SA paleoscientists save Stilbaai rock depicting ‘A day at the beach’ in the Middle Stone Age

On a rugged, remote stretch of coast east of Stilbaai in the Southern Cape, palaeoscientists Charles Helm and Jan de Vynck have discovered a rock believed to contain one of the oldest examples of our human ancestors drawing symbolic expressions in the sand. This important find was about to fall into the ocean, but they set out to save it. Drs De Vynck and Helm told BizNews about the importance of this rock in humans’ cognitive growth as a species. It is also fascinating story about how a South African medical doctor who stumbled onto dinosaur footprints in Canada turned into a palaeoscientist and then discovered 326 track sites in the Southern Cape – Linda van Tilburg

Excerpts from the interview with Charles Helm and Jan de Vynck

The Southern Cape has an unprecedented sweep of archaeological sites – Dr Jan de Vynck

I’m the director at the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience Science at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. We look at paleosciences, which are the ‘old’ sciences, for instance, archaeology, and we are specifically looking at humans in the context of the Late Pleistocene. Specifically, 165000 to 60000 is a very interesting period for us. We have various colleagues who are archaeologists excavating Middle Stone Age sites: the time period where so much happened for our species. The interesting thing is that the Southern Cape of South Africa hosts an unprecedented sweep of archaeological sites, which tell us an amazing story about us as a species, humans and our joint heritage. Sites like Blombos Cave, Pinnacle Point, around Mossel Bay and Stilbaai, especially, are giving us a whole big picture of the cognitive growth of our species, not when they started looking like us, but when they started thinking like us. When did we become us? The South Cape is a treasure for all of that. Apart from the archaeology and these sites and what we’re finding inside them, there’s the whole story about the ecology of the area that these humans lived in, in coexistence with the environment. The Southern Cape is part of the Cape Floristic region. It’s off the charts for its diversity not just of plants, but for various things. This interaction between humans and such a special ecosystem broadens our understanding of why we became us in the southern Cape.

In ages, Africa did not freeze over and the Cape doubled in size 

Interestingly, in this relevant period of our evolution as a species, we had a couple of ice ages. What happens in Africa during an Ice Age? It doesn’t freeze over. It actually goes very dry and not many places remain inhabitable. The most interesting thing for us is the fact that the sea level retreated significantly, exposing a landmass which we coined the Paleo Agulhas Plain, south of South Africa. It doubles the Cape Floristic region. That’s another 80,000 square kilometres added on to South Africa and it was there for way more than half of the relevant past. If you look south today, you just see ocean and it’s hard to imagine that’s what happened. We’ve reconstructed that landscape with various articles in a scientific journal, and we know that humans coexisted with animals and plants on this plain. The sites today along the coast give us a couple of bones. There’s a lot of evidence of what humans brought back that they hunted. However, it actually gives us a glimpse of the total species suite that lived on this plain back then, so long ago, which we call the Late Pleistocene. 

How finding dinosaur footprints in Canada led to the discovery of 326 ancient track sites from Robberg to Arniston – Dr Charles Helm

Dr Charles Helm

I grew up here in the Southern Cape and moved to Canada in 1986. I met my future Canadian wife on something like day three or four in Canada,  and we ended up settling in northern British Columbia in the Rocky Mountains and began raising our kids there. It’s a beautiful area. One day we were out with our son, who was eight, and his friend who was 10 or 11; they were tubing down some rapids in a creek just below town. They came back and they told me and my wife they probably just discovered some dinosaur tracks and we were skeptical, but they were right and that set in motion the whole chain of events whereby we’ve now got an internationally recognised museum. We have a UNESCO globally recognised geopark.  It all can be traced back to that moment and that is when I realised that I’ve got this passion and interest in fossil tracks and trackways. So, I’ve been researching dinosaur trackways and crocodile trackways and lots of other things there in Canada, but we were trying to bring our kids back here to Great Brak River on the southern Cape coast of South Africa as often as we could. And all of a sudden, I realised, hang on, I’m accumulating this knowledge in Canada that’s here in Great Brak. I’m kind of in the epicentre of all these amazing trackways here, fossil trackways, and they are not of the same age. In Canada, we’re talking about 100 million years. Here, we’re talking about 100,000 years, but they’re equally impressive and they just tell us about different time periods here. We’re talking about the ice ages, the Pleistocene, the Middle Stone Age and we have discovered 326 track sites between Arniston in the west and Robberg in the east. That’s our study area.

