More than 500 years ago the KhoiSan culture dominated the shores of the Western Cape.
Never quite proliferating, they lived and died without ever leaving significant structures behind for future archeologists to discover.
Besides rock paintings and humble possessions such as pottery, the certainty of their existence can be tracked through history by their skeletons – a treasure in itself.
When construction started on a house in Melkbosstrand, the last thing builders thought they would uncover was a human skeleton.
They soon came across another and phoned the police, who seized the find until they could rule out any foul play.
The Heritage Foundation was contacted once this was ruled out, and two weeks after the initial find University of Cape Town archeologist Louisa Hutten was at the building site looking for clues.
“The police first thought they had three skeletons, but it turned out to be two – a women and a young child (most likely four or five years old),” says Hutten.
While Hutten’s team were on the site they uncovered a third skeleton, which was just as perfectly preserved as the other two.
Quite remarkle considering that it could be as old as 3 000 years.
As opposed to the other two skeletons, this time the team could see in what position it was lying.
Like the skeleton found in 1999 next to Otto du Plessis Drive, the male skeleton Hutten’s team uncovered was also lying in a foetal position with one hand resting underneath the chin.
“Sometimes a hand is under the chin, but most of the times the hands are together,” explains Hutten.
There has been a lot of media attention dedicated to this latest find in Melkbosstrand, which surprises Hutten, because it is quite common to uncover evidence of KhoiSan existence – in particular finding skeletons buried in the sand.
“The alkaline and salt in the sand and shoal are quite good for preservation, so many skeletons are uncovered along the West Coast.”
When an archeologist comes across a skeleton, they carefully search the surrounding area, at the correct depth, for pieces of coal or shards of pottery. Finding any one of these would be a great indicator as to how old the skeleton is.
In the latest discovery, pottery was found in the vicinity, which suggests that the skeletons were buried there between 500 and 3 000 years ago.
“The pottery suggests that there has been contact with other groups further north. They have most likely been exposed to material culture. The late Stone Age goes back to 40 000 years ago, but pottery in their culture goes back to about 3 000 years ago,” she explains.
The skeletons were claimed from the police and unearthed from the sand, and now reside at the University of Cape Town.
Soon the carbon dating process will begin and a more accurate age can be calculated.
“Skeletons we have dated quite recently have ranged between 500 and 3 000 years old, so my estimate at this stage is indeed between that period. We will date a fraction of the rib. The age would eventually be accurate within 30 to 40 years either way.”
Building was temporarily halted when the Heritage Foundation became involved, and according to Hutten it will start again promptly.
She says an archeologist will hopefully be on site during the next few weeks.