Ancient culture from the Border Cave

The Border Cave, located in the Lebombo Mountains between South Africa and Swaziland, has been occupied for at least 120 000 years.

Archaeologists working on the dig at the Border Cave. (Image: University of Colorado)

Lucille Davie

The Border Cave, a rock shelter on the cliff face of the Lebombo Mountains in the far north-east of KwaZulu-Natal, offers a spectacular view 800m down into the plains of Swaziland, but that’s not the best reason to visit it.

The cave is remarkable because it reveals a continuous record of occupation for 120 000 years – a valuable reference source for anthropologists.

An almost complete skeleton of a child was found among the fossils unearthed – it dates back almost 82 000 years – as well as the remains of five adult hominins in excess of 66 000 years old.

For some time now scientists have pondered the question of when human cultures similar to ours emerged. Until the Border Cave findings were made, archaeologists believed that the oldest evidence of the San Bushman hunter-gatherer culture in southern Africa dated back 20 000 years ago.

Of significance is the fact that the child was buried in a ritual way, covered in ochre. Although the exact meaning of the ochre is not known, it indicates that 82 000 years ago humans were engaging in symbolic cultural practices.

The findings also reveal that 44 000 years ago the inhabitants of the cave were using digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, they wore ostrich egg and marine shell beads, and used notched bones for notational purposes. In addition, they shaped bone points for use as awls – pointed bones for leather working – and poisoned arrowheads, just as modern Bushmen do today.

One arrowhead is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, for easy identification by the owner. A mixture of beeswax, tree resin, and possibly egg, wrapped in vegetable fibres, may have been used for attaching bone points or stone tools to the shaft. A wooden poison applicator retains residues of ricinoleic acid, derived from poisonous castor beans.

The child skeleton is stored in the Wits Medical School archives in Johannesburg. The other Border Cave artefacts are stored at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

International scientific co-operation

This research was conducted by an international team which included Wits University researchers Lucinda Backwell and Prof Marion Bamford, and was led by Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France.

“The findings at Border Cave show the oldest human behaviour as we know it,” says Backwell, a senior researcher at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research.

Whereas other finds, like shell beads and stone tools at Blombos Cave and Still Bay, are much older, going back 75 000 years, it is not yet known what they were used for.

Backwell was involved in research in 2012 on organic material found at the site, in particular bone arrowheads, ostrich eggshell beads, engraved bones, bored stones, and digging sticks. These artefacts belonged to people who lived in the area, and many of the items are still largely used by Bushmen in Botswana and Namibia, living a traditional lifestyle, hunting and gathering, with their language intact.

These artefacts also reveal the shift from the Middle Stone Age to the beginning of the Later Stone Age in South Africa some 56 000 years back, a process that began by “internal evolution”. This shift involved the disappearance of stone spear points in favour of the bow and arrow, and new forms of personal ornaments and gathering equipment.

The cave is several kilometres from the small town of Igwavuma in KwaZulu-Natal. It is reached by a rough dirt road and is some 100m below the mountain top, with a 800m drop into Swaziland. The cave is semi-circular, about 40m across and 15m deep.

Fortunate discovery

Together with the Wonderwerk Cave, Klasies River and other sites, Border Cave is on the Unesco World Heritage tentative list.

It was discovered in 1940 when WE Barton came from Swaziland to collect bat guano to use as fertilizer. His excavations brought several human bone fragments to light – they were examined by renowned paleoanthropologist Prof Raymond Dart. He had originally visited the cave in mid-1934 but a superficial examination revealed nothing.

In 1941 and ’42 a team sponsored by Wits University conducted a more thorough survey. Then again in the 1970s researcher Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley uncovered rich rewards – besides the infant and five hominins, more than 69 000 artefacts and the remains of more than 43 mammal species, three of which are extinct, were recovered.

Also uncovered was the Lebombo Bone, the oldest known artefact containing a counting system, dating to 39 000 years ago. It is a small piece of baboon fibula incised with 29 notches, believed to be similar to the calendar sticks used by modern Bushmen. It’s older than the Ishango Bone, discovered in Central Africa and thought to be around 20 000 years old.

Animal bone fragments revealed the diet of the Border cave people – bushpig, warthog, zebra and buffalo.

60 000 years ago

It is generally accepted that by 60 000 years ago all people in southern Africa were anatomically modern, but this is based only on a scant fossil record of human remains from a few sites – Klasies River in the Eastern Cape, Border Cave, and Die Kelders Cave 1 in the Western Cape, and to a lesser extent on the identification of modern features in human remains from Ethiopia, such as Herto.

They indicate that the initial divergence of African populations was followed by expansion and local and inter-regional migration.

“These processes have contributed to the genetic make-up of contemporary South Africans. The implications of DNA studies are that everyone in the world today can trace their ancestry back to an African origin,” write HJ Deacon and Janette Deacon in Human Beginnings in South Africa, uncovering the secrets of the Stone Age.

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