The Cradle of Human Culture: take a trip back in time

September 03, 2019

The Western Cape is known far and wide for the beauty of the Mother City, its myriad cultural and natural attractions, bountiful vineyards and delicate fynbos, white-sand beaches and great cuisine.

But did you know this province of abundance is also home to archaeological and palaeontological discoveries of global significance? If you’re interested in how our human ancestors created the first art, started to use tools and fire, and harnessed symbolism, make your next holiday a tour of the Cradle of Human Culture.

Launched in April 2019 in partnership with the world-famous Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Gauteng, the new “cradle” encircles three major excavation sites and a host of others, and many quaint and historical towns. At the moment, there are two suggested “journeys”. Combine them into one road trip, or choose just one.

Conveniently, both routes start in Cape Town, so hop on a flight to the Mother City and then hit the road. Here’s what you need to know about the Cradle of Human Culture before you set off:

There are three anchor sites

The Cradle of Human Culture is anchored by the Diepkloof Rock Shelter on the Cape West Coast; Blombos Cave near Stilbaai; and Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay. All three archaeological sites have yielded mind-blowing early art and artefacts and provided some of the world’s earliest evidence of modern human behaviour.

While you won’t be allowed to enter the Diepkloof Rock Shelter and Blombos Cave because of ongoing work at the sites, nearby exhibitions, museums and other sites offer a comprehensive picture of the ways early humans in these areas expressed their spirituality and adapted their behaviour.

There are two journeys

The experiences along the two Cradle of Human Culture journeys transcend boundaries – both locals and visitors will inevitably reflect on the origins of our common humanity.

The Artist’s Journey transverses parts of the Cape West Coast and focuses on the earliest forms of patterns and symbols used by early modern man, while The Coastal Journey meanders through the Cape Winelands, dips into the Overberg and Klein Karoo, and ends along the picturesque Garden Route. The latter has a focus on the earliest forms of art and technology.

The Artist’s Journey: highlights

This route’s anchor site is the Diepkloof Rock Shelter near Piketberg, comprising two caves where scientists found signs of human occupation for nearly 85 000 years, Middle Stone Age tools, ostrich eggshells with patterns thought to be around 65 000 years old and many more riches. You can’t enter the caves, but there are many other interesting sights and experiences on this journey. These include:

  • The non-profit San education centre at !Khwa ttu, Yzerfontein, where you can learn more about the past and present San culture and join San demonstrating their age-old skills, including tracking animals and identifying plants

  • The West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaan, where you can view the well-preserved fossils of some of the fascinating creatures that roamed the area about five million years ago

  • Ancient San paintings in the Elands Bay Cave near Elands Bay

  • More San rock art on the Sevilla Rock Art Trail on Traveller’s Rest Farm, 34km from Clanwilliam, and at Truitjieskraal in the Matjiesrivier Nature Reserve World Heritage Site in the Cederberg

The Coastal Journey: highlights

This journey has two anchor sites. The first is Pinnacle Point south of Mossel Bay, where people lived between 170 000 and 40 000 years ago and researchers found some of the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour. Book a Point of Human Origins Experience tour (by appointment).

The second is famous Blombos Cave near Stilbaai, where researchers have found proof of Homo sapiens living in the area up to 133 000 years ago, and successive colonies of hunter-gatherers hunting, fishing, painting their bodies and creating abstract symbols. Visit the Blombos Museum of Archaeology in Stilbaai for exhibitions on its Stone Age history, stone tools, examples of ancient rock art and more.

Other interesting sights and experiences on this journey include:

  • The Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn, where successive groups of humans sheltered for at least 80 000 years

  • Nelson Bay Cave in Robberg Nature Reserve near Plettenberg Bay, where excavations have shown that the early humans who lived here ate food ranging from birds, eggs and plants to shellfish, as well as seals and bush pigs

  • Ancient stonewalled fish traps near Stilbaai, showing the evolution of early fishing practices in the area

  • Klipgat Cave near the seaside village of De Kelder, where archaeologists have found stone artefacts, bone tools and Middle Stone Age human remains dating back between 65 000 and 85 000 years

There’s plenty more to see, so why not start planning your journey now? It will not only give you more insight into our origins as humans, but also offer a glimpse of where we’re heading. Bon voyage!

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