Diepkloof Rock Shelter

Diepkloof Rock Shelter is a rock shelter in Western Cape, South Africa in which has been found some of the earliest evidence of the human use of symbols, in the form of patterns engraved upon ostrich eggshell water containers. These date around 60,000 years ago.[1][2]

The symbolic patterns consist of lines crossed at right angles or oblique angles by hatching. It has been suggested that "by the repetition of this motif, early humans were trying to communicate something. Perhaps they were trying to express the identity of the individual or the group."[3]

Diepkloof Rock Shelter
General view of Diepkloof Rock Shelter
Map showing the location of Diepkloof Rock Shelter
Map showing the location of Diepkloof Rock Shelter
LocationVerlorenvlei, Western Cape
Coordinates32°23′12″S 18°27′10″E / 32.38667°S 18.45278°ECoordinates: 32°23′12″S 18°27′10″E / 32.38667°S 18.45278°E
GeologyQuartzitic Sandstone
General view of the excavation during 2009 field season
Excavation of the upper part of the deposit

Site description

The cave is about 17 kilometres (11 mi) from the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean in a semi-arid area, near Elands Bay about 150 kilometres (93 mi) north of Cape Town.[2] It occurs in quartzitic sandstone in a butte that overlooks in an east direction 100 metres (330 ft) above the Verlorenvlei River. It contains one of "most complete and continuous later Middle Stone Age sequences in southern Africa"[1] stretching from before 130,000 BP to about 45,000 BP and encompassing pre-Stillbay, Stillbay, Howiesons Poort, and post-Howiesons Poort periods. It is about 25 metres (82 ft) wide and 15 metres (49 ft) deep. Research is based upon finds discovered in a trench excavated within it that is 16 metres (52 ft) across and 3.6 metres (12 ft) in depth. The deposits consist of burnt and nonburnt organic residues and ash that came from hearths, ash dumps and burnt bedding.[1]

It was first excavated in 1973 by John Parkington and Cedric Poggenpoel.[4] Since 1999 it has been researched in a collaboration between the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town and the Institute of Prehistory and Quaternary Geology at the University of Bordeaux.[2]

At Diepkloof Rock Shelter (DRS), from 70-74 ka bifaces and bifacial points are present while less complex forms such as backed artifacts occur from 70 ka through 60 ka and are subsequently replaced with unifacial points. Quartz and quartzite predominate the earliest unit with few occurrences of silcrete. During 70-74 ka unit, silcrete has replaced quartz while quartzite is still fairly dominant. From 65-70 ka quartz becomes dominant again with quartzite also being present.[5]

Engraved ostrich eggshell containers

Some 270 fragments of ostrich eggshell containers have been found covered with engraved geometric patterns. The fragments have a maximum size of 20–30 mm, though a number have been fitted into larger 80 × 40 mm fragments. It is estimated that fragments from 25 containers have been found. Eggshell fragments have been found throughout the period of occupation of the cave but those with engraving are found only in several layers within the Howiesons Poort period. These occur across 18 stratigraphic units, particularly those with the stratigraphic names Frank and Darryl. This suggests the tradition of engraving lasted for several thousand years.[1]

The engraving consists of abstract linear repetitive patterns, including a hatched band motif. One fragment has two parallel lines that might have been circular around the container.

It has been suggested that they form "a system of symbolic representation in which collective identities and individual expressions are clearly communicated, suggesting social, cultural, and cognitive underpinnings that overlap with those of modern people."[1] Moreover, they show "the development of a graphic tradition and the complex use of symbols to mediate social interactions. The large number of marked pieces shows that there were rules for composing designs but having room within the rules to allow for individual and/or group preferences."[1]

Earlier finds exist of symbolism, such as the 75,000-year-old engraved ochre chunks found in the Blombos cave, but these are isolated and difficult to tell apart from meaningless doodles.[3]

