Unlocking the find of a century

2018-01-30 06:01
will add captions on the page. peers cavePHOTOS: Fish Hoek Valey Museum

will add captions on the page. peers cavePHOTOS: Fish Hoek Valey Museum

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The town of Fish Hoek may be 100 years old, but there were people making the valley their home hundreds of years earlier.

Some of these early inhabitants lived in one of Fish Hoek’s landmarks – Peers Cave.

The cave was discovered in the 1920s by Fish Hoek resident Victor Peers (after whom the cave is named) and his son Bertie.

Victor was born in Australia, where the family lived on a farm, and he grew up with an interest in plants. When the South African War broke out in 1899, he joined the army and was part of the Australian contingent sent to support the British troops. He was wounded and sent to the Cape to recover, and as his strength returned he walked in the mountains around Cape Town and discovered the Cape flora.

When he was repatriated at the end of the war, he married and emigrated to Cape Town with his young wife, Bella, and settled in Wynberg. He took a job with the railways, working in the ticket office at Cape Town Station. In 1920 Victor and Bella Peers, with their son Bertie and daughter Dulcie, moved to the new village of Fish Hoek where they built a house in Fifth Avenue. Bertie inherited his love of nature from Victor and devoted all his spare time to animals – and particularly snakes.Exploration

In 1926, the father and son began exploring a sand dune that dominated the valley, rising up over 122m. A series of shifting dunes led up from the beach to the foot of this highest sandhill and this is where they found a shallow, ledge-shaped cave.

What was then known as the Schildergat Cave housed an assortment of seashells and bones, nearly all covered. The cave became the father and son’s new passion and it was not long before they came across early stone tools while sifting through the shells and rubble.

Victor took his discoveries to the University of Cape Town where John Goodwin, the first South African to train as an archaeologist, was busy establishing the Department of Archaeology. As there was no qualified archaeologist available to excavate the cave, Victor and Bertie were instructed in archaeological techniques. After a practice dig in a cave above Kalk Bay, they spent all their spare time over the next two years working in the cave.

The pair discovered fragments of woven reeds, mother-of-pearl ornaments, pieces of rope, bone awls and arrow points, stone choppers of a crude, shell-opening type, bored stones, beads of ostrich eggshell, and other objects showing that these people led the life of Strandlopers or Beachcombers.

As the excavation progressed they uncovered a shell midden up to one and a half metres thick and several thousand years old. The remains of six people – two women and four children – were buried below this layer and with them were found ostrich eggshell beads, shell pendants and a piece of rusted European iron.

Digging deeper

This find drove the father and son to excavate deeper, and they discovered a lower strata. By now father and son realised they could no longer continue unaided – the lower stratum and the rock would have to be blasted by professional means – and so there was an interruption in their labours from February 1928 while they reassessed the whole project and prepared themselves in every way for what might lie in store by studying and perfecting modern archaeology techniques.

In this strata, the Peers made even more important discoveries: a few rough specimens of implements belonging to the Stellenbosch period of the Earlier Stone Age, dated at around half a million years ago.

However, their most exciting find was a small skull that was to bring these two amateur archaeologists world fame in 1929.

The skull, which lay at a greater depth than any other and was almost blackened with age, had notabale differences in bone structure to the previous remains found.

The skull was later described as being “representative of the people who inhabited South Africa 15 000 years ago”.

The cave became known as ‘Peers Cave’, and the little skull was named ‘The Fish Hoek Man’.

V Compiled from Fish Hoek, Looking Back by Joy Cobern and The Story of Peers Cave by Cedryl Greenland, as published in Fish Hoek Fossickings by Dr John ­Clifford.

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