Diepkloof Rock Shelter

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Site type:
-32.38, 18.45
South Africa

Diepkloof Rock Shelter is a rock shelter in Western Cape, South Africa in which has been found some of the earliest evidence of the human use of symbols, in the form of patterns engraved upon ostrich eggshell water containers. These date around 60,000 years ago.

The symbolic patterns consist of lines crossed at right angles or oblique angles by hatching. It has been suggested that "by the repetition of this motif, early humans were trying to communicate something. Perhaps they were trying to express the identity of the individual or the group."

The cave is about 17 kilometers (11 mi) from the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean in a semi-arid area, near Elands Bay about 150 kilometers (93 mi) north of Cape Town. It occurs in quartzitic sandstone in a butte that overlooks in an east direction 100 meters (330 ft) above the Verlorenvlei River. It contains one of "most complete and continuous later Middle Stone Age sequences in southern Africa" stretching from before 130,000 BP to about 45,000 BP and encompassing pre-Stillbay, Stillbay, Howiesons Poort, and post-Howiesons Poort periods. It is about 25 meters (82 ft) wide and 15 meters (49 ft) deep. Research is based upon finds discovered in a trench excavated within it that is 16 meters (52 ft) across and 3.6 meters (12 ft) in depth. The deposits consist of burnt and unburnt organic residues and ash that came from hearths, ash dumps, and burnt bedding.

It was first excavated in 1973 by John Parkington and Cedric Poggenpoel. Since 1999 it has been researched in a collaboration between the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town and the Institute of Prehistory and Quaternary Geology at the University of Bordeaux.

At Diepkloof Rock Shelter (DRS), from 70 to 74 ka bifaces and bifacial points are present while less complex forms such as backed artifacts occur from 70 ka through 60 ka and are subsequently replaced with unifacial points. Quartz and quartzite predominate the earliest unit with few occurrences of silcrete. During the 70-74 ka unit, silcrete has replaced quartz while quartzite is still fairly dominant. From 65 to 70 ka quartz becomes dominant again with quartzite also being present.