Archaeologists Find Oldest Home in Human History, Dating to 2 Million Years Ago

Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa also houses the first known fire use, and another collection of useless crystals – but this one is half a million years old

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Wonderwerk Cave, which stretches back 140 meters today but 150 meters two million years ago (or if a realtor is describing it).
Wonderwerk Cave, which stretches back 140 meters today but 150 meters two million years ago (or if a realtor is describing it).Credit: Wonderwerk Cave Project
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Archaeologists have found the oldest home in hominin history. Unsurprisingly, it is a cave: Wonderwerk Cave in the Kalahari Desert. Astonishingly, it has been occupied more or less continuously for two million years. Through most of that time, modern humans didn’t even exist.

In Wonderwerk Cave, archaeologists have found evidence that archaic humans lived inside the cave around 2 million years ago,  the earliest-ever use of fire at a million years and earliest hand axes at over a million years,  report Ron Shaar, Ari Matmon, Liora Kolska Horwitz, Yael Ebert and Michael Chazan in Quaternary Science Reviews

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Two million years ago, our ancestors were still small-brained but were definitely bipedal. We don’t know when our ancestors left the trees and began to stride the Earth upright, but we seem to have begun to trade arborealism for bipedalism during our australopithecine phase. That began about 4 million years ago. The point at which we discovered the virtues of shelter is even murkier.

In fact, the purpose of the latest team, led by the geologists Shaar and Matmon, had been to validate the postulated 2-million-year-old timeline of the cave, and now that’s been done.

That said, it isn’t actually 100 percent clear which archaic humans lived in that cave. Not one smidgen of a single human bone, not one single tooth, has ever been found there in the near-century of the cave’s excavation, Horwitz tells Haaretz.

Ron Shaar sampling for paleomagnetism in Wonderwerk Cave.Credit: Wonderwerk Cave Project

That may be because in contrast to, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls caves, this one is on ground level. You don’t have to climb down from a cliff top to get there; nobody went inside by accident, nor is it some out-of-the-way place to hide a body or two. Proto-hyenas on the other hand could get in easily. “The earliest excavators drove in and parked in the front of the cave,” Horwitz says. But for two million years, the hominins clearly used the cave and used tools there and dined there.

This is the earliest-known use of tools beneath a “roof,” rather than in the open air, the archaeologists explain.

Walking the walk

For all the recent discoveries regarding human evolution, much of our truly ancient history remains shrouded in murk. There were myriad types of archaic hominin in Africa and later in Eurasia as well; there seems to have been a lot of mixing; and we don’t know who our direct ancestors were, though we can make learned guesses.

We recently learned that the early australopiths living 3.6 million years ago had human-like feet on which they could stride. We also know they did walk upright, as we find from fossil trails. But they also had ape-like shoulders, indicating they had not abandoned the arboreal way of life; they could theoretically swing branch to branch, and australopithecine kiddies may even have retained primitive foot structure until maturity, enabling them to escape ground-bound predators by lurking in trees.

Wonderwerk Cave in the Kalahari Desert.Credit: Michael Chazan

We also know that hominins were starting to make crude stone tools at least 3.3 million years ago, so the tools found in the Wonderwerk Cave are not the earliest known. But they are the earliest known to be found in the context of the cave life, Shaar explains to Haaretz. It is from his resampling of the cave that the validation of the dates is based.

The goal of the paper in Quaternary Science Reviews is actually  to revisit the dating of Wonderwerk Cave, a deep cavern running 140 meters to its end. A rarity in that part of the Kalahari, the cave was discovered by farmers in the 1940s and has been under excavation more or less since then.

In 2008, archaeologists Prof. Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto and Horwitz reported it as the earliest evidence of cave-dwelling hominins. At the time, they thought all this dated to some 2 million years; others thought that nonsense. Now the dating has been validated.

At the time, they deduced that the oldest stone tools had been  made and deposited in the cave by the hominins, as opposed to being washed in by flooding. That opinion has not changed, Shaar tells Haaretz.

The entrance to Wonderwerk Cave. The stalagmite was a later addition.Credit: Michael Chazan

Who actually lived there? There were multiple hominids in southern Africa at the time. Chazan and the team in 2008 surmised that the most likely tool-maker was Homo habilis.

Horwitz today is more cautious. "Many  options and absolutely no clue in the cave," she says. "She points out that around 2 million years South Africa was home to at least two types of australopithecines, 2.3 million to 1.5 million years ago, and also early Homo. Says Horwitz: "We are placing a sure bet on early Homo, since we are not very adventurous gamblers."  

The hypothesis of the baked hominin

Just this year we learned that somebody in the Kalahari was collecting useless junk 105,000 years ago – namely, crystals. They couldn’t have originated in the cave where they were found and nobody (today) could think what use they might have had. That was touted as the oldest collection of non-utile, non-functional stuff in the world, and hence to indicate symbolic thinking.

