|Location||Kuruman Hills between Danielskuil and Kuruman|
|Excavation dates||1940s ongoing|
|Archaeologists||B.D. Malan, Peter B. Beaumont, Karl W. Butzer, Anne Thackeray & Francis Thackeray|
Wonderwerk Cave is an archaeological site, formed originally as an ancient solution cavity in dolomite rocks of the Kuruman Hills, situated between Danielskuil and Kuruman in the Northern Cape Province, South Africa. It is a National Heritage Site, managed as a satellite of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. Geologically, hillside erosion exposed the northern end of the cavity, which extends horizontally for about 140 m (460 ft) into the base of a hill. Accumulated deposits inside the cave, up to 7 m (23 ft) in-depth, reflect natural sedimentation processes such as water and wind deposition as well as the activities of animals, birds, and human ancestors over some 2 million years. The site has been studied and excavated by archaeologists since the 1940s and research here generates important insights into human history in the subcontinent of Southern Africa. Evidence within Wonderwerk cave has been called the oldest controlled fire. Wonderwerk means "miracle" in the Afrikaans language.
The cave contains up to 6 m (20 ft) depth of archaeological deposits reflecting human and environmental history through the Earlier, Middle and Later Stone Ages to the present. Cosmogenic dating suggests that basal sediment entered the cave some 2 million years ago.
Rock art occurs in the form of parietal paintings within the first 40 m (130 ft) from the entrance, possibly all less than 1000 years old, and small engraved stones found within the deposit, mainly from the Later Stone Age sequence where they date back some 10,500 years. The associations of older engraved or striated pieces have yet to be substantiated.
Major damage was caused in the 1940s when local farmers dug up large parts of the cave interior to bag and sell organic-rich material as fertiliser – which in fact comprised stratified archaeological deposits containing artifacts, bone and other material that would have been crucial to an understanding of the cultural and palaeoenvironmental history of the site. The presence of bone was reported upon, leading to the first archaeological and zooarchaeological investigations.
The initial archaeological studies of the 1940s, by Malan, Cooke and Wells, were followed up briefly by K.W. Butzer in the 1970s. Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley then carried out major excavations at the site between 1978 and 1993, with Anne Thackeray and Francis Thackeray working at the site in 1979, excavating and researching the Later Stone Age levels from cultural and archaeozoological perspectives respectively. Work led by Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto, Liora Kolska Horwitz of The Hebrew University and Francesco Berna of Simon Fraser University, in collaboration with the McGregor Museum (where excavated assemblages are housed), was carried out from around 2008. A digital model of the site was created by laser scanning, forming part of the Zamani Project. Key team members who have worked on the dating of the lower units are the late Hagai Ron (magnetostratigraphic or palaeomagnetic dating), Ari Matmon (cosmogenic isotope dating), Robyn Pickering (U/Pb dating) and Naomi Porat (Optically stimulated luminescence dating). Results of these archaeological, dating, sedimentological and palaeoenvironmental studies were first reported at a symposium convened by Chazan and Horwitz at the site. They have since been published in a series of papers, and in a special issue on the site published in 2015. In April 2021, archaeologists from the University of Toronto and the Hebrew University announced the results of magnetostratigraphy and cosmogenic dating of the cave. According to the paper published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, making of the simple Oldowan tools and finding of animal bones from the 2.5-metre (8 ft 2 in) thick sedimentary layer inside prove that this cave was occupied by Early Stone Age humans about 2 millon years ago.
The sediments within the cave exhibit exceptional preservation of organic remains including macro-botanical remains, phytoliths and micro and macro-fauna which shed light inter alia on species extinctions relative to the end of the last ice age circa 10 000 years ago – studied by Francis Thackeray. Margaret Avery and Yolanda Fernandez-Jalvo are studying the small mammal remains introduced to the cave sediments as part of the contents of owl droppings and which provide indications as to the palaeenvironmental conditions outside the cave.
Also preserved are pollen, another key source of information on changing environmental conditions outside the cave, currently studied by Louis Scott but initially examined by E.M. van Zinderen Bakker. Lloyd Rossouw is researching phytoliths from the cave, which show changing vegetation profiles, while preserved charcoal is being studied by Marion Bamford to generate data on woody plants.
Indications of the cave’s contemporary social or ritual significance relate inter alia to the occasional collecting of water, by local African people, for healing purposes. There are other nearby sites where beliefs concerning the ritual power of water (associations with a mythic watersnake are remarked upon), for example by members of the Zion Christian Church, include the Kuruman Eye and Boesmanspit.
The past ritual significance of the site is subject to on-going archaeological investigation.
The deep interior as ritual space
Aspects of the use of the cave's deep interior reaches are also being considered in these terms. Chazan and Horwitz refer, as Beaumont had done, to the introduction of manuports (unmodified natural stones) "with special sensory properties" by terminal Acheulean hominins, more than 180,000 years ago, to the deep interior of the cave which is characterized by "singular acoustic and visual qualities." They argue that the site provides a "unique and extensive diachronic record of milestones in the development of symbolic behavior" and "evidence to support the position that elements of symbolic behaviour emerged long before the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa."
Wonderwerk Cave in literature
- Julia Martin devotes a chapter to Wonderwerk Cave in her book A Millimetre of Dust, the title of which was inspired by a remark about the site.
- Michael Cope's anthology Ghaap has sonnets inspired by Wonderwerk Cave.
