Known as Skildergatkop Cave until 1941, Peers Cave is an important paleoanthropological and archaeological site located near Cape Town, South Africa. The cave provides valuable evidence of early settlements in South Africa. However, the exact date of the remains found are still debated.
|What||Skildergatkop Cave (AKA Skildergrat Cave), Peers Cave|
|Where||Silvermine Nature Reserve, Cape Town, South Africa|
|Who||Victor Peers, Bertie Peers, Fish Hoek Man|
|When||Mid-Holocene (~4800 RCYBP), 1927, 1941|
|Why||Theoretical earliest known human remains in South Africa|
|How||Amateur excavations in 1927-1929|
Table of Contents
The Peers Cave Excavations
Not much is left of this historic site after years of abuse by tourists. The site was once considered a major archaeological breakthrough with the discovery of the Fish Hoek Man, a skeleton originally estimated to be up to 36,000 years old. Over time, this estimate was debunked, resulting in the Fish Hoek Man falling into relative obscurity.
Goodwin’s Excavation (1925)
The first official excavation at Skildergatkop Cave was made by Astley John Goodwin. He is best known as the first professional archaeologist in South Africa. It is thus ironic that his role in the excavations is largely omitted from most accounts.
Around 1925, Victor Peers and his son Bertie were passing by Skildergatkop Cave and decided to have a look under its overhanging entrance. Inside, he discovered bits of rock that seemed to resemble ancient tools. He took the samples to Goodwin who confirmed they were indeed stone age implements.
This is where the story gets muddy. Goodwin decided to excavate Skildergatkop Cave, digging a trench at the site (Goodwin 1929). However, Goodwin was unable to perform proper excavations, so he offered to give Victor and Bertie a crash course in excavating (Deacon and Wilson 1992). This included a training excavation in the Kalk Bay caves.
The Peers Excavations (1927-1929)
Victor Peers and his son Bertie began official excavations of Skildergatkop in 1927, working on weekends and during vacation time from their jobs. The efforts were crude by today’s standards, involving pickaxes, shovels, and even dynamite to remove boulders. Scars from this process can still be seen on the walls to this day.
A shell midden, measuring up to 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) thick was discovered in the upper levels. The debris was dated to the Late Stone Age. The remains of four children and two nearly complete women were found buried in the midden (Peers, 1927, Deacon and Wilson 1992:3). The skeletons had been buried with several personal effects, including:
- A small leather bag containing herbs
- Bone awls
- Bored stones
- Mother-of-pearl ornaments
- Ostrich- eggshell beads
- Rope pieces
- Rusted iron
- Shell pendants
Beneath the midden among Middle Stone Age deposits were two more skeletons. However, these were determined to be buried around the same time that the midden was created.
This layer was the Peers family’s claim to fame. In it they found one additional skeleton, officially known as Peers Cave skeleton P4 or by the Iziko South African Museum catalogue number (SAM-AP 4692). However, it’s more famously known as the Fish Hoek Man (Peers, 1928, 1929).
The Peers’ Final Excavations
After discovering the Fish Hoek Man, Victor and Bertie Peers ended their main excavations at around three metres (9.8 feet). Their final work at Skildergatkop was digging a six metre (19.7 feet) trench in the talus deposits found at the mouth of the cave. A number of Early Stone Age artefacts were found here.
Unfortunately, only samples of the stone implements from each layer were saved. The rest were discarded down the talus slope, most of which can still be found there to this day. Bertie and Victor died in 1939 and 1940, respectively.
Later Excavations of Peers Cave
One of Goodwin’s pupils, Keith Jolly, attempted to continue the excavations between 1946 and 1947 (Jolly, 1947, 1948). However, Jolly “was unable to finish the work satisfactorily” (Deacon and Wilson, 1992: 3).
Between the four excavation attempts, an estimated six metres of deposits had been examined. These deposits bore proof of a long sequence of human habitation between the late middle Pleistocene and the Holocene Eras (Berger and Libby, 1968). A large portion of the deposits were removed during the multiple excavations (Volman, 1981).
Historical Significance of Peers Cave
The excavations at Skildergat Cave created plenty of buzz in the scientific world. However, as technology advances and more accurate tests were performed, the cave’s claim to fame was disproven. While still historically important, the site has been largely destroyed through neglect and tourism.
SAM-AP 4692, The Fish Hoek Man
When the Peers family discovered their ninth skeleton, they believed it was something special. Nicknamed the Fish Hoek Man, the body was then believed to be a Middle Stone Age burial due to its discovery in the Stillbay Layer (layer 3).
The Fish Hoek Man was discovered buried in a deeper layer than the other skeletons and lacked the personal effects found with the others. The skull was immediately sent to England for further study. Upon examination, famed British anatomist Sir Arthur Keith described the remains as a male, 1.57 metres (5.2 feet) tall and approximately 30 years of age (Keith, 1931).
