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Sibudu Cave (South Africa)

Middle Stone Age Rockshelter of Sibudu Cave


Arrow Point from Sibudu Cave

Left: refitted bone point from the HP layers at Sibudu Cave. Right: close-up view of two aspects showing the facets covered by fine longitudinal striations produced by scraping with a burin or unretouched stone edge.

Lucinda Backwell (c) 2008

Sibudu Cave is an extremely important Middle Stone Age (MSA) rockshelter located on the Tongati River near the KwaZulu coast of South Africa. Deposits at the site vary in thickness within the large cave but are at least 2 meters thick in some places. Given the quality of the data, researchers have been able to split the MSA sequence at Sibudu to include separate occupations they are calling pre-Still Bay, Still Bay, Howiesons Poort, post-Howiesons Poort and late and final MSA phases. An Iron Age site of about 1,000 years old directly overlies the MSA occupation.

Because of its age at the outside limits of radiocarbon dating, dating for Sibudu Cave includes both radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. Radiocarbon dates range between 28,800 to greater than 48,000 RCYBP, the upper limit for C14 dating. OSL ages for the post-Howiesons Poort occupation are reported as averaging about 57,000 years ago, and the older Howiesons Poort levels fit within Oxygen Isotope Stage 4, or earlier than 61,000 years ago. Still Bay/Howiesons Poort sites have been previously recorded between about 65,000-75,000 years bp.

Significance of Sibudu Cave

Sibudu Cave is remarkable for a number of reasons, including most importantly the stratified complex of Howiesons Poort/Still Bay occupations in South Africa. Stone tools from the HP levels are have a relatively high number of blades and large sandstone flakes.

The use of ochre is evidenced by lithics with deeply ingrained ochre deposits on their working edges. Researchers believe that it is likely that some of the ochre was used as part of a mastic, a material used to haft stone or bone tools to handles.

Animal bones represented in the cave include a broad range of small and large mammals, dominated by blue duiker. In addition, Sibudu Cave contains bone tools, including a bone projectile point such as has been recovered before at MSA cave sites of Rose Cottage, Klasies River, and Blombos.

Sibudu Cave and MSA Bone Points

Bone tools recovered from Sibudu Cave include one bone point, approximately 5 centimeters long; a bone needle; and a spatulate-shaped bone tool with a highly polished rounded tip. Each of these tools exhibits striations from making or using the tools. There is also evidence of post discard rodent gnawing. All of these are from the Howiesons Poort levels (i.e., ca 61,000 years ago).

Also discovered within the Howiesons Poort and Still Bay occupations were six specimens of the marine mollusk Afrolittorina africana, three of which bear perforations and marks which appear to be consistent with human drilling.

Sibudu was discovered and first excavated in 1983. Current excavations at the cave began in 1998 under the direction of Lyn Wadley.


See the photo essay on Bone Points at Early Modern Human Sites for a closer look at the bone point from Sibudu.

At least fifteen separate recent papers have been published on Sibudu Cave, detailing the archaeological assemblage and importance of this cave site.

Backwell, Lucinda, Francesco d'Errico, and Lyn Wadley 2008 Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(6):1566-1580.

Clark, Jamie L. and Ina Plug 2008 Animal exploitation strategies during the South African Middle Stone Age: Howiesons Poort and post-Howiesons Poort fauna from Sibudu Cave. Journal of Human Evolution 54(6):886-898.

d'Errico, Francesco, Marian Vanhaeren, and Lyn Wadley 2008 Possible shell beads from the Middle Stone Age layers of Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(10):2675-2685.

Goldberg P, Miller C, Schiegl S, Ligouis B, Berna F, Conard N, and Wadley L. 2009. Bedding, hearths, and site maintenance in the Middle Stone Age of Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 1(2):95-122.

Jacobs, Zenobia, et al. 2008 New ages for the post-Howiesons Poort, late and final Middle Stone Age at Sibudu, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(7):1790-1807.

Lombard, Marlize 2008 Finding resolution for the Howiesons Poort through the microscope: micro-residue analysis of segments from Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 35:26-41.

Lombard M, and Phillipson L. 2010. Indications of bow and stone-tipped arrow use 64,000 years ago in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Antiquity 84(325):635–648.

Wadley, Lyn 2007 Announcing a Still Bay industry at Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 52:681-689.

Wadley, Lyn 2005 Putting ochre to the test: replication studies of adhesives that may have been used for hafting tools in the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution 49(5):587-601.

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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