Durban - One of South Africa’s most important archaeological sites and KwaZulu-Natal’s own “Cradle of Humankind” is at risk from a proposed development, scientists fear.

Excavations at Sibudu Cave, situated in a cliff face alongside the uThongathi River near Ballito, have unearthed some of the world’s oldest artefacts dating back 77 000 years.

The cave is now one of five South African sites that have been shortlisted for Unesco World Heritage status.

However, those associated with Sibudu as a site of cultural and educational wealth are concerned that the Wewe/Driefontein Development, which will extend over 621 hectares, will destroy the site’s integrity, losing potential World Heritage site status and desecrating this archaeological wonder.

KDC Projects and Developments was granted approval to go ahead with construction earlier this year.

But, interested parties, including the non-profit organisation, Friends of Sibudu, have lodged an appeal with the MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs over a portion of the land that has been earmarked for a low-cost housing development.

In a presentation to representatives of KwaDukuza and Ilembe municipalities last week, internationally renowned archaeologist, Professor Lyn Wadley, Charlotte Mbali of Friends of Sibudu and Gavin Whitelaw of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum explained the importance of the site as well as a proposal to develop the area into a tourist attraction mirroring the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng.

The preferred site for the tourism “theme park” is above the cliff face. It has easy access from the R614, and there is space for the development of an indigenous forest, offices and buildings. It allows for a scenic walk along the river to the site.

Professor Nicholas Conard of Germany’s University of Tübingen is presently leading the excavations.

He and two others have since set up the Sibudu Trust, also with the aim of preserving the site.

Wadley of the University of Witwatersrand was involved in excavations between 1998 and 2011.

“Sibudu has potential to be a World Heritage Site for all of humanity,” she said.

“Archaeological excavations have only taken place in two percent of the total area.”

She explained that the site allowed for the quality preservation of thousands of artefacts, among them a 65 000-year-old arrowhead which was recognised as the oldest in the world, reed bedding dating back to 77 000 years ago, and decorative shellbeads.

“The importance of these (perforated shellbeads) is that they show people living then wanted to identify themselves, it shows status and group identity. Identity is symbolism which shows modern thought. These people had minds like ours and the people who lived here were the first modern humans. They are the ancestors of all of us.”

To give a scope of the importance of Sibudu, Wadley said 100 scientific papers had been written on it internationally and in 2011, with the discovery of the oldest known bedding, there had been 600 media reports worldwide in a single day.

She also emphasised that for a site to receive World Heritage status, it must satisfy the conditions for integrity which means keeping the site, and its surrounds, intact.

Mayor Sibusiso Welcome Mdabe of Ilembe District, accompanied by councillors, went on a tour of the site:

“I only learnt of this site two to three months back,” explained Mdabe, who was visibly impressed by what he had learnt.

“This has to become a World Heritage Site and we need to develop this as a tourism attraction.”

He said this would go a long way towards creating job opportunities and improving the lives of the local community.

“We need to engage with the developer diplomatically and begin a process of evaluation, looking at all the issues. We will not take radical steps here,” Mdabe said.

Operations director of KDC Projects and Developments, Pat Conway, said the demand for a 200ha buffer zone was unreasonable. “First, Sibudu Cave is not on our site. We have provided a 200-metre buffer which is sufficient.”

Conway said they had followed the required steps, dealing with all necessary authorities, ensuring an archaeologist had checked the site for artefacts, obtaining permission from the KZN heritage conservation agency, Amafa, and engaging with the Ndwedwe community.

“This is an integrated development which is fully in line with government’s National Development Programme. We consulted with the Ndwedwe community and they desperately want the housing and employment.”

Conway said they respected Sibudu as a heritage site but that any development for tourism could come from the other side of the river, which he described as having easier access.

Daily News