The engravings are found on ostrich eggshells that were used as water containers. Ostrich eggshells have an average volume of 1 litre. They may have had drinking spouts, holes to enable them to be strung as a canteen for easier carrying, and seem to have been part of "daily hunter-gatherer life".[1] They involved skill to make, with one of the researchers involved noting "Ostrich egg shells are quite hard. Doing such engravings is not so easy."[3]

Local flora

The preservation of organic matter such as wood, grass, seeds and fruits at the site has been described as "exceptional".[2] Pollen remains allow the identification of the local animals and plants. The Howiesons Poort period shows evidence for thicket or shrubland vegetation now usually found in gorges, such as Diospyros, Cassine peragua, Maytenus, Rhus, and Hartogiella schinoides. Afromontane trees found in the area, include Ficus, Kiggelaria africana, Podocarpus elongatus, and Celtis africana. This suggests a more diversely wooded riverine environment than now present in the area.[1]

Animal remains

Animal remains include those of mammals, tortoises and intertidal marine shells. Most bones found in the cave come from rock hyrax, hares, cape dune mole-rats, steenbok and grysbok. Animals from rocky environments are also found including klipspringer, and vaalribbok. There is also evidence of local grasslands, with remains of zebras, wildebeest and hartebeest. Hippopotamus and southern reedbuck came from the local river. The sea coast seems to have moved up the river, as there are fragments from black mussels, granite limpets, and Cape fur seals. Although there are ostrich-shell remains, no ostrich bones have been found.[1]

Tortoise bones are mostly those of the angulate tortoise that is still found in the area. These are noted to have been "remarkably large compared with their Late Stone Age counterparts, suggesting different intensities of predation between MSA and Late Stone Age populations".[1]

Provincial heritage site

Provincial Heritage Site Marker, Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Elands Bay
Badge indicating that the Diepkloof Rock Shelter is a provincial heritage site

Diepkloof Rock Shelter was declared a provincial heritage site by Heritage Western Cape on 23 September 2014 in terms of Section 27 of the National Heritage Resources Act.[6] This gives the site Grade II status and provides it with protection under South African heritage law.

In 2015, the South African government submitted a proposal to add the caves to the list of World Heritage Sites and it has been placed on the UNESCO list of tentative sites as a potential future 'serial nomination' together with Blombos Cave, Pinnacle Point, Klasies River Caves, Sibudu Cave and Border Cave.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Texier PJ, Porraz G, Parkington J, Rigaud JP, Poggenpoel C, Miller C, Tribolo C, Cartwright C, Coudenneau A, Klein R, Steele T, Verna C. (2010). "A Howiesons Poort tradition of engraving ostrich eggshell containers dated to 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa". Proceedings of the National Acadademy of Science U S A. 107: 6180–6185. doi:10.1073/pnas.0913047107 PMID 20194764
  2. ^ a b c d Tribolo, C. Mercier; Valladas, H. Joron J.L.; Guibert, P.; Lefrais, Y.; Selo, M.; Texier, P.-J.; Rigaud, J.-Ph.; Porraz, G.; Poggenpoel, C.; Parkington, J.; Texier, J.-P.; Lenoble, A. (2009). "Thermoluminescence dating of a Stillbay–Howiesons Poort sequence at Diepkloof Rock Shelter (Western Cape, South Africa)". Journal of Archaeological Science. 36 (3): 730–739. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.10.018.
  3. ^ a b c Amos, J. (2010). Etched ostrich eggs illustrate human sophistication. BBC News
  4. ^ Parkington, J., Poggenpoel, C. (1987). "Diepkloof Rock Shelter". In: Parkington, J., Hall, M. (Eds.), Papers in Prehistory of the Western Cape, South Africa, vol. 332. BAR International, pp. 269–293. ISBN 978-0-86054-425-8
  5. ^ Mackay, Alex; Marwick, Ben (2011). "Costs and benefits in technological decision making under variable conditions: examples from the late Pleistocene in southern Africa". Keeping your Edge: Recent Approaches to the Organisation of Stone Artefact Technology.
  6. ^ Provincial Notice 253/2014, Province of the Western Cape Provincial Gazette Extraordinary, No. 7310, Cape Town: 23 September 2014
  7. ^ "The Emergence of Modern Humans: The Pleistocene occupation sites of South Africa". UNESCO. Retrieved 3 April 2015.

