A unique archive of human evolution

Learning from the world’s oldest human-inhabited cave

The international excavation project at Wonderwerk Cave, located in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, has confirmed the oldest evidence of human activity (fire and tool making) dating back nearly two million years.

Photo: Michael Chazan

Archaeology is a window into the past, but it can also shed light on the present and the future — from what we eat to the impacts of climate change. Michael Chazan, founding director of The Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto, co-leads a team studying the Wonderwerk Cave and Kathu Pan 1 mining site in South Africa. They’re uncovering how humans interacted with the world a million years ago—and what those interactions tell us about our world today.

The span of human history at one site

“I first visited the Northern Cape Province of South Africa 20 years ago, and each excavation site was more incredible than the last,” says Chazan. “I thought this would be an amazing place to do archaeology.”

Stalagmite at the entrance to Wonderwerk Cave.

Photo: Michael Chazan

His international team at Wonderwerk includes archaeologists as well as physicists, biologists, botanists and zoologists, bringing multiple perspectives to key questions. Their work involves excavating artifacts and conducting intensive analysis to create a chronological framework that positions the artifacts in history.

“Wonderwerk lets us engage with the entire sweep of human existence, from the earliest stone tools and use of fire all the way to the colonial conditions of the 19th century,” says Chazan.

New discoveries shift understanding

Funded in part by a SSHRC Insight Grant, Chazan and his team have been doing fieldwork in the area for the past five years. The project itself dates back 15 years and builds on many excavations before that. By documenting and dating artifacts found at the Wonderwerk and Kathu sites, the team is proving humans have been adapting the world to suit their needs longer than previously believed.

“People think the division between the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ worlds is relatively recent,” says Chazan. “In fact, humans have been making and using objects for millions of years.”

His team’s discoveries include evidence of human occupation dating as far back as two million years, making Wonderwerk the oldest known human-inhabited cave site in the world. The archaeologists have found stone-tipped spears dating back as far as 500,000 years, before any other known human use of multipart tools.

A community day of music at the entrance to Wonderwerk Cave, part of an event that brought people from the neighbouring town to experience the site.

Photo: Michael Chazan

The researchers’ most surprising discovery has been evidence of fire use one million years ago, far earlier than formerly known. While Chazan had been critical of previous evidence suggesting human use of fire that long ago, he says a colleague’s discovery of ash in the Wonderwerk cave was irrefutable—and he was thrilled to be proven wrong.

“This evidence pushed back our understanding of when humans had the cognitive capacity to create tools like this and to use fire,” he says. “The differences in the records between Europe and Africa underscore just how much earlier things were happening in Africa, and how that set the pattern for global evolution.”

While the discoveries are important for their own sake, they also have implications for how we understand humanity today. The use of fire and spears so early may change understandings about paleolithic human diets, which could affect current nutritional science. Evidence of water in the surrounding Kalahari Basin up until more recently than formerly believed may shed light on past climate change and help experts understand and forecast future shifts.

More than a dig

Alongside the scientific work, Chazan and his team are deeply committed to working with local governments, schools and community groups. They have sponsored theatrical performances in high schools, and engage in education initiatives including fieldwork opportunities for students at local universities. These collaborations help the team understand local people’s knowledge of the area, ensure local beliefs and interests are represented in the work, and empower the community to take ownership of their own cultural heritage.

“It’s a great privilege to explore this unique archive of the human experience,” says Chazan. “So it’s important that our work be aware of and contribute to local interests.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more, visit the Wonderwerk Cave Research Project website, currently being redeveloped by a locally led team in South Africa.