There’s a cave in the South African desert called Wonderwerk Cave that is one of the only sites in the world that has evidence of continuous archaeological records spanning millions of years. The name of the cave means “miracle” in Afrikaans. Researchers have identified the cave as potentially the earliest cave occupation in the world, and it shows signs of some of the earliest interactions between human use of fire and tools.
Recent research conducted at the site has confirmed an incredible date for the age of the site. Researchers on the team say that they can now confidently say that human ancestors were making simple Oldowan tools from stone inside the cave 1.8 million years ago. Wonderwerk Cave is a unique site among sites that hold Oldowan relics.
Oldowan is a type of tool first created by human ancestors 2.6 million years ago in East Africa. What makes the tools discovered in Wonderwerk Cave so special is that they were found inside a cave and not in an open-air occurrence. Oldowan tools consist mostly of sharp flakes and chopping tools. Scientists on the project successfully established the shift from those Oldowan tools to early hand axes over 1 million years ago.
Scientists of also been able to date the deliberate use of fire by the prehistoric ancestors to 1 million years ago using a layer discovered deep inside the cave. The discovery of evidence of deliberate use of fire is important because other examples of early fire use come from open-air sites where possible wildfires can’t be ruled out.
Researchers note that Wonderwerk Cave contained a full array of fire remnants, including burnt bone, sediment and tools, and the presence of ash. The researchers analyzed a 2.5-meter thick sedimentary layer that contained stone tools, animal remains, and fire remnants using paleomagnetism and burial dating to arrive at the dates.