Coast KZN

08 Mar 2018

Sibudu – A doorway into time

Allan Troskie (North coast Courier) Picture: Digging down, archaeologists carefully catalog each layer.

The Sibudu Rock Shelter near Tongaat is one of the richest archaeological sites of its kind on the planet.

Who are we?

In the simplest, broadest terms this is the question archaeologists are asking as they dig through 80 000 years of mankind’s past at the Sibudu Rock Shelter near Tongaat.

Sibudu is one of the richest archaeological sites of its kind on the planet, and as each new layer is uncovered, more light is shed on the lives of our distant ancestors in the Middle Stone Age.

Delving into its mysteries an international team of scientists – led by Professor Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany – are working at carefully revealing and documenting thousands of tiny clues into the nature of our species, Homo Sapiens.

The founding director of the Institute of Archaeological Sciences at the University, Conard is visibly fascinated by his work at Sibudu.

“Just 50 000 years ago there were four species of hominid on Earth, including the famous Neanderthals. We are the only ones to remain – why? Clues at Sibudu may help us understand what we have that our ‘cousins’ did not,” said Conard.

Scientists estimate that modern humans like us emerged around 300 000 years ago.

Compare this to the relatively few thousand years of human history we have access to and you may begin to realise just how much is lost in the murky recesses of time.

This is what makes Sibudu such a significant find.

Not only is it incredibly rich in terms of the density of artifacts and discoveries, but there is evidence of human habitation that could stretch as far back as 100 000 years.

“The Middle Stone Age lasted from about 300 000 years to 30 000 years ago and that is where we as humans come from. Understanding our ancestors’ cultural and technological progression can give us some idea of what drives humans to change, to advance and to grow.

Each and every layer of soil is marked and named as each represents a period in Sibudu’s history.

“Our work at Sibudu has already shown some of our previous assumptions about the history of Homo Sapiens to be incorrect, which is why UNESCO is also so keen for Sibudu to be declared a World Heritage Site.”

Professor Conard said their work outside Tongaat was already challenging the way we think about technological and cultural advances and he was hoping to disprove the widely propagated notion that there was a period of “cultural stasis” that lasted for tens of thousands of years.

“We have been making discoveries – such as bi-facial stone tools (tools worked on both sides into a blade) – which according to conventional knowledge should not have been there at all.”

The Friends of Sibudu are a local organisation aiming to preserve this historic site, pressuring government to declare it a heritage site and to protect the wealth of knowledge that lies buried there.

They are particularly keen on getting high school students involved to volunteer for a few weeks digging for treasures that have lain dormant for seemingly forever.

If you are interested in getting involved, contact Ken Lever of the Friends of Sibudu at or 082 657 0094.