Why is Wonderwerk Cave so Important to Archaeologists?

Wonderwerk Cave is the oldest known cave occupation in the world.  This remarkable site preserves and intact sequence of sediments that accumulated very gradually over a period stretching back almost two million years.  This sequence incorporates stone tools, animal bones, and botanical materials that provide evidence for shifts in the activity and the ecological context of our early human ancestors and the recent communities that lived in this region.  We can think of Wonderwerk Cave as one of the great archives in the world, preserving fragile evidence of our history reaching far back into the past.



Microscopic fragment of wood ash from Wonderwerk Cave

Detailed geological research has produced some of the earliest known evidence for the use of fire by humans in a context dated to approximately one million years ago. Our research today is geared to understand how early humans used fire and whether they were able to produce fire.


  Handaxe from Wonderwerk Cave

Study of the stone tools shows that following the appearance of very simple flakes and cores around 1.8 million years ago there were gradual shifts in the methods of stone tools culminating in the highly refined and symmetrical handaxes that develop around 700,000 years ago.



View towards the back of Wonderwerk Cave where there are traces of human occupation dating back approximately 500,000 years.

The occupation of the back of the cave, 140 meters from the cave entrance, around 500,000 years ago points to changes in the way human ancestors used the space of the cave and possibly novel attention to the sensory properties of unusual spaces. It is very intriguing that the archaeological material recovered from the back of the cave include quartz crystal, ochre (iron rich rock), and specularite (an iron mineral that produces a sparkly powder), all of which are materials not found in archaeological assembages recovered at Wonderwerk from earlier periods.


Beginning approximately 200,000 years ago we are able to identify shifts in stone tool technology characteristic of the Middle Stone Age associated with modern humans.

Stone Tool characteristic of the Middle Stone Age.  There was a worked block of ironstone from which a triangular point was struck.  The negative impression of this removal is visible on the left.

    Incised slab from the Later Stone Age of Wonderwerk Cave

The cave continued to be used by communities of hunter gatherers into recent periods known as the Later Stone Age. In the Later Stone Age levels engraved slabs of rock provide some of the earliest representational art known from southern Africa.