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African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience

Palaeoscape

by Maggie Newman

A visualization of the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain off Mossel Bay some 60 000 years ago during a moderate cold phase (glacial). In the distant background is the ridgeline of the current coastline some 30 km away, and the snow-capped Outeniqua Mountains. The vast and monotonous plain is drained by a languid, meandering Gouritz River which has formed extensive wetlands behind the barrier of coastal dunes. The plain is underlain by fertile soils which support a dense and productive grassland which is home to large herds of grazing mammals. These include several extinct forms such as longhorn buffalo, giant Cape zebra, and giant hartebeest and bluebuck, as well as the springbok, eland, waterbuck, zebra and other plains game still found roaming the African tropical grasslands today. The midground shows a group of modern humans at a campsite on a sandy, limestone ridge beneath a large white milkwood tree. On the left, children are collecting fire wood from the dune thicket and protea veld, while two men return from a hunt with bluebuck (centre), and two young women are offloading their harvest of intertidal shellfish. In the foreground, young women are decorating their faces with ochre, prepared using a grinding stone and stored in a perlemoen shell. Nearby, a girl is making a necklace of shells. The women on the right, backed by the huge horn of the longhorn buffalo, are preparing to cook the corms of geophytes collected in the surrounding veld. By contemporary Cape standards, this was a highly productive landscape yielding large amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrate for human consumption. However, harvesting these resources would have required advanced cognitive skills. Thus the technology used by these people was very advanced, comprising for example, small blades fashioned from cores of heat-treated silcrete rock that were used as spear tips.