External links

Art of the Middle Paleolithic

The oldest undisputed examples of figurative art are known from Europe and from Sulawesi, Indonesia, dated about 35,000 years old (Art of the Upper Paleolithic).

Together with religion and other cultural universals of contemporary human societies, the emergence of figurative art is a necessary attribute of full behavioral modernity.

There are, however, some examples of non-figurative designs which somewhat predate the Upper Paleolithic, beginning about 70,000 years ago (MIS 4).

These include the earliest of the Iberian cave paintings, including a hand stencil at the Cave of Maltravieso, a simple linear design, and red paint applied to speleothems, dated to at least 64,000 years ago and as such attributable to Neanderthals. Similarly, the Blombos Cave of South Africa yielded some stones with engraved grid or cross-hatch patterns, dated to some 70,000 years ago, but they are attributed to Homo Sapiens.

In September 2018, scientists reported the discovery of the earliest known drawing by Homo sapiens, which is estimated to be 73,000 years old, much earlier than the 43,000 years old artifacts understood to be the earliest known modern human drawings found previously.

Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave is an archaeological site located in Blomboschfontein Nature Reserve, about 300 km east of Cape Town on the Southern Cape coastline, South Africa. The cave contains Middle Stone Age (MSA) deposits currently dated at between c. 100,000 and 70,000 years Before Present (BP), and a Late Stone Age sequence dated at between 2000 and 300 years BP. The cave site was first excavated in 1991 and field work has been conducted there on a regular basis since 1997, and is ongoing.The excavations at Blombos Cave have yielded important new information on the behavioural evolution of anatomically modern humans. The archaeological record from this cave site has been central in the ongoing debate on the cognitive and cultural origin of early humans and to the current understanding of when and where key behavioural innovations emerged among Homo sapiens in southern Africa during the Late Pleistocene. Archaeological material and faunal remains recovered from the Middle Stone Age phase in Blombos Cave – dated to ca. 100,000–70,000 years BP – are considered to represent greater ecological niche adaptation, a more diverse set of subsistence and procurements strategies, adoption of multi-step technology and manufacture of composite tools, stylistic elaboration, increased economic and social organisation and occurrence of symbolically mediated behaviour.

The most informative archaeological material from Blombos Cave includes engraved ochre, engraved bone ochre processing kits, marine shell beads, refined bone and stone tools and a broad range of terrestrial and marine faunal remains, including shellfish, birds, tortoise and ostrich egg shell and mammals of various sizes. These findings, together with subsequent re-analysis and excavation of other Middle Stone Age sites in southern Africa, have resulted in a paradigm shift with regard to the understanding of the timing and location of the development of modern human behaviour.

On 29 May 2015 Heritage Western Cape formally protected the site as a provincial heritage site.Cross-hatching done in ochre on a stone fragment found at Blombos Cave is believed to be the earliest known drawing done by a human in the world.

Border Cave

Border Cave is a rock shelter on the western scarp of the Lebombo Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal near the border between South Africa and Swaziland. Border Cave has a remarkably continuous stratigraphic record of occupation spanning about 200 ka. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens skeletons together with stone tools and chipping debris were recovered. Dating by Carbon-14, amino acid racemisation and electron spin resonance places the oldest sedimentary ash at some 200 kiloannum.Excavations for guano in 1940 by a certain W. E. Barton of Swaziland, revealed a number of human bone fragments and were recognised as extremely old by Professor Raymond Dart, who had visited the site in July 1934, but had carried out only a superficial examination. In 1941 and 1942, a team sponsored by the University of the Witwatersrand carried out a more thorough survey. Subsequent excavations in the 1970s by Peter Beaumont were rewarded with rich yields. The site produced not only the complete skeleton of an infant, but also the remains of at least five adult hominins. Also recovered were more than 69,000 artifacts, and the remains of more than 43 mammal species, three of which are now extinct.Also recovered from the cave was the "Lebombo Bone", the oldest known artifact showing a counting tally. Dated to 35,000 years, it is a small piece of baboon fibula incised with 29 notches, similar to the calendar sticks used by the San of Namibia. Animal remains from the cave show that its early inhabitants had a diet of bushpig, warthog, zebra and buffalo. Raw materials used in the making of artifacts include chert, rhyolite, quartz, and chalcedony, as well as bone, wood and ostrich egg shells.

