16 Years of Archaeological Survey on our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors at Diepkloof Rock Shelter (West Coast, South Africa) – By Guillaume Porraz

Guillaume Porraz obtained a PhD in Prehistory from the University of Aix-Marseille (2005), followed by post-doctorates at the University of Cape Town (2006-2008) and the University of Tuebingen (2008-2010). He has been a CNRS Research Fellow since 2010, first at the University of Paris X-Nanterre, then at IFAS since 2013. Guillaume is a specialist on lithic technology and focusses on the evolution of technical systems in hunter-gatherer societies. His field surveys are preferentially on Western Europe (France and Italy) and South Africa.

People are usually curious and fascinated when it comes to prehistoric archaeology. Through meticulous and well-thought-out fieldwork, archaeologists unearth cultural and biological archives that are sometimes buried for hundreds of thousands of years, endeavouring to interpret them in order to protect a heritage, recover a memory and, in the end, understand the adaptations and mechanisms observed in human societies.

The objective of prehistory is basically to study human societies before writing. The main phase of our 16-year survey revealed a peculiar economy relying on hunting and gathering. While the period surveyed seems rather distant if not foreign, we must remember that hunter-gatherers were still dominating the Cape plains only a few centuries ago. Today, populations of hunter-gatherers are still found living in the Kalahari, although their confinement to specific are as goes against their very subsistence logic.

This testimony of otherness strikes every individual who ventures into the Drakensberg or the Cederberg, and is surprised by the figurative or abstract rock art found there, marking places of memory. Likewise, otherness appears to each person who visits the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand or the Iziko Museum in Cape Town.

Yet, prehistory is also a challenge for the imagination: although there is no need to invent our past, we must first be able to think about the vastness of time and space. Prehistoric research can then be divided into several intelligible, thematic and/or chronological sections. One of the major questions posed in this regard concerns the origin of our species, i.e. the anatomically modern man or homo sapiens sapiens.

The most recent research based on the anatomical and palaeogenetic study of human remains, agrees to recognise that our species originated in Africa, probably from East Africa, and goes back to around 200 000 BP. However, our common strain would only have scattered over the whole of Africa then Eurasia much later, around 50 000 BP. Diversification and spreading scenarios tend to be complex in this regard. It is in this context that the Diepkloof Rock Shelter project was born: what happened between 200 000 and 50 000 BP on the African continent? What decisive changes can explain the future success of the first societies of anatomically modern men?


Figure 1. Montée vers l’abri Diepkloof (West Coast, Afrique du Sud). Qui ouvre la marche, P.-J. Texier (CNRS), responsable de mission de 2005 à 2013 (© C. Haddeck, UCT).

The excavation project at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter sprang from the initiative of Jean-Philippe Rigaud, then CNRS Project Leader at the University of Bordeaux 1. With a view to standardising and opening international relations, Jean-Philippe Rigaud launched as early as 1997 a prospection programme in South Africa, in close collaboration with Prof. John Parkington of the University of Cape Town. The site of Diepkloof Rock Shelter (Figure 1) stood out among others, and excavation works began there in 1998, right through to the site closure in 2013. The programme, headed by Pierre-Jean Texier (Project Leader at the CNRS) from 2005 onwards, benefited from the financial support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the University of Bordeaux, the Aquitaine and Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur Regions, the Fyssen and Alexander von Humboldt Foundations, the National Science Foundation (NSF) as well as the University of Cape Town, to mention only the main partners.

Diepkloof is situated in the West Coast District, around 200 km north of Cape Town and 12 km away from the actual Atlantic shoreline. It is a vast shelter of around 250 m² (Figure 2) overlooking the mouth of the Verlorenvlei, a small coastal river, at around 100 masl. The Diepkloof Rock Shelter dominates the environment which is made up of multiple ecological niches marked by the influence of Table Mountain rock formations, dunes from the Quaternary, the ocean and the river.

 LESEDI_PORRAZ_FIGURE_2Figure 2. Vue générale de la fouille à l’abri Diepkloof (2013, ©P.-J. Texier, CNRS).

The history of human occupation in Diepkloof begins with the fall of an enormous block at the entrance level, thereby protecting the shelter and favouring sedimentation within the site. Today, the sedimentary sequence, with no major discontinuity, has been explored at a depth of around 3 m, informing a chronological interval dating between 110 000 and 50 000 BP (luminescence dating). Thanks to this excavation, it was possible to identify the Diepkloof Rock Shelter as a very significant site for the study of that period, as were the Sibudu (Kwazulu-Natal) and Blombos (Western Cape) sites.

 The first exceptional feature of the Diepkloof site is the quality of the sedimentary recordings. The first objective of the archaeologist is to be able to recognise and individualise chronological strata that are sufficiently thin to lead to the recording of material remains, displaying strong chronological and cultural coherence between them. At the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, while sedimentation does include natural inputs (such as quartz grains from the shelter’s decomposition), it includes above all inputs of anthropic origin, related to combustion activities in particular. These activities, marked by the presence of fireplaces, ash spreading or, still, vegetal beddings voluntarily burned (a practice still recently documented), have favoured the superposing (and identification) of sedimentary lenses. To date, more than 50 archaeological units have been distinguished on the main sequence of the Diepkloof Rock Shelter.

