With the addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union, the geographic centre of the…
Mossel Bay is at the centre of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made regarding the origins of modern humans. Unlike other sites that can be remote, dry and downright inhospitable, the archaeological findings here are set against a stunning backdrop of seaside caves.
What a shock – it was raining when we woke this morning – proper rain, well more a drizzle – but still unexpected! We had arranged a tour of the caves at Pinnacle Point where evidence had been excavated has revealed occupation by middle stone age people between 170,000 and 40,000 years ago. But first, we had to get our breakfast and pack the car.
It was a 15-minute drive from the Santos Express to Pinnacle Point. We had been worried about leaving our car full of our possessions, but we need not have been as the area above the caves is now a complex, complete with a championship golf course (apparently the best course in South Africa and there was a pro-tournament going on at the time) and many high-end houses and rental properties. One house even had a full-sized light aircraft encased inside a glass-panelled room on display! Of course, security was tight as a drum – I even had to give them my driver’s license on entry, which they took a picture of, so they could match me to the vehicle I was driving on entry and exit!
We met our guide Christopher, who was a delightful young man, outside the golf course clubhouse. From here we proceed down through a 50-metre long tunnel which was decorated with mosaic panels with scenes of South Africa, the Garden Route and Mossel Bay. The project started in August 2022 so there was still some way to go before completion. There was a middle-aged gentleman who was kneeling on the ground working on one of the panels as we walked through.
On the far side of the tunnel, there is a display panel talking about the flora and fauna of the area and the history of the archaeological sites in the caves below.
The discoveries at Pinnacle Point have been made by an international team, headed by palaeoanthropologist Curtis Marean from the Institute of Human Origins of the Arizona State University as well as researchers from South Africa (UCT), Australia (Archaeology Program, La Trobe University, UoW), Israel, and France. The work started excavating the cave in the year 2000, but locals had known about these sites many years earlier.
After debating for decades, paleoanthropologists now agree there is enough genetic and fossil evidence to suggest that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa c. 200,000 – c. 160,000 years ago. At that time, the world was in an ice age, and Africa was dry and arid. As archaeological sites dating to that time period are rare in Africa, palaeontologist Curtis Marean analysed geologic formations, sea currents, and climate data to pinpoint likely archaeological sites; one such was Pinnacle Point.
The cave where the most artefacts were uncovered is cutely named 13b (there are around 15 significant caves that were highlighted during the excavations.) At 13b the evidence for symbolic behaviour came in the form of scraped and ground ochre (usually referred to as limonite-bearing powders) that may have been used to form a pigment for body painting.) These discoveries contradict the classical hypothesis that modern behaviour emerged only 40,000 years ago and was reached through a “large cultural leap”. The harsh climate and reduced food resources may have been why people moved to the shore at Pinnacle Point, where they could eat marine creatures like shellfish, whales, and seals.
In December 2012, the provincial heritage resources authority Heritage Western Cape declared Pinnacle Point a provincial heritage site. In 2015, the South African government submitted a proposal to add the cave to the list of World Heritage Sites and it has been placed on the UNESCO list of tentative sites as a potential future ‘serial nomination’ together with Blombos Cave, Sibudu Cave, Klasies River Caves, Border Cave, and Diepkloof Rock Shelter.
From the display panels, we headed off along a cliff trail, which forms part of the Saint Blaise Trail that we had explored the first part of the day before in Mossel Bay. The path is quite narrow and there are steep drop-offs to one side down the rocks and sea below. Not good for those with vertigo. It had also been raining so the path was a bit slippery (and full of snails) and the wind was gusty up top. This part of the trip is only a few hundred yards long. The next part is a set of 175 stairs leading down to the caves.
As we climbed down the stairs some Southern Right Whales passed close by. Of course, we had to stop and watch. One active juvenile whale started performing for us, breaching a couple of times and then doing a series of tail and fin slaps. The whales were then joined by a pod of passing dolphins who also started leaping out of the water in joy. It took a while to arrive at Cave 13b!
Cave 13b is a very large sea cave. Today, it is located on the side of a sea cliff, but it was not always this way. Many millennia ago, the cave was several miles inland from the sea and looking out from its entrance you would have seen a savannah filled with plants, trees and animals. This was when the cave started to be used by man, some 164,000 years ago. At some point in time, the sea levels rose to 6 metres higher than they are today and the cave filled with water, washing away a lot of artefacts. The sea levels dropped, and the cave entrance was blocked by a sand dune. This sand dune was eventually eroded away, and the cave entrance became open again.
When the excavations began in 2000 the team of archaeologists started digging down on the floor of the caves where they found shells and rocks that had clearly been used as tools, there was also evidence that some of the tools had been ‘heat-treated”. Additionally, ochre was found, and this was believed to be used to decorate the skin of individuals. All of these artefacts were mixed with stones, sand and all sorts of other detritus and over the years layers built up on the floor of the cave. They dug down several feet to the base of the original cave, with the earliest layer being dated at around 164,000 years ago and the uppermost layer at 40,000 years.
Today, the cave has been left by the archaeologist, with sandbags protecting the walls where the excavations uncovered the evidence of human activity. Some areas are exposed so you can see the remains of tools and ochre. There is not a whole lot to see but being with our guide Christopher brought the story of what happened in this place around 170,000 years ago to life! After 30 minutes or so we climbed back up to the top of the cliffs and said our goodbyes to Christopher and headed back into Mossel Bay.
Best time to visit Mossel Bay
According to the Guinness Book of Records, this `Karoo-by-the-sea` town has the second most moderate climate in the world and has the only north-facing beach in South Africa. The sea temperature in the summertime is 20 to 22 degrees C and in the winter 14 to 16 degrees C. The average temperature for September – May is 21 to 28 degrees C, and from May to Sept is 16 to 21 degrees C.
Where to stay in Mossel Bay
1. THE SANTOS EXPRESS
Located on Santos Beach in Mossel Bay, Santos Express offers unique accommodations in train carriages. Free WiFi access is available in the public areas. Guests can socialize in the shared lounge or relax in the garden.
The rooms in the carriages are simply furnished and have access to a shared bathroom. Most of the rooms have sea view.
Boasting views over the bay, The Fork and Train Restaurant and Pub serves International cuisine. There are also BBQ facilities available.
Other facilities offered at the Santos include a tour desk, a conference room and free parking. Santos Express is able to assist with arranging a variety of tours and activities
2. BAY LODGE ON THE BEACH
Offering direct access to the beach, Bay Lodge is located in Bay View. The guest house offers indoor BBQ area and free WiFi is available in the public areas.
The spacious and contemporary furnished rooms offer air conditioning, flat-screen satellite TV and a private bathroom. Each is equipped with a bar fridge, microwave, toaster and tea-and-coffee-making facilities.
3. TRAVELLERS REST
Boasting a garden, a shared lounge, and a terrace, Traveller’s Rest, Reebok features accommodation in Mossel Bay with free WiFi and mountain views. Featuring a balcony, the bed and breakfast is in an area where guests can engage in activities such as fishing, snorkelling and cycling.
The bed and breakfast features a satellite flat-screen TV. Towels and bed linen are available in the bed and breakfast.