The History of the Cape Point Peninsula Article 2: The first colonization

The weather worn rocks of the Table Mountain chain give you the feeling that they are eternal, and that things have always been as they are today. It is hard to imagine that things were once very different.

In geological terms it was only a moment ago that our ancestors came to gaze upon the mountains for the first time.

Evidence suggests that our ancestor’s first settled on Table Mountain around 30,000 years ago though they are unlikely to have gained access to land south of Fish Hoek until around 25,000 years ago.

Rock formations and erosion indicate that as little as 25, 000 years ago Fish Hoek Valley was a deep channel, effectively cutting off the Peninsula from the main land: in fact, the whole mountain chain was an archipelago.  And yet, archeological findings indicate that our ancestors were already on the northern end of Fish Hoek valley well before this time. This is strange, considering that the base of Fish Hoek valley is the same height above the current sea level as much of the rest of Cape Town. A contour map will tell you that if Fish Hoek was under water then the coast line would cut off the rest of Table Mountain and what is now Cape Town from the Hottentot mountains to the east. So how is it that there is evidence of human settlement on Table Mountain 5,000 years before it was possible for them to reach the rest of the peninsula?

The answer likely lies in the fact that the flat area between Cape Town and the Durbanville Hills is wide and the tides would have been relatively tame, not creating much in the way of currents. This would allow sand and other sediment to build up further reducing tidal effects, eventually making it possible for our ancestors to cross the relatively shallow channel. This was not the case for the Fish Hoek valley, which is narrow and would have created a tidal bottle neck. Peninsulas are notorious for currents and tidal forces; it is likely therefore that the tide coming through the narrow channel would have been quite a site to see. The tremendous force of these currents would have swept out all sediment from the channel keeping it too deep and dangerous to allow a crossing.

It was only when water levels began to fall around 25,000 years ago that humans crossed the channel and began to settle the far south.

As had happened to what is now the Cape Flats, as tidal forces lost their potency sand would begin to build up. The modern geography of the area suggests that the first people would have crossed the valley somewhere around what is now False Bay hospital, coming from the eastern shore of Dassenberg.

Much of the peninsula would still have been under water. Although it was now possible to cross there would still have been big bays and inlets where now there is dry land. The water would still have covered much of Noordhoek and Kommetjie and the bay in Glencairn would have come much further west than it currently does.

So who were these early settlers?

They were hunter gatherers, much the same as modern day Khoi San tribes in the Kalahari. It is their need to constantly move to new feeding areas that would have driven them to the new lands to the south. If you want to see clear evidence of their passing then it is not hard to find, just climb to Peers cave and among all the modern rubbish that seems to find its way there you will see a lot of sea shells. In fact there are huge midens of empty shells all over the Dassenberg, though they are mainly covered by vegetation.

Of course, it is possible that some of the shells are from more recent tribes, Khoi tribes in the area when the Dutch arrived still relied heavily on seafood to supplement their diets. However, by the time Europeans first arrived the local people were living in huts and had live stock making it unlikely that they would make such a long trek from the sea to the summit of the mountain just to eat clams.

If you make it to Peers Cave take a minute to sit on a look out rock (there are plenty) and try to imagine what our ancient ancestors saw from up there. Would they be able to make sense of what you are looking at now?

Actually, I came across an interesting point when researching this article. Peers cave is famous for being a place where evidence existed of early man. However, from a shelter point of view it is unlikely that our ancestors would be too impressed with it. It is open and faces south; it is also open to most of the prevailing weather. There are several, smaller caves on the outcrop that would be better suited to cave dwellers although these are nearly impossible to access due to vegetation growth. That said, I still like to imagine a family group huddled around a fire eating shellfish and other foods, jabbering away in a language we cannot possibly hope to understand. Would they approve, would they see us as progress? I like to think so, our modern world takes a lot of abuse, and certainly it is easy to be seduced by a simplistic lifestyle; but if I was presented with the opportunity to give it all up and live in a cave, eating berries and hunting deer I doubt I could do it.

It’s a very romantic notion until you consider what you would do if you got sick, or got fed up of eating muscles. If it was such a healthy way of life, with no stress why was 40 considered old age?

2 thoughts on “The History of the Cape Point Peninsula Article 2: The first colonization

  1. Jenny says:

    Such an interesting article. I am researching the history of Cape Point in order to put together a website in the tourism field and although I have lived in Cape Town for 8 years, coming originally from Zululand, I have little knowledge of the history of the cape. Thank you for this really interesting piece. Having been to Peers Cave, I couldn’t agree more. Inhospitable and bleak in this climate. I shall watch out for more of your fascinating research.

    1. Russell Hepworth says:

      Hi Jenny
      Thanks for the praise, always good to know that someone is taking notice. I would be interested to see the web site when it is finished and I would be happy to give you any help you may require. Cape Point Chronicle started a year ago and has already grown to significant traffic levels. The history and geology posts tend to get done when I can’t think of anything else to write about! The next one should be about the people who were here before the europeans arrived.

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