The west-facing cave, which is near Ingwavuma, is located about 100 m below the crest of the Lebombo range and commands sweeping views of the Swazi countryside below. It is semi-circular in horizontal section, some 40 m across, and formed in Jurassic lavas as a result of differential weathering.A set of tools almost identical to that used by the modern San people and dating to 44,000 BP were discovered at the cave in 2012. These represent the earliest unambiguous evidence for modern human behaviour.In 2015, the South African government submitted a proposal to add the cave to the list of World Heritage Sites and it has been placed on the UNESCO list of tentative sites as a potential future 'serial nomination' together with Blombos Cave, Pinnacle Point, Klasies River Caves, Sibudu Cave and Diepkloof Rock Shelter.

Canteen (bottle)

A canteen is a drinking water bottle designed to be used by hikers, campers, soldiers and workers in the field. It is usually fitted with a shoulder strap or means for fastening it to a belt, and may be covered with a cloth bag and padding to protect the bottle and insulate the contents. If the padding is soaked with water, evaporative cooling can help keep the contents of the bottle cool. Many canteens also include a nested canteen cup.

Primitive canteens were sometimes made of hollowed-out gourds, such as a calabash, or were bags made of leather.

Later, canteens consisted of a glass bottle in a woven basket cover. The bottle was usually closed with a cork stopper.

Designs of the mid-1900s were made of metal — tin-plated steel, stainless steel or aluminum — with a screw cap, the cap frequently being secured to the bottle neck with a short chain or strap to prevent loss. These were an improvement over glass bottles, but were subject to developing pinhole leaks if dented, dropped or bumped against jagged rocks.

Contemporary designs are almost exclusively made of one of several types of plastics, especially polyethylene or polycarbonate. They are typically as light as, or lighter than, their metal equivalents and are quite resistant to developing leaks, even when dropped or severely bumped.

Hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari use ostrich eggshell as water containers in which they puncture a hole to enable them to be used as canteens. The presence of such eggshells dating from the Howiesons Poort period of the Middle Stone Age at Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa suggests canteens were used by humans as early as 60,000 years ago.

Cave dweller

A cave dweller, or troglodyte (not to be confused with troglobite), is a human being who inhabits a cave or the area beneath the overhanging rocks of a cliff.

Common ostrich

The common ostrich (Struthio camelus), or simply ostrich, is a species of large flightless bird native to Africa. It is one of two extant species of ostriches, the only living members of the genus Struthio in the ratite order of birds. The other is the Somali ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes), which was recognised as a distinct species by BirdLife International in 2014 having been previously considered a very distinctive subspecies of ostrich.The common ostrich shares the order Struthioniformes with the kiwis, emus, rheas, and cassowaries. However, phylogenetic studies have shown that it is the sister group to all other members of Palaeognathae and thus the flighted tinamous are the sister group to the extinct moa. It is distinctive in its appearance, with a long neck and legs, and can run for a long time at a speed of 55 km/h (34 mph) or even up to about 70 km/h (43 mph), the fastest land speed of any bird. The common ostrich is the largest living species of bird and lays the largest eggs of any living bird (extinct elephant birds of Madagascar and the giant moa of New Zealand laid larger eggs).

