Cave of Hearths: Stone Age Sequence

Located around fifteen kilometers northeast of Mokopane in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, the Cave of Hearths is considered to be one of the only two known Stone Age sites in the world to have yielded an unbroken sequence of evidence and artifacts linking the Earlier Stone Age and the Later Stone Age. With its remarkably well preserved record of Acheulean times, also referred to as the Early Stone Age, in the oldest sediments of the caves, there is also evidence of occupation of the caves through the Middle Stone Age, through to the Later Stone Age, and right up to the Iron Age.

The discovery and naming of the Cave of Hearths was made by archeologist Clarence Van Riet Lowe in 1937. Bone breccia had been exposed by miners from the nearby lime-works, and he identified a dark band of ashy substance as being an ancient hearth. He later retrieved some stone tools from the site, at which time he named the site Cave of Hearths. Until this time, Van Riet Lowe and fellow archeologists had been unable to find a single site preserving the sequence of Stone Age culture, and had garnered their knowledge of this time period mostly from sites along the Vaal River. Now he had found a site with the potential of revealing the entire sequence of this fascinating era of man’s development.

Between 1947 and 1949, Clarence Van Riet Lowe, Guy Gardner and James Kitchen, supervised excavation of the site, with the most important discovery being a hominid mandible from a Middle Pleistocene form of Homo sapiens. The second, and most extensive, phase of excavations was directed by Revil Mason, and was carried out from 1953 to 1954. It was at this time that the entire stratigraphic history of the cave was revealed – right from the Earlier Stone Age through to the post-Iron Age Historic period.

Excavating the Cave of Hearths has been an intricate and laborious process requiring great patience and skill – and there is likely still much to discover. Visitors to the Makapan’s Valley in Limpopo have the opportunity to see the excavated areas of the Cave of Hearths and may want to take some time to try and view the area from the perspective of our ancestors, when a cave was considered to be prime real estate.