Some of the engraved ostrich eggshells, dating back between 65 000 and 80 000 years, which were found at Diepkloof Rock Shelter. Supplied
Cape Town - Many may know little about the archaeological site near Piketberg, where more than 400 engraved ostrich eggshells, dating from around 65000 to 80000 years ago, were discovered.

Diepkloof Rock Shelter has garnered international attention among scientists and the US consulate in Cape Town has given Heritage Western Cape a grant of more than R450000 to help conserve it and promote it as an attraction globally.

The site has been declared a provincial heritage site and South Africa has submitted a proposal to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to add it and five other sites to the list of world heritage sites.

According to archaeologists, the rock shelter might provide evidence that the province was part of the landscape in which humans first appeared and shed more light on early human innovation.

John Parkington, an emeritus professor in the department of archaeology at UCT, was one of the first archaeologists to study the shelter. “(Archaeologist) Cedric Poggenpoel and I started excavating Diepkloof in 1973, looking for evidence of hunter gatherer people in the Western Cape Sandveld,” he said.

“By 1986 we had established that the occupation deposits at this large rock shelter extended back many tens of thousands of years, that people had been coming there for 100000 years or more, ancestors of the San people.”

Some of the engraved ostrich eggshells, dating back between 65 000 and 80 000 years, which were found at Diepkloof Rock Shelter. Picture: Supplied
Some of the engraved ostrich eggshells, dating back between 65 000 and 80 000 years, which were found at Diepkloof Rock Shelter. Picture: Supplied

Around that time they found fragments of ostrich eggshells on which designs had been made. Whole shells had apparently been used as water flasks.

“This, we realised, was amongst the earliest evidence of the intentional marking of artefacts found anywhere in the world. It was older than the famous paintings of Europe and Australia, although we preferred to call it ‘marking’ rather than art. We assumed it might have been the San ancestors’ way of indicating ownership - distinguishing my from your water flask.”

In the late 1990s the pair were joined by French archaeologists and were able to make larger and deeper excavations.

“After 2000 we were able to show that there were hundreds of these small fragments of marked ostrich eggshell, and that they dated to between 65000 and 80000 years ago, the earliest intentional, probably symbolic, markings then known.”

By this time it was clear to archaeologists that Homo sapiens had originated in Africa and quite possibly in southern Africa.

“Genetic studies of living people, the dating of skeletal materials and the early appearance in southern Africa of innovative artefactual tool-making made this undeniable. Now we know that early use of mastics for sticking stone tools on to wooden hafts, heating of stones to make them more flakeable, heavy use of ochre, marking of ostrich eggshell and systematic uses of caves and rock shelters all point to more sophisticated thinking and very rapid technological developments.

“We were also able to point out that these early innovative humans in southern Africa were the earliest people to begin large-scale regular consumption of sea foods - visible in the shell middens we have around the coast from 150000 years ago. Sea foods are known to be valuable brain foods.

“As things stand, and well reflected in the Unesco nomination for Diepkloof, Blombos and Pinnacle Point - all near-shore sites - we can now show that the Western and Southern Cape were certainly a part of the landscape in which our species first appeared.”

US Consul General Virginia Blaser said the US was proud to invest in preserving “this important part of our shared human history”. “As it was 100000 years ago, the Western Cape remains today a cradle for human innovation and industry that impacts the entire world. The US is committed to both preserving this history and investing in South Africa’s future.”

Wesgro chief executive Tim Harris said: “This grant will go a long way in preserving the evidence that the development of modern human behaviour did... start in the Western Cape, positioning our destination as the ‘Cradle of Human Culture.’”

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