The Age Dilemma
At the time of excavation, the Later Stone Age was believed to have begun approximately 10,000 years ago. We now date the Later Stone Age to have begun approximately 40,000 years ago. This means that many relics attributed to the Middle Stone Age are now classified as Late Stone Age. Such was the case with Fish Hoek Man, whose age has been a subject of frequent debate
The Peers’ crude excavation methods made it impossible to determine whether SAM-AP 4692 had been buried in the Stillbay layer invasively or naturally. This led him to conclude that this human skeleton was from the Middle Stone Age (Peers & Goodwin, 1953). An initial age was estimated at 35,000 to 36,000 RCYBP based on radiocarbon dating of the charcoal found beneath the remains (Anthony, 1967; Vogel & Beaumont, 1972).
It wasn’t until 1992 that a much younger estimate of 12,000 BP was presented, based off of testing done to bone from the post-cranial skeleton, although the exact origin of this estimate and methods used were not reported (Deacon & Wilson, 1992:3). Unfortunately, the lack of clear documentation left this new estimate as one often cited but never confirmed.
A new, more accurate age estimate was first reported in 2005, after giving a new date of ~4,800 BP (Minichillo, 2005). This was the first time a Holocene (Late Stone Age) date had been suggested. This
To finally settle the debate, an AMS radiocarbon assay was done directly on a rib sample at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU). The sample was thoroughly treated to ensure no contamination prior to testing.
Because Fish Hoek Man’s diet was primarily marine life, the test was recalibrated to account for a phenomenon known as the marine reservoir effect, in which marine samples will show an older radiocarbon date than contemporary terrestrial samples. The final result was an final age estimate of ~7200 years old (Stynder et al., 2009).
With Stynder et al’s report, Fish Hoek Man’s legacy finally came to an end in a disappointing, yet avoidable manner. Not only did this final round of testing firmly place SAM-AP 4692 in the Holocene Era, it also illustrated why accurately dating human bones is so important.
The Geographical Dilemma
The excavations at Peers Cave suffered from another dilemma: one of geography. The cave itself is located at 34°07’08″S 18°24’26″E a little NW of Fish Hoek (now part of Cape Town) and not far from False Bay.
This location was once mostly submerged, with the cave being one of the few areas of this peninsula where Stone Age tribes inhabited. Two techno-traditions in particular were found almost exclusively in South Africa, namely the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort. It’s generally accepted that the Howeisons Poort tradition is younger than the Still Bay.
When excavating Peers Cave and many nearby sites, the Stillbay layer of debris is sometimes found to be on top of the Howiesons Poort relics instead of beneath. This creates additional problems when attempting to date remains in ancient burial sites of places of habitation, as the Still bay sites cannot be dated using the C14 (radiocarbon) method. As a result, numerous other testing methods are only now being used to date these sites, such as thermoluminescence and electron spin resonance.
Thankfully, Bertie Peers correctly identified most of the bodies in the cave as belonging to the San Tribe, with the one exception being that of the Fish Hoek Man. The dilemma of which tradition came first in this area further complicated estimates of the skeleton, as it was not catalogued with implements that could be used to tie it to any known Stone age tradition.
Now that we know the skeleton’s actual age, it can also be attributed to the San peoples. We are also now able to bypass the question of whether it belonged to the Still Bay, Howiesans Poort, or some unknown technological tradition through its association with the other skeletons.
Modern Tourism of Peers Cave
On 15 January,1941, Skildergat Cave was officially renamed Peers Cave by the first mayor or Fish Hoek, H. S. Jager, in honor of Victor and Bertie Peers. At this same time, the cave was to be declared a National Monument, but this never came to fruition despite many claims to the contrary. As a result, maintenance of the site was often neglected because nobody knew who held responsibility.
The cave eventually became part of the Cape Peninsula National Part, and is also generally considered part of the Silvermine Nature Reserve, located just north of the site. Just south of Peers Cave is Sun Valley, and just north is Silvermine Road. This makes the cave a popular destination for hikers and rock climbers.
As Peers Cave remains open to the public, it has been heavily defaced over the years. Graffiti covers every surface, and smoke damage from camp fires has all but destroyed the cave paintings that once adorned its walls. Litter can also be found everywhere despite frequent attempts to clean the site.
Sadly, whatever other discoveries may have been awaiting discovery may be lost forever. The sad state of this important site and the loss of many other sites in the area are a stark reminder that humanity’s ancient past is as fragile as the shells and bone tools our ancestors once held so dear.
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Unpublished manuscript, Iziko South African Museum, Cape Town.
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