The common ostrich's diet consists mainly of plant matter, though it also eats invertebrates. It lives in nomadic groups of 5 to 50 birds. When threatened, the ostrich will either hide itself by lying flat against the ground, or run away. If cornered, it can attack with a kick of its powerful legs. Mating patterns differ by geographical region, but territorial males fight for a harem of two to seven females.

The common ostrich is farmed around the world, particularly for its feathers, which are decorative and are also used as feather dusters. Its skin is used for leather products and its meat is marketed commercially, with its leanness a common marketing point.

Egg decorating

Egg decorating is the art or craft of decorating eggs. It is quite a popular art/craft form because of the attractive, smooth, oval shape of the egg. Any bird egg can be facilitated in this process, but most often the larger and stronger the eggshell is, the more favoured it will be by decorators.


Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing and is not covered in this article.

Engraving was a historically important method of producing images on paper in artistic printmaking, in mapmaking, and also for commercial reproductions and illustrations for books and magazines. It has long been replaced by various photographic processes in its commercial applications and, partly because of the difficulty of learning the technique, is much less common in printmaking, where it has been largely replaced by etching and other techniques.

"Engraving" is also loosely but incorrectly used for any old black and white print; it requires a degree of expertise to distinguish engravings from prints using other techniques such as etching in particular, but also mezzotint and other techniques. Many old master prints also combine techniques on the same plate, further confusing matters. Line engraving and steel engraving cover use for reproductive prints, illustrations in books and magazines, and similar uses, mostly in the 19th century, and often not actually using engraving.

Traditional engraving, by burin or with the use of machines, continues to be practised by goldsmiths, glass engravers, gunsmiths and others, while modern industrial techniques such as photoengraving and laser engraving have many important applications. Engraved gems were an important art in the ancient world, revived at the Renaissance, although the term traditionally covers relief as well as intaglio carvings, and is essentially a branch of sculpture rather than engraving, as drills were the usual tools.

Heritage Western Cape

Heritage Western Cape (HWC) is a provincial heritage resources authority established by the Minister of Cultural Affairs and Sport of the government of the Western Cape province in South Africa. It is a public entity set up under the terms of the National Heritage Resources Act. It is mandated to care for that part of South Africa's national estate that is of provincial and local significance in the Western Cape. It may delegate responsibility for heritage resources of local significance to competent municipal governments.Heritage Western Cape is best known as the custodian of approximately 2,500 provincial heritage sites, but is also responsible for administration of other forms of protection of heritage established under the terms of the National Heritage Resources Act.

Howieson's Poort Shelter

Howieson’s Poort Shelter is a small rock shelter in South Africa containing the archaeological site from which the Howiesons Poort period in the Middle Stone Age gets its name. This period lasted around 5,000 years, between roughly 65,800 BP and 59,500 BP.

This period is important as it, together with the Stillbay period 7,000 years earlier, provides the first evidence of human symbolism and technological skills that were later to appear in the Upper Paleolithic.

Howiesons Poort

Howiesons Poort (also called HP) is a lithic technology cultural period in the Middle Stone Age in Africa named after the Howieson’s Poort Shelter archeological site near Grahamstown in South Africa. Research published in 2008 showed it lasted around 5,000 years between roughly 65,800 BP and 59,500 BP.Humans of this period as in the earlier Stillbay cultural period showed signs of having used symbolism and having engaged in the cultural exchange of gifts.Howiesons Poort culture is characterized by tools that seemingly anticipate many of the characteristics, 'Running ahead of time', of those found in the Upper Palaeolithic period that started 25,000 years later around 40,000 BP. Howiesons Poort culture has been described as “both ‘modern’ and ‘non-modern’”.

John Parkington (archaeology)

John Parkington is an Emeritus professor in archaeology and hunter-gatherers, paleoenvironmental reconstruction and human ecology, prehistoric art, coastal archaeology.

List of caves

This is a list of caves of the world, sorted by continent and then country.

