Protect the West Coast: our heritage

Diepkloof Shelter hand prints.

The West Coast of South Africa is an open museum, where countless archaeological, palaeontological and historical sites can be found.

You will see old mission stations, outposts, forts, whaling and fishing stations, historical monuments and other structures built between the 17th and 20th Century by European colonial powers. You might also find World War II radar stations.

Then there are archaeological shell middens, near-shore Stone Age artefact scatters, caves and rock shelters, and also rock art.

Added to this list are older palaeontological sites that formed before and while humans walked on this land. Many of these relate to the history of sea levels tied to glacial climatic cycles: important shelly sedimentary formations and fossil-bearing deposits. These include mineralised animal bones, old marine terraces and relict shorelines, but also shell and plant microfossils.

And lastly, there are rare and scientifically significant occurrences of meteorites that fell on the West Coast.

Kreefbaai C megamidden, Lamberts Bay Main section.

This critically important list forms a part of our heritage and is therefore legally protected by the South African Heritage Resources Act of 28 April 1999 (Act Nº 25).

Since the promulgation of the Environment Conservation Act in 1989, and the heritage resources act in 1999, archaeologists, palaeontologists and historians have played an important role in Environmental Impact Assessments when Heritage Impact Assessments are also required.

Until the late 1980s, Stone Age sites on the West Coast were largely undisturbed because housing and tourism demands preferred Cape Town and places in the southern parts of this coastline. However, this changed quickly in the 1990s with the increase in diamond mining in Namaqualand, and rampant residential developments unfolding south of Lamberts Bay.

The impact on archaeological sites has been devastating. At least there is a record of many coastal heritage sites as enacted under heritage legislation. However, this effort has had variable success. There is a lack of insufficient pre-emptive action in identifying and protecting heritage sites. Heritage authorities are understaffed. There is often poor follow-up in the study of sites excavated as part of mitigation measures. Insufficient knowledge among some environmental specialists about heritage matters often results in a failure to include important archaeological sites and heritage areas in conservation plans.

PKM Shelter, Elands Bay.

The relationship of humans and the ocean is profound, and ancient. Evidence for isolated or sporadic visits to this coast by early hominids goes back 600 thousand years ago (Earlier Stone Age). There are more regular stays by modern humans about 120 thousand years ago. This presence ranks among the earliest examples of human reliance on coastal environments in the world.

Precolonial settlements (archaeological sites) are often located behind rocky shores near sources of drinking water, including river mouths and estuaries, and also frequently in caves, shelters, around and on top of koppies. The continuous accumulation of discarded marine shells formed the main or most visible component of these sites and are known as “shell middens”.

Steenbokfontein cave and koppie.

From north to south, the best-known examples are the swathes of shell middens (Later Stone Age) that cover the low dunes of Port Nolloth. You will find middens in Spoegrivier Cave in Namaqualand; Steenbokfontein Cave just south of Lamberts Bay; and Elands Bay Cave at the foot of Baboon Point. A dozen very large open shell middens – or megamiddens – can also be found on this coast, including the Paternoster area, while deep open middens are visible around a group of granitic koppies known as Kasteelberg.

Further south are the ancient and semi-fossilized Middle Stone Age sites of Hoedjiespunt in Saldanha Bay and Yzterfontein-1 at the Yzerfontein harbour. Countless other archaeological sites exist between the Orange River mouth and Cape Point.

Yzerfontein, view of excavations.

Rock art is often found near coastal sites where you find rock walls. The paintings on them are visual expressions of spiritual beliefs and myths. They conveyed and helped to maintain deep cultural and social meanings among KhoiSan people.

Fat-tailed sheep rock paintings, Steenbokfontein.

Shell middens are also known to be places where human burials took place. Careful excavation often shows the care taken to place the body in a flexed position. Sometimes, one or two objects or ochre were left as grave goods. Mixed among the discarded shells are the remains of other meals, such as ostrich eggshell fragments, bones of seals, seabirds, fish, tortoises and bucks of various sizes. When preservation is very good, vestiges of plant foods in the form of plant fibre, corms and casings are encountered.

Ostrich egg shell beads, Lamberts Bay.

Stone artefacts, beads and pendants made of diverse materials (and charcoal and ash from hearths) are common in sites near the coast. Sherds from ceramic pots are often present in shell middens that are not older than two thousand years.

Stone artifacts and a ceramic fragment, Strandfontein.

The contents of shell middens can talk much about the lives of past coastal dwellers when studied in detail.

In post-Apartheid South Africa, the deep pre-colonial history of its people must be protected. It needs to be rescued, brought forward and appreciated for what it is, and for the lessons that can be learned from it. These learnings include our ancient origins and our adaptation to a changing landscape and variable climate, including very dry periods analogous to current climate change.

There are lessons about large-scale exploitation of coastal resources and social tensions over a thousand years – well before the fishing industry became established in the Cape. There are lessons about the advent of animal husbandry and the use of ceramics about 2000 years ago. There are lessons in the contact with Europeans that came to the same shores with ships, guns, germs, slavery and different rules about how the world should move and work.

Example of early European structures, Ebaneezer.

With all its wondrous and sometimes shocking outcomes, this is a history that humbles us. We are part of a long and interconnected web of events that help us understand where we come from and how we choose to go forward.

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