Archaeologists have confirmed what might be the oldest home in hominin history. Hominins include humans and our distant evolutionary ancestors.
Called Wonderwerk Cave, it is located in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa, and shows evidence of continuous occupation for several million years. Not only that, but the cave also shows signs of the earliest evidence of the use of fire.
It also includes other precious artifacts like early hand axes, reports the team who recently published their findings in Quaternary Science Reviews. While not the oldest known to science, they are the first to be found in a “cave context”.
Exciting news, but it is important to note that the cave’s inhabitants were not fully human. According to the research team, it is likely that our more diminutive ancestors, the australopithecines, probably made the cave their home. While not the gambling type, the research team has also hinted that it could have also been home to the earliest known tool-makers, Homo Habilis.
Wonderwerk Cave is a deep cave that runs roughly 140 meters (459 feet) from start to finish. A rare structure in the context of the Kalahari, it was first discovered by farmers in the 1940s and has been the subject of intense archaeological excavation ever since.
Source: Wonderwerk Cave Research Project
Despite this level of scientific interest, its exact age was hotly debated -- until now. Compounding the issue of nailing down a date has been the complete lack of any physical remains of the cave’s previous inhabitants.
For this reason, the team cannot be absolutely sure which of our ancestors, or many may have lived there.
"[There are] many options and absolutely no clue in the cave," said Liora Kolska Horwitz (one of the research team members). Around this time (2 million years ago), Horowitz explains, South Africa was home to at least two types of australopithecines, 2.3 million to 1.5 million years ago, and also early Homo.
"We are placing a sure bet on early Homo, since we are not very adventurous gamblers," she added.
Why was the cave so important?
Whoever it was, they clearly valued the site as a place of refuge and appear to have sheltered, and dined there. The team also wondered why the site was chosen, as it would have been pitch black inside.
Perhaps that was exactly the reason -- it allowed them to easily hide from predators. Others have speculated that it may have had a spiritual or sensory function. Being so narrow, and with evidence of fires being started, the combination could have led to hypoxia in these early hominins resulting in hallucinations.
One of the cave’s most notable features is a large stalagmite marking its entrance.
This theory, it is believed, is also supported by the abundance of “useless” crystals also found there which appear to be an artificial collection -- i.e. do not occur naturally.
The sanctity of this cave appears to be a tradition that survives to the present day. It is still a sacred place for contemporary locals.
Whoever was using the cave several million years ago is still a mystery to be solved. But is one that, in time, can hopefully be solved once and for all.