National Heritage Site declaration: 12 March 2010
A 140 m deep cave in the eastern side of the Kuruman Hills, with a 6 m archaeological deposit reflecting human and environmental history from at least the onset of the Middle Pleistocene to the present, and possibly dating beyond a million years ago. The site has been studied and excavated since the 1940s and research here has generated important insights into human history in the subcontinent.
On the cave’s walls are regionally distinctive rock paintings dating from approximately the last thousand years. The Later Stone Age levels (dating to circa 11 000 BP to <1000 BP) yielded rocks with engravings, including some of the older dated rock engravings known from the African continent. Even older is an engraved haematite fragment recovered from a Middle Stone Age context, likely to be of the order of circa 70 000 years old. Outstanding features of the Middle and Earlier Stone Age levels, besides a lithic sequence through Acheulean to Howiesons Poort, are: early evidence for controlled use of fire (ash, burnt stone and calcined bone), grass bedding and pigment usage, together suggestive of home base behaviours and self-awareness in the emergence of modern humans. Environmental evidence bearing on human development in the region exists by way of exceptional preservation of animal bones (including species which became extinct in early Holocene times, with human agency as a probable contributory factor) and other palaeoenvironmental indicators.
Wonderwerk Cave is unique in the Northern Cape; and it is one of the very few known localities in South Africa with a multiple-stratum archaeological sequence with good organic preservation spanning the Middle Pleistocene. It is one of the very few cave sites containing Acheulean material, let alone Oldowan, while part of its culturalsuccession also complements the archaeological record from key sites reflecting the emergence of modern humans, such as Klasies River Mouth and Border Cave. It provides a unique record of palaeoenvironmental and human history in important phases of human evolution, and sheds light on the development of rock art on the African continent