Historical treasure under threat

2011-04-04 00:00

THE Sibudu Cave near Tongaat, which is currently under consideration for Unesco World Heritage Site status, could be under threat if a proposed housing and industrial development adjacent to the site is approved.

Strictly speaking, Sibudu is a rock shelter not a cave, one boasting a long record of occupation between 77 000 and 35 000 years ago during the Middle Stone Age.

Sibudu Cave lies under a huge curve of sandstone cliff carved out by the Tongati River that now flows through the valley below. The surrounding area is under sugar cane, with the cane fields dotted with small homesteads.

Discovered in 1929, Sibudu was first excavated in 1983 by archaeologist Aron Mazel of the Natal Museum. Lyn Wadley, currently honorary professor of the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and also at the Institute for Human Evolution, has been excavating there since 1998.

Wadley, who was recently awarded an international “A” rating as a scientist, will be retiring soon and the excavations at Sibudu will be taken over by Nicholas Conard, professor and chair of the department of early history at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “There are few places on the Earth that have such a complete and wonderful record from the Middle Stone Age as Sibudu,” he says.

According to Wadley, Sibudu was occupied by nomadic hunter-gatherers “in pulses over time”. These “pulses” can clearly be seen in the carefully labelled layers of the excavation. “For example, we can see there were episodes of burning old layers of bedding,” says Wadley. “The bedding consisted of plants and grasses and when it became old and unhygienic they would burn it.”

The various layers and the finds they have provided also document how human technologies changed through this period as well as changes in the natural environment. “We have identified remains of animal bones, seeds and charcoal,” says Wadley. “We have found evidence of vegetation changes in the area. There were yellowwoods at one time, then acacia and then open savannah.”

The animal species changed too. During certain periods species were few, while the upper layers of the excavation provide evidence of as many animal types as you will find in today’s Kruger Park. “There is also evidence of extinct animal species such as the giant buffalo and giant hartebeest,” says Wadley.

Perhaps the jewel in Sibudu’s crown (so far that is) are the 65 000- year-old bone arrowheads, the earliest yet discovered.

Sibudu is also one of only three sites in Africa where sea-shell beads older than 70 000 years have been found. “We have found whole suites of bone tools and stone tools,” says Wadley. The bone tools date back to between 77 000 and 62 000 years.

Sibudu still has much to offer. It is estimated that only 10% of the site has been excavated. “We will be busy here for decades,” says Conard. “The potential for this excavation is that it should go on for generations.”

The finds at Sibudu, and its future potential, have attracted international attention. “Sibudu has produced, and is still producing, finds that explore the beginnings of what it is to be human,” says Peter Mitchell, professor of African archaeology at Oxford University in the UK. “The site is an essential resource for understanding the origins of our own species and a place of outstanding international significance.”

At a recent Unesco meeting in Addis Ababa, the archaeological advisers to the world body on world heritage sites, of whom Conard is one, recommended Sibudu as part of a group of similar sites in South Africa for World Cultural Heritage Site status.

“A Unesco listing is decided on the basis of outstanding universal value,” says Conard. “And the consensus in the international scientific community is that Sibudu has such value.”

If awarded such status, funding would follow and Conard outlined future plans for Sibudu, which include tourist access and a visitor’s centre. “Given the unique status of Sibudu it’s out of the question that a development comprising a thousand houses and light industry go up right next to it,” says Conard. “This will destroy the integrity of the site and damage an item of local heritage that is of global importance. From an archaeological point of view it will be a tragedy.”

This is why there is both local and international concern at the proposed development directly adjacent to the site.

The development, currently called the Wewe Driefontein Mixed Use Development, and comprising 623 hectares, falls within the ambit of the eThekwini Metropolitan, the KwaDukuza Local Municipality and the Ilembe District Municipality. Of the 623 hectares, about 330 have been identified for development. This will include about 3 450 houses, 58 hectares for light and service-industrial operations, 90 hectares designated as a general industrial area and 37 hectares for agriculture and smallholdings, as well as shopping facilities, fuel stations, educational and other community facilities plus the various services and infrastructure required by such a development.

Guy Nicolson of Guy Nicolson Consulting has been appointed by the developer and landowner Pat Conway, operating as Balcomb Portfolio, to undertake and implement the various environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures for the proposed development. The initial scoping process is complete. This identifies interested and affected parties as well as the various issues — environmental, agricultural, heritage — that need to be taken into account. These will be addressed in detail during the EIA.

“The EIA report is currently in preparation,” says Nicolson. “This will include the various specialist reports, including a cultural heritage report, which includes also the issues around the Sibudu Cave.”

Already the scoping report provides evidence of the international interest — and objection — to the siting of the development so close to Sibudu. Letters have been received from experts around the world, as well as the World Archaeological Congress and the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, expressing concern at the potential impact of the development on Sibudu.

“It is impossible to exaggerate the contribution of Sibudu to an understanding not only of the origins of living South African people, but of people throughout Africa and beyond,” says Richard G. Klein, professor of the programme in human biology at the University of Stanford in the United States.

The provincial heritage body, Amafa, has requested a full heritage impact assessment as part of the EIA. But as Sibudu lies outside the development area it seems likely that Amafa will only make suggestions that mitigate the effects of the development. “This would mean a decent boundary between the site and the development,” says James Van Vuuren, “and to create a kind of buffer.”

This won’t please the archaeologists. They’ve been down this road before. Experience elsewhere has shown that unprotected sites near towns or residential estates in South Africa are irreparably destroyed. For example, Rose Cottage Cave, in the eastern Free State and also excavated by Wadley, though declared a National Monument and securely fenced with a padlocked gate, was broken into and vandalised beyond repair.

“Materials that had protected the deposits were removed, the deposits were dug into and fires were lit in the holes,” says Wadley. “100 000 years of history has been lost at that site.”

Sibudu is far more important than many other sites that have been lost to vandalism, she says. “It would be a tragedy if it suffered the same fate as Rose Cottage.”

At present, Sibudu is surrounded by cane fields and a relatively small community. “There has never been any vandalism,” says Conard. “The local residents feel responsible for the site and they also use the site for medicinal and religious purposes.”

Wadley describes the relationship between the site and the community as a respectful one, pointing out the handmade earthen bowl placed on a ledge in the shelter. “It was put there out of respect for the ancestors and to bring good fortune to the site and those working here,” says Wadley.

One or two trees with medicinal properties have had bark cut from them, in noticeably small amounts. “Where there is a small community the footprint is quite light,” says Wadley.

If the development goes ahead that could change dramatically.

RIGHT: Lyn Wadley (left) is honorary professor of the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and Nicholas Conard is professor and chair of the department of early history at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

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