The second exceptional feature relates to the warm and dry microclimate of the shelter, which contributed to the conservation of organic remains that are exceptional for the study of that period. This is true for the botanical remains, composed of charcoal, seeds and, more incredibly, flowers as well as fruit (Figure 3). This panel of remains is complemented by the presence of animal remains testifying to the diversity and wealth of subsistence practices. As such, these populations not only hunted, as testified by the remains of antelopes (kudu, springbok, eland etc.), but also collected large quantities of tortoises and ostrich eggs. Incidentally, these populations practiced opportunistic scavenging along the shores of the Atlantic, as shown by the discovery of the very peculiar Coronula diadema shellfish, common parasite living exclusively on the back (…) of the humpback whale.

LESEDI_PORRAZ_FIGURE_3Figure 3. Exemples (à gauche) de deux Protéa découverts à l’abri Diepkloof et exemple (à droite) d’un spécimen actuel. Ces fleurs de Protéa, aujourd’hui symbole de l’Afrique du Sud, ont été introduites et abandonnées par les habitants de Diepkloof il y a plus de 80 000 ans. (©P.-J. Texier, CNRS).

While these remains offer precious information on the environment and on the way resources were exploited by these populations, organic remains discovered in Diepkloof concern another field of knowledge altogether, that of technique. This is the case for certain organic deposits discovered at the back of tools made of stone, i.e. residual deposits from glue meant to facilitate tool prehension. In prehistoric studies, technology is a privileged domain of investigation. In a technological study, describing the artisanal know-how of populations makes it possible to envisage traditions, structures and economies that, subsequently, will lead to shedding light on the adaptation and innovation processes governing the rhythm of change in human societies.

Moreover, technology makes it possible to go beyond the history of events linked to activities in the site, so as to set them against cultural phases and areas. The Middle Stone Age (MSA) which spreads from around 200 000 to 20 000 BP, is subdivided into several technical phases. The Diepkloof Rock Shelter informs several of these phases and, a rare thing, encompasses both Still Bay (characterised by the manufacture of bifacial points) and Howiesons Poort (characterised by the presence of blades and geometric tools) periods, these two phases being central to the current scientific controversy on MSA.

There is a last category of remains which we have not yet mentioned, and which contributes to South African MSA sites in general, and Diepkloof in particular, being so famous, i.e. remains of a symbolic nature. Here we simplify symbolic practice by including any form of expression (whether figurative or abstract) of which the completion, meaning and understanding concern codified knowledge. Older evidence of symbolic practices could point to the use of ochre, a ferruginous material found along the Diepkloof Rock Shelter sequence. However, its interpretation, whether utilitarian or symbolic, is open to debate. Other Diepkloof discoveries did not raise so many questions, as was the case for the exceptional collection of hundreds of ostrich egg fragments incised with regular geometric designs, such as hatched stips or lines almost parallel (Figure 4). Like ceramics from more recent periods, these ornate eggs served as bottles or recipients; they were central to collective life and a medium for symbolic communication.


Figure 4. Exemples de fragments doeufs d’autruche incisés de motifs géométriques. Ces oeufs, après avoir été consommés, étaient utilisés comme « bouteille » par les populations de Diepkloof. Cette collection exceptionnelle, composée de près de 400 fragments, couvre un intervalle chronologique qui se concentre entre 80 000 et 50 000 ans avant nos jours. Ces oeufs gravés sont aujourd’hui le plus ancien témoignage connu d’un mode de communication symbolique reposant sur une codification graphique (© P.-J. Texier, CNRS).

The diversity of evidence on the shelter’s activities, the quality of sedimentary recordings and the palaeoenvironmental signs gave us a chance to reconstruct, in an unprecedented manner, the changes that affected the societies of modern men in Southern Africa between 110 000 and 50 000 BP. Thanks to the arrhythmia of these changes, we were able to consider that combined internal and external factors were behind the advent of these so-called “modern” societies. Looking briefly at the evidence found at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, we can account for populations who, around 80 000 BP, were mastering ceramics, organising their living spaces, travelling over several dozens of kilometres to find mineral, vegetal and animal resources, manufacturing glue to put handles on their tools, reducing ochre to powder and engraving geometric decorations on ostrich eggs used routinely and collectively, all these behaviours revealing highly organised societies with complex thinking, similar in some respects to societies that existed still a few centuries ago. However, these changes were in no way deterministic or pointing to a linear trajectory.

Indeed, towards 50 000 BP, an entire panel of behaviours disappears from archaeological recordings, leading prehistorians to think about their own theoretical and epistemological frameworks.

Where Diepkloof is part of a research context particularly active in South Africa, it would be unwise to see our knowledge renewal relying solely on archaeological studies. With excavations initiated for the past two decades by the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town, as well as the University of Tübingen (Germany), Oxford University (UK), the Arizona State University (US) or the University of Toronto (Canada), research is about to change our perception of history on a long-term basis. The discovery of tools made of bone, shells used as pendants, engraved blocks of ochre or, still, new major techniques, illustrates the wealth of ideas marking that period of history. Among the sites behind this new knowledge, Diepkloof is on the front line, highlighting the wealth of South African archaeological heritage, the wealth of past societies and our duty to understand these.


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