But somebody else in the Kalahari was collecting useless junk 500,000 to 300,000 years ago, Horwitz tells Haaretz. That was the oldest collection of non-utile, non-functional stuff in the world. She and Chazan wrote up the crystals in 2009 in World Archaeology.

Local South Africans being given a guided tour of Wonderwerk Cave.Credit: Michael Chazan

In that paper, Horwitz and Chazan also address the properties of the depths of Wonderwerk Cave – why on earth would early hominins go that deep anyway, given that it would be pitch black? One possibility they suggest is that precisely because it was dark, the hominins could hide from predators there.

Another possibility is that the rear of the cave offered sensory experiences, and it was for that purpose – to get prehistorically blitzed – that the hominins ventured in that far. (Completely separately, Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University and his team have demonstrated that fire use in the depths of narrow caves can lead to hypoxia, which can cause hallucinations.)

Supporting this hypothesis of the thoroughly baked hominin are the seemingly pointless crystals, augmented by some chalcedony pebbles, and ocher.

Why else might seemingly useless little stones be brought to the black depths of a cave? The cave is quite enormous, 140 meters in depth (let’s say) by over 25 meters in width, and these stones didn’t occur there naturally.

Early Stone Age handaxe - background is the Wonderwerk cave entranceCredit: Wonderwerk Cave Project
Rock art of an elephant at Wonderwerk Cave. Credit: Wonderwerk Cave Project

Among the signs of advanced cognitive ability, the archaeologists believe they have found indications that ocher may have been used there 500,000 to 300,000 years ago – hundreds of thousands of years earlier than thought.

"We have evidence for unusual symbolic activity in Wonderwerk dating around 400,000-500,000 years ago, which predates Middle Stone Age sites like Blombos [where early etchings have been found] –. People were sitting at the back of the cave, 140 meters from the entrance. They don't appear to have been making tools there," said Chazan. In the dark.

As for symbolic thinking and the ocher – use earlier than 300,000 years has been controversial; in Wonderwerk it seems to predate that, and may have been used half a million years ago.

Speaking of tools, this cave that keeps on giving, has also provided some of the oldest-known hand-axes in southern Africa, dating to well over 1 million years. Earlier hand-axes dating to 1.7 million years have been found in East Africa.

Ocher lump found in WonderwerkCredit: Michael Chazan/Wonderwerk Cave R
An ancient stone tool found at the cave.Credit: Michael Chazan/Wonderwerk Cave Research

Also regarding our more immediate Middle Stone Age ancestors, Wonderwerk has more surprises up its sleeve.  It isn't one of those caves that support the idea that our forebearers wined and dined on seafood, as shown at other sites clustered on South Africa's coast. It's inland, near the town Danielskuil amid the dry and sunbleached rocks of the Kuruman Hills and over 700 kilometers (435 miles) from the nearest beach.

Chazan points out that till recently, the thinking in archaeological circles had been that in the Middle Stone Age, the interior was arid and hominins clung to the coasts. But Wonderwerk clearly shows human activity in the cave 240,000 years ago, showing that the interior wasn’t that dry.

The hearth of the matter

For about half the two million years the cave was in use, it seems its occupants were warming themselves and/or possibly even barbecuing.

They may not have had control of fire in the sense that they knew how to ignite it but a million years ago, they were certainly using it. Burned bones, burned stones, burned soil and ash have been found  30 meters in from  the cave mouth – which was probably at least 40 meters back when, Chazan explains to Haaretz. (The cave mouth would have eroded in all this time.) That's too deep inside the cave to have been caused by a wildfire, he explains.

The postulation is that they may have “harvested” fire, taking advantage of naturally caused bushfires, taking a burning twig back to the cave, and that sort of thing.

“We don’t have combustion features like at Qesem [Cave in Israel]. We’re talking about a burned patch, not a proper constructed hearth,” he qualifies. But it is nonetheless solid evidence of fire use a million years ago.

In time, modern humans evolved and so did rock art, and indeed Wonderwerk Cave has that too. It also boasts some of the earliest known “mobile art” in the world, meaning done on small rocks that could be carried about.

“These pieces of art can be dated because they are in situ in the  archaeological layers,” Horwitz explains. Elsewhere in the Kalahari, surviving rock art is engraved or painted on large boulders or cave walls – also, however, the same subjects: animals, geometric forms and people.

As said, the cave isn't occupied today per se but it remains a spiritual place for local people, who associate it with a snake spirit. Given the total absence of actual hominin remains, Horwitz  and Chazan do not shrink back from suggesting that the cave may have served a special purpose, even way back before modern humans even existed.

They point out that it's a rarity in its region, and also, that it would have been a landmark in the area since it features a great hulking stalagmite by its entrance –that goes back some tens of thousands of years. In Wonderwerk, the proto-human imagination predates even that towering monument of sedimentation by eons.

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