Wonderwerk Cave, within a servitude ceded to the McGregor Museum, was declared a National Monument of South Africa in 1993. It was opened to the public, as a site museum, in 1993. In the same year a major graffiti-removal project was carried out. In 2000 new legislation made the site a Provincial Heritage Site. Between 2003 and 2009 it was assessed in terms of the grading system prescribed by the National Heritage Resources Act and graded as a Grade I site (i.e.: of national significance). Declaration as a National Heritage Site followed, being published in the Government Gazette on 12 March 2010. Coupled in a serial nomination with Border Cave and Klasies River Mouth for South Africa's Tentative List for World Heritage inscription, it was re-nominated in its own right for the Tentative List in April 2009.
Documentation with 3D laser scanner
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- Chazan, Michael; Ron, Hagai; Matmon, Ari; Porat, Naomi; Goldberg, Paul; Yates, Royden; Avery, Margaret; Sumner, Alexandra; Horwitz, Liora Kolska (2008). "Radiometric dating of the Earlier Stone Age sequence in Excavation I at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa: preliminary results". Journal of Human Evolution. 55 (1): 1–11. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.01.004. ISSN 0047-2484. PMID 18501953.
- Bower, Bruce (2 April 2012). "From the ashes, the oldest controlled fire South Africa cave yields earliest evidence of human ancestors lighting blaze". ScienceNews. Archived from the original on 8 March 2016.
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- Mitchell, Peter (2002). The Archaeology of Southern Africa. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-63389-5.
- Malan, B.D.; Cooke, H.B.S. (1941). "A preliminary account of the Wonderwerk Cave, Kuruman district". South African Journal of Science. 37: 300–312.
- Malan, B.D.; Wells, L.H. (1943). "A further report on the Wonderwerk Cave, Kuruman". South African Journal of Science. 40: 258–270.
- Butzer, K.W.; Stuckenrath, R.; Vogel, J.C. (1979), The geo-archeological sequence of Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Abstract of paper presented to the Society of Africanist Archaeologists in America, Calgary, April 1979
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- Rüther, Heinz; Chazan, Michael; Schroeder, Ralph; Neeser, Rudy; Held, Christoph; Walker, Steven James; Matmon, Ari; Horwitz, Liora Kolska (2009). "Laser scanning for conservation and research of African cultural heritage sites: the case study of Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa". Journal of Archaeological Science. 36 (9): 1847–1856. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.04.012. ISSN 0305-4403.
- Ron, H.; Beaumont, P.; Chazan, M.; Porat, N.; Yates, R.; Horwitz, L.K. (2005), "Evidence for Early Acheulian cave occupation revealed by the magnetostratigraphy of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape", SASQUA XVI, 30th March-3rd April, Bloemfontein, South Africa.
- Bamford, M.; Thackeray, F. (2009), "Continued excavations at Wonderwerk Cave", The Digging Stick, 26 (2), pp. 21–22
- Matmon, A.; Ron, H.; Chazan, M.; Porat, N.; Horwitz, L. K. (2011). "Reconstructing the history of sediment deposition in caves: A case study from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa". Geological Society of America Bulletin. 124 (3–4): 611–625. doi:10.1130/B30410.1. ISSN 0016-7606.
- Chazan, Michael; Avery, D. Margaret; Bamford, Marion K.; Berna, Francesco; Brink, James; Fernandez-Jalvo, Yolanda; Goldberg, Paul; Holt, Sharon; Matmon, Ari; Porat, Naomi; Ron, Hagai; Rossouw, Lloyd; Scott, Louis; Horwitz, Liora Kolska (2012). "The Oldowan horizon in Wonderwerk Cave (South Africa): Archaeological, geological, paleontological and paleoclimatic evidence". Journal of Human Evolution. 63 (6): 859–866. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2012.08.008. ISSN 0047-2484. PMID 23127763.
- Pickering, Robyn (2015). "U–Pb Dating Small Buried Stalagmites from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa: a New Chronometer for Earlier Stone Age Cave Deposits". African Archaeological Review. 32 (4): 645–668. doi:10.1007/s10437-015-9203-x. ISSN 0263-0338. S2CID 130387562.
- Shaar, Ron; Matmon, Ari; Horwitz, Liora K.; Ebert, Yael; Chazan, Michael; Arnold, M.; Aumaître, G.; Bourlès, D.; Keddadouche, K. (1 May 2021). "Magnetostratigraphy and cosmogenic dating of Wonderwerk Cave: New constraints for the chronology of the South African Earlier Stone Age". Quaternary Science Reviews. 259: 106907. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2021.106907. ISSN 0277-3791.
- "Archaeologists find oldest home in human history, dating to 2 million years ago". Haaretz.com. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
- "Early Humans Lived in This South African Cave 2 Million Years Ago, Making It the World's Oldest Home, Archaeologists Say". Artnet News. 27 April 2021. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
- "We've been at it a long time". EurekAlert!. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
- Thackeray, J.F. (1984). Man, animals and extinctions: the analysis of Holocene faunal remains from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa (PhD). Yale University.
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- Fernandez-Jalvo, Yolanda; Avery, D. Margaret (2015). "Pleistocene Micromammals and Their Predators at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa". African Archaeological Review. 32 (4): 751–791. doi:10.1007/s10437-015-9206-7. ISSN 0263-0338. S2CID 85778379.
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