A window into 16,000 years ago

Although the skeletons found at Faraoskop (our current site) were all buried ~2000 years ago, the site itself shows evidence of occupation dating back to over 16,000 years ago.

This we know by discovering artefacts over different stratigraphic layers, and these you can date with radiocarbon dating.

Only a small part of the Faraoskop rock shelter has been excavated, but despite this we’ve found some amazing artefacts. These were excavated in different layers, and so date back to different times, though unfortunately before UCT archaeologists could arrive at the site, the farmer had dug up a fair amount of material and so the date of these is more difficult to attain. None the less, they all reveal a lot about how these hunter-gatherers were surviving…

Here are some which I stumbled across the other day;

Reed arrows (note how one is fletched and the remnants of plant fibre wrapped around the top)


…and the bone arrow tips (showing remnants of red ochre). These were attached with mastic (tree resin)


Antelope leather stitched together to make material (layer 1, ~670 years old)


Ornamental beads made from bone and seeds (found in all layers: from ~670 to ~16,500 years ago)


String made from plant fibres (found in layer 1, ~670 years old)


Bone ‘spatulas’ used in cooking (note how they’ve been smoothed and a groove made in the middle)


So Faraoskop was occupied multiple times over the last ~16,000 years, by different generations and groups of San. Clearly these groups were actively hunting, cooking (there’s also evidence of fire use), making clothing and other materials, decorating themselves with ornamental jewellery, and crafting string. Not mentioned here are the numerous stone tools (found up to the deepest layer ~16,000 years old), pottery, decorated ostrich eggshell, mussel shells (used as scrapers), and animal bones also found. The change in the species of animal over the layers can reveal changes in climate – we’ve found a shift from large grazers (like buffalo) to small browsers (like bushbuck) over 16,000 years, indicating the decline of grassland and proliferation of fynbos bushes and trees (so cooler to warmer temperatures).

Finding these sorts of artefacts allows us to peer into the life of southern African hunter-gatherers from the late Pleistocene to recent times. But Hominins have been crafting material items since at least 2.5 million years ago (though probably longer – see this and this), gradually gaining the cognitive and technical ability to dream up and make ever more complex tools (such as these bone spatulas and fletched arrows). So our findings represent only the very end of an incredibly long object-manipulating process that has slowly been perfected since the hominin and chimpanzee lineages split ~6.5 million years ago.

Faraoskop tool evolution

Aren’t we amazing?


One thought on “A window into 16,000 years ago

  1. Amazing that ‘string technology’ has remained unchanged for at least 16,000 if not 2.5M years! That looks exactly like the piece I’m untangling this morning.


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