List of caves in South Africa

The following is a list of caves of in South Africa. A cave or cavern is a natural underground space large enough for a human to enter. Some people suggest that the term cave should only apply to cavities that have some part that does not receive daylight; however, in popular usage, the term includes smaller spaces like sea caves, rock shelters, and grottoes.

Middle Stone Age

The Middle Stone Age (or MSA) was a period of African prehistory between the Early Stone Age and the Later Stone Age. It is generally considered to have begun around 280,000 years ago and ended around 50–25,000 years ago. The beginnings of particular MSA stone tools have their origins as far back as 550–500,000 years ago and as such some researchers consider this to be the beginnings of the MSA. The MSA is often mistakenly understood to be synonymous with the Middle Paleolithic of Europe, especially due to their roughly contemporaneous time span, however, the Middle Paleolithic of Europe represents an entirely different hominin population, Homo neanderthalensis, than the MSA of Africa, which did not have Neanderthal populations. Additionally, current archaeological research in Africa has yielded much evidence to suggest that modern human behavior and cognition was beginning to develop much earlier in Africa during the MSA than it was in Europe during the Middle Paleolithic. The MSA is associated with both anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) as well as archaic Homo sapiens, sometimes referred to as Homo helmei. Early physical evidence comes from the Gademotta Formation in Ethiopia, the Kapthurin Formation in Kenya and Kathu Pan in South Africa.

Pinnacle Point

Pinnacle Point a small promontory immediately south of Mossel Bay, a town on the southern coast of South Africa. Excavations since the year 2000 of a series of caves at Pinnacle Point have revealed occupation by Middle Stone Age people between 170,000 and 40,000 years ago. The focus of excavations has been at Cave 13B (PP13B), where the earliest evidence for the systematic exploitation of marine resources (shellfish) and symbolic behaviour has been documented, and at Pinnacle Point Cave 5–6 (PP5–6), where the oldest evidence for the heat treatment of rock to make stone tools has been documented. The only human remains have been recovered from younger deposits at PP13B which are c. 100,000 years old.


Redelinghuys is a village in the Bergrivier Local Municipality in the Western Cape province of South Africa, located about 160 kilometres (100 mi) north of Cape Town on the Verlorevlei River. The 2001 Census recorded the population as 581 people in 167 households. The village is situated on the R366 regional route between Piketberg and Elands Bay. It is served by a police station, a public library, a satellite health clinic, and two primary schools.

Redelinghuys lies between patches of blue gum trees and is surrounded by a rocky hillside. Redelinghuys is known as the Potato Capital of the Sandveld, and is also the area where the rooibos grows in its natural state and where Rooibos tea is freely available. The town has a predominantly Victorian architecture.

Sibudu Cave

Sibudu Cave is a rock shelter in a sandstone cliff in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is an important Middle Stone Age site occupied, with some gaps, from 77,000 years ago to 38,000 years ago.

Evidence of some of the earliest examples of modern human technology has been found in the shelter (although the earliest known spears date back 400,000 years). The evidence in the shelter includes the earliest bone arrow (61,000 years old), the earliest needle (61,000 years old), the earliest use of heat-treated mixed compound gluing (72,000 years ago), and the earliest example of the use of bedding (77,000 years ago).The use of glues and bedding are of particular interest, because the complexity of their creation and processing has been presented as evidence of continuity between early human cognition and that of modern humans.

University of Cape Town

The University of Cape Town (UCT) is a public research university located in Cape Town in the Western Cape province of South Africa. UCT was founded in 1829 as the South African College making it the oldest higher education institute in South Africa. It is jointly the oldest university in South Africa and the oldest extant university in Sub-Saharan Africa alongside Stellenbosch University which received full university status on the same day in 1918.

UCT is the highest-ranked African university in the QS World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, and its Commerce, Law, and Medicine Faculties are consistently placed among the hundred best internationally. It is the only African member of the Global University Leaders Forum (GULF), within the World Economic Forum, which is made up of 26 of the world's top universities. The language of instruction is English.

The Emergence of Modern Humans
Prehistoric cave sites, rock shelters and cave paintings

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