The Antiquity of Man

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Mike Brass. 1998. Peers Cave

Mr Peers and his son had long been interested in the study of reptilia and zoology in general. They discovered Peers' Cave in Fish Hoek and commenced excavation work in May 1927.

Peers Cave is a low shelter looking east, wholly protected from the north-east winds. The shelter is under the buttresses of a small group of hills isolated from the main Kalk Bay range and looks out immediately above and opposite to the entrance of the Kalk Bay Pier. The front of the shelter is shielded by rock talus and bush growth making excavation difficult.

The frontal span is 110 feet and it is 38 feet deep. It is sheltered by a projecting roof at a height of about 20 feet from the floor and projecting from the front about 30 feet. The floor of the cave is today many feet above that of its original level. The fact that the cave is practically mid-way between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans means that the nearest relatives to the sea-shells now found in the shelter are about 3 and a half miles away. This suggests that the sea must have receded since the cave's occupation, hence the great age of everything consequently found there.

The excavation work began at the northern end of the shelter. Two crude pounders were found embedded in shell deposit at 2 feet. Below this point work was rendered difficult by a large rump in the cave wall. Further into the cave greater depth was obtainable.

The cave floor was now marked out in 6 foot squares and work began on these. It was soon realised that bad excavators had previously rifled the cave, but the shell was carefully sieved. A few punched or bored shells, and further on a number of human toe and finger bones were discovered, and other fragments of an infant skeleton disturbed by the previous excavators. Many other fascinating relics of the past were found - a few stone implements, some no larger than a fingernail, fragments of woven reed, mother-of-pearl ornaments, piece of rope, bone awls and arrow-points, stone shoppers of a crude, shell-opening type, bored stones, beads of ostrich egg-shell and other objects showing that these people led the life of Strandlopers or Beachcombers.

The whole floor was carefully excavated to a depth of 5 feet and at this level all signs of occupation ceased and the cave rear curved in, reducing the floor space to a quarter and this consisted of a thick deposit of mountain sand.

Further interesting discoveries were made as Peers and his son continued their excavation and found, tucked away under the little shelters to the rear of the cave, three adult skeletons. One showed the decayed remnants of medicine bags strung as a curative belt about her, for she evidently suffered from lameness. Under another of these skeletons a fragment of rusted European iron was found, proving that this last burial was actually made after the early Portuguese voyagers has passed this way. Almost all the bodies had been buried in the same position - face downwards, with the legs folded under the stomach, and the arms tucked under the chest, the head being pressed slightly more deeply into the earth than the greater bulk of the body behind. A flat stone had been laid on the shoulders and some had ostrich egg beads strung on stripes of hide around their necks. All the skeletons seemed to have excellent teeth. The depth below the modern floor was 6 feet. The remaining overburden of shell was now sieved and removed leaving a sandy sterile floor overlying the lower deposit. High up in the north-eastern corner of the cave there are still faint races of ochre-painted fingers and hands on the rock wall.

After the shells were successfully removed, further excavations started. Implements in considerable numbers appeared. These consisted of crescents (or lunates), burins crescent form flakes, a few lance-heads and points, scalloped scrapers, with small fabricators, residual cores and core scrapers. These lay at a total depth of 7 ft 6 inches and form a single layer of about 18 inches thick, apparently undifferentiated. There were few signs of shell deposits at this depth (6-7 feet), thus bearing out the belief that the common fare of these people was quite different from the later inhabitants, consisting more of meat and vegetable matter than shell-fish. The layer in which the artifacts lay buried was of semi-crystalline hardness and contained no signs of decomposed matter, only dark sandstone granules tightly bound together, apparently by the 6 feet of accumulated midden material above.

The material is now known as the Howiesonspoort (which appears in southern Africa between 75 000 - 65 000 BP). The appearance of the Howiesonspoort industry caused a great deal of controversy, since, when it was first seen at Peers' Cave, it was assumed to be an early version of the Later Stone Age. Later it was recognised both at Peers' Cave and at Klasies that the Howiesonspoort was overlain by another flake MSA unit, so, in essence, this blade industry was an innovation within the MSA, perhaps related to a different use of the landscape, as seen in the wider ranging for raw materials and the targeting of small antelope. Mr A.J.H. Goodwin (U.C.T) suggested that the age of the deposit could range from 15 000 to 20 000 years old.

The most dramatic find of all, however, was that of the little skull that was to make scientific history and bring these two amateur archaeologists world fame in 1929. Even they, inexperienced as they were, realised there was something totally different about this skull that lay at a greater depth than any - almost blackened with age - and with a notably difference in bone structure. They themselves could only guess at its antiquity and Mrs Peers decided that this small, blackened relic of a prehistoric past could not possibly be transported home in anything as homely as a rucksack. She removed her own hat and laid the skull gently inside - the skull that was to be described by Sir Arthur Keith as being representative of the people who inhabited South Africa 15 000 years ago. It was the largest brained type of humanity so far discovered.

In January 1941 Peers' Cave was declared a National Monument. Photos of Peers Cave are available here, taken by myself.

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