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Later Stone Age Coastal Living and Mega-Middens

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Megamiddens in the Later Stone Age of South Africa
Near Elands Bay, South Africa

Near Elands Bay, South Africa. Photo taken June 24, 1979

John Atherton

An 18 kilometer (~11 mile) stretch of rocky shoreline along the western coast of South Africa in Western Cape Province is one of the most intensively investigated regions in the country. The reason for all this interest lies in enormous heaps of mussel shells, some containing as much as 60,000 cubic meters (over 2 million cubic feet) of shells, heaped on the shore and coastal dunes during the 1,200 year period between 3000 and 1800 years ago.

The shell heaps, called megamiddens (or, more recently, macromiddens), are only part of the story, which includes evidence of a prehistoric lifestyle that included ready access to terrestrial and marine life; caves and rockshelters that served as protection from weather and enemies; and campsites along the rocky beaches from Elands Bay to Lamberts Bay, South Africa. Macromiddens are also found on the former Transkei coast, although they have been less intensively investigated.

The environment of the shoreline includes a succession of sandy and rocky beaches with a parallel dune cordon, reaching to heights of 5-19 m (16-62 ft) above the current sea level. The vegetation is scrubby, with patches of heath and succulent shrubs. Freshwater marshes called vleis dotted the landscape in the past, before modern irrigation lowered the water table, and back-dune lagoons could be used as reliable sources of drinking water for people and for water fowl.

Studied since the 1970s, the middens have been the focus of an extended debate among scholars, concerning their purpose, and, in a larger sense, the history of the people who lived on the western coast of South Africa during the Later Stone Age and built the middens. This photo essay explores some of the archaeological research behind these enormous shell heaps.

Sources

A bibliography has been collected for this project. Thanks are due to John Parkington for the images and for his suggestions for the text.

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