primarily scavenged other animal's kills; the Homo sapiens of Klasies River caves knew how to hunt. The Klasies River people dined on shellfish, antelope, seals, penguins, and some unidentified plant foods, roasting them in hearths built for the purpose. The caves were not permanent residences for the humans who inhabited them, as best as we can tell; they only stayed for a few weeks, then moved along to the next hunting stand. Stone tools and flakes made from beach cobbles were recovered from the earliest levels of the site.

Klasies River and Howieson's Poort

Apart from the debris of living, researchers have also found fragmentary evidence in these earliest levels of the earliest of ritual behavior--cannibalism. Fossil human remains were found in several layers of the Klasies River occupations, fire-blackened fragments of skulls and other bones showing cut marks. While this alone would not convince researchers that cannibalism had taken place, the pieces were mixed with the rubble of kitchen debris--thrown out with the shells and bones of the remainder of the meal. These bones were unequivocally modern human; at a time when no other modern humans are known--only Neanderthals and early modern Homo existed outside of Africa.

By 70,000 years ago, when the layers called by archaeologists Howieson's Poort were laid down, these same caves were used by the descendents with a more sophisticated stone tool technology, backed tools from thin stone blades, and perhaps projectile points. The raw material from these tools came not from the beach, but from rough mines some 20 kilometers away. The Middle Stone Age Howieson's Poort lithic technology is nearly unique for its time; similar tool types are not found anywhere else until the much later Late Stone Age assemblages.

While archaeologists and paleontologists continue to debate whether modern humans are descended only from the Homo sapiens populations from Africa, or from a combination of Homo sapiens and Neanderthal, the Klasies River cave populations are still our ancestors, and are still representatives of the earliest known modern humans on the planet.

Sources

Bartram, Laurence E.Jr. and Curtis W. Marean 1999 Explaining the "Klasies Pattern": Kua ethnoarchaeology, the Die Kelders middle stone age archaeofauna, long bone fragmentation and carnivore ravaging. Journal of Archaeological Science 26:9-29.

Churchill, S. E., et al. 1996 Morphological affinities of the proximal ulna from Klasies River main site: archaic or modern? Journal of Human Evolution 31:213-237.

Deacon, H. J. and V. B. Geleisjsne 1988 The stratigraphy and sedimentology of the main site sequence, Klasies River, South Africa. The South African Archaeological Bulletin 43:5-14.

Hall, S. and J. Binneman 1987 Later stone age burial variability in the Cape: A social interpretation. The South African Archaeological Bulletin 42:140-152.

Voigt, Elizabeth 1973 Stone Age Molluscan Utilization at Klasies River Mouth Caves. South African Journal of Science 69:306-309.

Wurz, Sarah 2002 Variability in the Middle Stone Age lithic seuqnece, 115,000-60,000 years ago at Klasies River, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 29:1001-1015.

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