Public Lecture by Prof. Sarah Wurtz
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The Klasies River landscape encompasses four separate cave sites situated on a 2,5 km stretch of the scenic Tsitsikamma coast close to the town of Kareedouw. Current excavations by a University of Witwatersrand team collaborating with several local and international groups are focused on one of these sites, Klasies River main site. Main site contains extensive Late Pleistocene deposits dating to between ~120 and 55 000 and, after a lengthy occupational hiatus, evidence for Holocene occupation between 4800 and 2300 years ago. Fisher-hunter-gatherers that inhabited the site in numerous waves through time, left behind their visiting cards in characteristic stacked shell middens that built up to a height of 21 metres. The middens contain abundant marine species such as seals, shellfish and fish as well as well-preserved faunal remains of a variety of species, some of them, such as the giant buffalo and bluebuck, extinct. Rare finds of macro plant fossils indicate that, as for current hunter-gatherers, plant foods formed an important part of the diets in the past. The data collectively indicate that even the earliest groups from Klasies River were competent fisher-hunter-gatherers that carefully scheduled their foraging trips according to the rhythms of nature. They were cognitively similar to people living today, as the analysis of the operational procedures followed in making and utilizing cultural items such as the ochre, fauna and stone artefacts show. Klasies River main site was a favoured place for an unusually extended period of time, and as such provide a remarkable window into the lifeways and cognition of early Homo sapiens ancestors that settled in this area. According to recent genetic studies South Africa occupies a central position in the evolutionary phylogenetic tree of Homo sapiens. Due to the Klasies River’s landscape’s significance to understand modern human origins it has been declared as a National Monument in 2016. This talk shall discuss how Klasies River main site contributes to understanding of the globally and universally important issue of modern human origins.