Comment and Analysis

Serendipity in Mwulu's Cave

Staff Reporter

Serendipity, coincidence, synchronism, eureka moments -- these have garnished my life-track beyond all expectation. The most striking serendipitous occurrence of my student years marked my first visit to the cave I was subsequently to name Mwulu's Cave.

Serendipity, coincidence, synchronism, eureka moments—these have garnished my life-track beyond all expectation. The most striking serendipitous occurrence of my student years marked my first visit to the cave I was subsequently to name Mwulu’s Cave.

Brian Maguire, who had accompanied us on our first Makapansgat expedition in 1945, was a remarkable, largely self-taught field botanist. He had been a science student at Wits University until he developed some behavioural oddities. One expression of these was his addiction to tea, of which he drank about “40 to 50” cups a day. It had taken a lot of persuading before Maguire agreed to come on the Makapansgat expedition, and I believe it was a turning-point in his rehabilitation (and he eventually came back to Wits and finished his degree).

In the course of a conversation, Maguire mentioned that, high above his father’s old farms, Spanje and Portugal, a yellowwood tree (Podocarpus latifolius) had taken root in the cramped confines of a small cave. Unable to grow erect, it had been impelled towards the cave mouth, growing horizontally. It was an unusual botanical phenomenon and Brian said he would like to show the tree to me.

Maguire’s two farms were at the foot of the massif that marks the eastern face of the highveld, about eight kilometres east of the Makapansgat Valley. When we arrived at the farms, one still inhabited by tenants, the other in ruins, we were faced with a fairly steep climb up the west face of the massif. After some serious leg-work we found ourselves in a wide neck of the mountains, opening up to a marvellous view of the lowveld more than a thousand metres below us. Straight ahead, to the east, was the country- side made famous by Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick in his 1907 book, Jock of the Bushveld. To the north, beyond the glinting roofs of Pietersburg (renamed Polokwane) nearby and Louis Trichardt (now Makhado) afar, towered the distant Zoutpansberg. From this elevated position, we commanded a view westwards to the peaks of the Waterberg. To the south lay the open plain of the Springbok Flats and beyond that, far to the south, though not visible by day, was the lofty pile of Pretoria (now Tshwane). Black eagles soared, not above us, but far below, while on some easterly buttresses we saw Chacma baboons at play. It was exhilarating and, coming on it so suddenly, I quite lost my breath.

Pausing there, drinking in the picturesque scene, it was all too easy to allow myself to become mesmerised by its sheer spectacle, but we had come for another purpose. “The cave is up here,” Brian urged gently, and we clambered up the right or southern shoulder of the neck. The final approach to the cave mouth was a vertical ascent and all of a sudden we had arrived.

There was the podocarp tree, growing in its cramped surroundings, rooted in the sandy floor of the cave filling. Brian pointed out the features from which he had identified the species. With the cave roof low over our heads, I was down on all fours to have a closer look at the tree’s diagnostic traits as Brian expounded on them. In that position my hands were in the soft, sandy deposit of the floor. Suddenly I felt a hard object beneath the surface. I pulled it out and it was easily recognisable as a stone tool of an era long past. With its prepared platform and absence of secondary trimming on the flake surface, it would have been quite at home in the Pietersburg Culture (as we called it then), a phase in the southern African Middle Stone Age which went back some 50 000 to 100 000 years from the present. If there was one stone artefact just where my hand had alighted on the sandy deposit, it was very likely that there were more in the deposit into which the yellowwood tree had sent down its roots.

I subsequently organised and led a party, comprising Ollerais Mollett, Percy Barkham, Anthony Allison, Owen Jones and myself, to excavate the cave. Jones was a member of the Anatomy Department’s technical staff and the other four of us had obtained our Medical BSc and Honours degrees in the department. As already mentioned in Chapter 5, six months earlier I had learned the art and skill of making an archaeological “dig” at Rose Cottage Cave in the eastern Free State, under the tutelage of “Berry” Malan and “Peter” van Riet Lowe. As a result, I was given a permit to excavate the Mwulu’s Cave deposit. We camped on the leeward side of the mountain and each day clambered up to the cave with equipment, water and padkos (food for the road). Each evening we came down the precipitous descent with our carefully labelled bags of artefacts. From the cave mouth we could watch great storms growling ominously across the low-lying ground to the east, sweeping up the sheer face of the Strydpoort mountains—and then crashing over the top where the klipspringers (small mountain antelopes, Oreotragus oreotragus) held sway, or howling through the neck. If we had made it in time, we listened to the rain pounding on our canvas tent, each raindrop a teaspoonful of water.

Over 3 000 stone tools were recovered from three strata of increasing technical complexity from below upwards. It was the first archaeological excavation of a cave deposit that had been made in the former Transvaal province (this part of which is now the Limpopo Province).

You go to search for something—an odd tree—and you find something else, something that may prove to be even more important than that which you had set out to examine! This is the essence of serendipity.

The cave had no specific name up to then, but Constantine Duncan (‘Con’) Maguire told me that an old Zulu recluse named Mwulu had been living there early in the 20th century. Indeed, a few of his broken potsherds were still lying around on the surface of the deposit. For this reason I gave the site the name Mwulu’s Cave, by which it is still known today.

The three stratified Middle Stone Age deposits were characterised by a progressive sequence of technologically more advanced industries. For example, in the lowermost stratum there was scarcely any trace of secondary trimming on the artefacts; this technical trait was rather more frequent in the second cultural stratum from the base, and more common and more elaborate on the artefacts in the third or highest stratum. An interesting feature was the presence of pieces of ochre and specularite in the upper two strata. Two of these took the form of deliberately fashioned specularite ‘pencils’, such as might have been used for making markings on a surface like human skin. The walls of the cave were made of quartzite and had a jagged and irregular surface that was totally unsuitable for mural paintings. Moreover, there was no trace of painting on any part of the cave’s walls and roof. Body-adornment in life or on the dead at burial was the most likely explanation. Their evident interest in these colouring materials was corroborated when we found a well-shaped, neat little pestle with which it seems likely they had crushed pieces of ochre. What was so very interesting about the context of these finds is that these signs of artistic behaviour were manifest here as early as the Middle Stone Age. At that time, in 1947, nothing of the kind had been recovered in any cultural assemblages earlier than the Later Stone Age. Mwulu’s Cave gave us the first signs of artistic activity at that great depth in time.

Twenty years later, in 1967, Adrian Boshier and Peter Beaumont, supported by Raymond Dart, found signs of purportedly early mining activity at Ngwenya in Swaziland. From a re-excavation of Border Cave, the scene of early modern-looking Homo sapiens, the presence of a notched baboon fibula, specimens of ochre, some of them ground, supported the evidence that artistic and by indirect inference symbolic behaviour had appeared already in the African Middle Stone Age. The discovery of red ochre slabs with man-made designs engraved upon them and dated to 78 000 years ago was recently announced by Chris Henshilwood. They were found in Blombos Cave in the Western Cape province.

Whether or not the evidence for early mining is accepted, and doubts have been expressed by some, all the other pieces of evidence, starting with the Mwulu’s Cave pieces I published in 1949, add up to a strong case that, already in the Middle Stone Age and perhaps as long ago as 100 000 years before the present, human beings in southern Africa were capable of artistic and symbolic activity.

Into the Past is published by Picador Africa. It is part of Exclusive Books’s Publishers’ Choice promotion for the festive season

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