Compelling symbols and patterns created in the sand by human activity in the Western Cape that might date back to between 70 000 and 158 000 years ago were discovered. This image shows a circle with a central depression. Photo: Supplied
Cape Town – A new discovery might confirm the Cape as the Cradle of Human Culture after researchers found the activity of making images in the sand locally could date back to between 70 000 and 158 000 years ago.

Research associate at the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience at Nelson Mandela University Dr Charles Helm and his team announced their findings last month, which was Heritage Month.

In 2016 Helm, his wife Linda and their friend, Guy Thesen, discovered fossilised human footprints in rock surfaces in a cave near Knysna.

Over the past decade Helm’s team of researchers has discovered over 140 fossil track sites along this coastline, made by reptiles, birds and mammals.

Helm said: “We asked the following questions: In addition to recording the fossil footprints of ancient humans, could those ancient dune and beach surfaces have recorded other evidence of human activity, such as patterns, symbols, sculptures, or evidence of foraging? 

"If so, could such ancient canvases of sand, now preserved as surfaces of coastal rocks, leave evidence that can be discerned and interpreted today? Indeed, could such evidence form a previously undocumented form of Middle Stone Age human expression and activity?”

Once Helm and his team hypothesised this idea they went on to look for a human "signature" on rock surfaces which contained a multitude of lines, grooves, patterns and shapes, and reported on their findings at eight selected sites on the Cape South Coast: two in the Garden Route National Park, five in Goukamma Nature Reserve and one east of Stilbaai.

The researchers' main challenge was to look for evidence that these symbols and patterns were created by humans in sand and had not been formed as a result of natural agents such as wind, water, fossil roots and branches, or traces made by invertebrates, reptiles, birds or other mammals.

Of the eight sites, some were reported as being equivocal, whereas others seemed more compelling, such as a near-perfect circle with a central depression that hinted at how it may have been created, a "hashtag" (chevron) pattern that appeared similar to known abstract art in Blombos Cave, or an array of grooves clustered around a possible human footprint.

Samples were taken and sent for dating. Based on previous dating studies obtained from rocks in this region, the team anticipate that the results are likely to provide a range of 70 000 to 158 000 years.

Wesgro chief executive Tim Harris congratulated Helm on the latest findings.

“It provides further evidence that the development of modern human behaviour started in the Western Cape. This new discovery will form part of the Cradle of Human Culture, which was launched earlier this year,” Harris said.

Cape Times