Evidence of what people were doing on dunes and beaches thousands of years ago

This area  is where, if I can use the term, we found our feet as human beings. This is probably where we began and where we survived and thrived. So, we knew from the very beginning, sure, we could find tracks of elephant and buffalo, various other species, but we knew that humans were in this area at the same time. We were on the lookout for hominid tracks or human tracks and in 2015, we found the first set, and we’ve now found seven or eight track sites in addition to numerous examples of stone tools embedded in these same surfaces. So, the surfaces these tracks were made in were of unconsolidated sand. These were sand dunes and beaches and the tracks were made in them.  Then over time the surfaces become cemented and become buried. And through erosion they become exposed and that’s when we see them. So, now we see them in rock, what used to be sand and  it’s really fascinating. And this is probably the best place in the entire world to find this sort of evidence in these deposits. The most amazing coincidence for me is that this area, which is the best for that kind of rock, happens to be the same area where we found our feet as a species. It didn’t have to be that way. It just is that way and we’re so fortunate. So, this has honestly been a gold mine that we’ve been mining here in terms of what we’re finding. It’s been a great privilege to find human tracks and trackways. You look at these and you just feel the trackways connect us with the past in a way that bones don’t necessarily do. Bones are very important fossils but it’s something that has died. You look at a trackway and it’s as if that person was there yesterday. And most people find they can connect with tracks and trackways very easily. It’s very evocative. And then probably the biggest surprise for us, what we were not expecting to find was that we don’t just have footprints. We have evidence of what humans were doing in the dunes and beaches and it makes sense. I mean, if people were walking there and leaving their tracks, why wouldn’t we find evidence of the other things that they were doing? We never expected it, but we were lucky enough to find it. So that’s the beginning of this story.

An ancient rock with a perfect triangle – a day at the beach, a message in the sand or ‘paleo texting’?

Well, we’ve got a combination and we don’t always know. We are also very careful because the worst mistake we could make would be to see anything that we don’t understand and to say, oh, humans must have done that. We can’t explain it. So it must have been humans. We’ve got to be very careful not to do that and to be cautious and to rule other things out and even when we think something is of a hominin origin, we’re going to say possible or probable rather than definite because the worst thing is to be arrogant. But it seems that we have evidence of people just going about their business. In other words, foraging, evidence of foraging, making various lines or holes in the sand, perhaps messaging. We use the word paleo texting just amongst ourselves, and there seems to be some evidence of sending messages in the sand. We can’t be sure about that. That’s describing meaning, which is a bit beyond what we’re really capable of doing, but it kind of looks that way to us. Then we are finding these other things that just defy any other explanation and this has not been described anywhere else in the world. So, we’re looking at, if we can use the word art, paleo art. We’ve got, for example, at Blombos Cave 77,000 years ago, these hashtag patterns that have been shown to exist in ochre in the cave and a drawing at 73,000 years. So, in a sense, that’s the oldest known art up until now. But perceptive people have said, hang on, you know, that took a lot of schlep, a lot of work to do that because you had to carry your ochre from a mine 10, 15km away. You had to laboriously carry it, then you had to engrave something into it. This all takes time and effort, and if you have a stick, you can just draw something in the sand on the beach or the dune, just like we and our kids love doing on the beach today. Of course, that’s where the original art must have been. It stands to reason, but nobody thought that art in sand had a chance, had a hope of being preserved in rock. And that is what Jan and I and others, our team, that is what we are finding. For me, it’s just been firstly a huge surprise, but secondly, a huge privilege just to be part of this and to be contributing to the global knowledge base about humanity in its infancy. 

Rescuing ‘the most important rock in the world’ from falling into the sea – De Vynck

Dr Jan de Vynck 

We did a book chapter for the Knysna Basin Book project, and fortunately, all co-authors for this chapter agreed to throw the money at rescuing this rock. We first set about figuring out what the weight of this rock would be.  It’s quite big and weighs between 400 and 500 kilograms, 1.5 by 1.5 by 1.2 metres. Quite a big thing, quite a slab of rock. I then went about getting quotations from helicopter companies. We were quite surprised. They were quite amazing to come on board, give us a good price and it fell under a budget from the book chapter. Charles and I are both part of the Hessequa Society for Archaeology based in Stilbaai, the members and the committee also jumped in and helped to organise this whole thing. So, we had a ground crew at the rock in that far removed piece of coast, right next to this cliff where this rock was lying and then we had a crew at the Stilbaai airfield with a truck and a customised pallet. We also synchronised with the chopper pilot and then he came around to the rock, dropped off his net, and we got the net around this rock. A few minutes later we hooked the rock, and off it went flying into the distance hanging below the helicopter and was dropped off on the pallet at the airfield, and finally made its ginger way to the Blombos Museum of Archaeology. So, from being airlifted to being right there in the museum probably was an hour or two. It’s quite an amazing collaboration if you like: teamwork, and it went seamlessly. It was an amazing success. 

A message for tourists, ‘Welcome home, homo sapiens!’

It is definitely worth visiting just for the simple reason that the Southern Cape could, if you’d like, have a catch phrase like: ‘Welcome Home, Homo Sapiens. This is quite an impressive rock, showing us one of the oldest forms of us as a species doing symbolic expression, I feel and Charles also thinks so; it’s a huge part of our heritage and it’s there for the public to be seen at the information centre in Stibaai, within our little museum, the Blombos Museum of Archaeology.  

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