Archaeological sites in Pinnacle Point, Mossel Bay in South Africa's Western Cape province have been declared provincial heritage sites, which brings the area one step closer to being named a World Heritage Site, scientists working in the area announced on Monday.
Scientists from the South African Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology, and Palaeoanthropology (SACP4) Project are studying Pinnacle Point, which has yielded some of the earliest evidence for modern human behaviour.
"Pinnacle Point is significant because it's a uniquely dense concentration of well- preserved archaeological sites which contain a record of human occupation over a period of about 170 000 years - from the time when modern human behaviour first emerged to the pre-colonial period," head of the project, Professor Curtis Marean, said in a statement.
Marean is associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University in the United States.
"This is a significant step towards having Pinnacle Point declared a World Heritage Site."
Pinnacle Point will be put forward for National Heritage Site status before an application can be made to have it declared a World Heritage Site, Marean said.
'Revealing archaeological remains'
An environmental impact assessment of land to be developed as the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort revealed the first archaeological remains in 1997.
The survey, carried out by Jonathan Kaplan and Peter Nilssen, showed various stone age sites and evidence of human habitation in the caves dating back thousands of years.
Marean began working on the sites in 2000 and released the initial results of the SACP4 project in a paper called "Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene", which he co-authored with Nilssen and 10 other people and which was published in international science journal Nature in October 2007.
"We found that the people who lived in the Caves approximately 164 000 years ago were systematically harvesting shellfish from the coast; that they were using complex bladelet technology to produce complex tools; and that they regularly used ochre as pigments for symboling," Marean said.
It provided some of the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour, he said.
"Much of the global climate was hostile to human habitation in that age, but the south coast of South Africa provided the conditions and vegetation that our earliest ancestors needed for their survival."
Measuring reactions to climate change
The research is also expected to provide insight into how humans react to climate change by studying the local climate from 400 000 to about 30 000 years ago.
"Isotopes embedded in dripstone formations and other mineral deposits in the caves - speleothems, raised beaches, fossil dunes, and other palaeontological assemblages - reveal information about the water which filtered into the caves in the past, and this in turn provides information about what kind of climate existed and what type of vegetation grew above the caves during periods of human habitation," Marean said.
"So by correlating our knowledge of the climate with what we're learning about the habits of the people who lived in the Caves, we hope to learn how humans can be expected to adapt to climate change in the future."
The archaeological sites will also grow the local Mossel Bay economy, as Pinnacle Point is already attracting high numbers of scientists, students and volunteers and is expected to attract more in future.
"With plans in place for a museum that will showcase and interpret what's being found here, we believe that Mossel Bay will soon rank alongside places like the Cradle of Humankind and Olduvai Gorge as one of Africa's most sought-after evo-tourism destinations," said Mossel Bay mayor Marie Ferreira.