Mossel Bay is going to become a major evotourism destination

Now here’s an idea I like: Evotourism.

It seems to have been created by Smithsonian magazine, although I would argue that it’s something we’ve been doing in tourism ever since the ‘grand tour,’ which young ladies and gentlemen would take of ‘The Continent’ – since many of them seemed to have added Egypt (with its Sphinx and its pyramids) to their itineraries.

And probably it goes back further even than that – because we’ve always been curious about where we came from.

The last 100 years or so have delivered amazing advances in archaeology and palaeontology, and we here in Africa have received the lions share of the spoils since this really is the cradle of humankind.

Four names: Dart, Broom, Leakey, Marean.

The anatomist and anthropologist Raymond Dart (4 February 1893 – 22 November 1988) is best known for identifying a fossilised skull – which was found by miners in the Buxton Lime Works near Taung in Northwest Province, and given to him in 1924 – as that of Australopithecus africanus: a distant ancestor of our species which lived between about 3.03 to 2.4 million years ago.

It was the first time anyone had described this extinct species of hominid – and the establishment laughed at him. The panjandrums just *knew* that man had evolved in Europe, what!

That fossil, of course, would later become famous as the Taung Child.

Professor Robert Broom (30 November 1866 – 6 April 1951) was a doctor and paleontologist whose interest in palaeontology was heightened by Raymond Dart’s discovery. He joined the staff of the Transvaal Museum in 1934 and unearthed and described Paranthropus robustus – which lived 2 million years ago – at Kromdraai, in Gauteng in 1937. Then, together with John T. Robinson, he discovered the fossilised remains of Plesianthropus transvaalensis in 1947. (You’ll know P. transvaalensis as Mrs. Ples, of course, although she was later reclassified as an adult Australopithecus africanus – a grown up version of the Taung Child – and is now thought actually to have been a male.)

Further to the north, Louis (7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972) and Mary Leakey (6 February 1913 – 9 December 1996) were excavating hominid fossils in the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains, where Homo habilis lived around 1.9 million years ago, Paranthropus boisei lived 1.8 million years ago, and Homo erectus appeared about 1.2 million years ago.

And, together with Raymond Dart’s work, and Prof Broom’s discoveries, their finds seem finally to have convinced academia that man’s evolutionary journey began in Africa.

The Olduvai Gorge site is significant because it revealed a more developed use of stone tools – which indicates an increasing intellectual capacity – and because centralised collections of stone tools and animal remains indicate social interactions and communal activities.

And all these sites and discoveries have attracted a steady flow of visitors and attention: Maropeng, the Cradle of Humankind, Olduvai Gorge – they’re all well known names in tourism today.

But then Curtis Marean and Peter Nilsen came along.

Geneticists have theorised for some time now that all people alive today stem from a small core population which probably only survived a global ice age because they found themselves living under climatic conditions they could tolerate – and the SACP4 Project has the evidence to show that those conditions occurred in the Mossel Bay area of the Southern Cape Coast.

But it wasn’t only the climate that was right: the ocean’s rich harvest was ideal, too, and Mossel Bay’s legendary seafood became the key which unlocked our potential as a species – because it provided us with the omega-3 fatty acids which were vital for the development of our powerful modern brains.

The South African Coastal Paleoclimate, Paleoenvironment, Paleoecology, and Paleoanthropology Project (SACP4) – under Curtis Marean, an associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at the Arizona State University – was created to study archaeological remains that were discovered during the environmental impact assessment phase of Mossel Bay’s Pinnacle Point development. A 1997 survey of the property had revealed a number of stone age sites – including evidence that people had inhabited the caves in the cliffs below the present-day club house for tens of thousands of years.

Prof. Marean began working on the finds with South Africa’s Dr. Peter Nilsen – and a team of almost 50 scientists from around the world – in the early 2000s, and in 2007 they announced their results: that the inhabitants of the Caves had systematically harvested the coast for food; that they’d produced complex tools that were more advanced than ever before (with tiny stone blades embedded in other materials); and that they’d regularly used ochre for pigmentation.

This, they said, was the earliest known evidence for modern human behaviour.

But the SACP4 Project has – and will continue – to reveale much more: amongst others, it’s working to develop a picture of climate and environmental change in the period from 400,000 to about 30,000 years ago. Through the study of fossilised isotopes found in the dripstone formations in the caves, the scientists are able to make deductions about the water which filtered through from the vegetation above – and by correlating this with what they know from the archaeology on the floors of the caves, they expect to be able to learn how we as a species are likely to adapt to climate change.

Other important discoveries quickly followed after 2007– one of which was that here was the first evidence for the use of heat to produce improved quality stone tools (the command of fire allowed humankind to migrate out of Africa and into Europe around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, and would eventually lead to the development of technologies like bronze smelting and ceramics production).

So why is all of this significant for Mossel Bay?

Firstly, it puts Mossel Bay at the forefront of research done at the universities of Cape Town, Barcelona, Bradford, Bern, CNRS-Bordeaux, Wales–Aberystwyth, New South Wales, Wollongong, Florida, and Boston; at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; at the State Universities of Arizona and Louisiana; at the Greek Ministry of Culture; at the Geological Survey of Israel; at the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), Iziko South African Museums, the Dias Museum, the South African Council for Geoscience, and the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the CSIR) – all of which have representatives on the SACP4 team.

But more importantly, the proposed proclamation of the Pinnacle Point Caves as a World Heritage Site, and the development of a Gateway Museum below the Cape St. Blaise Lighthouse (which will explore the emergence of modern human behaviour, and which has the backing of the local Municipality, the Western Cape Government, and the SACP4 Project) will create a major new tourist attraction for the town – and, indeed, for South Africa as a destination.

In fact, the benefits of the archaeology are already beginning to seep into the economy: regular digging seasons bring large numbers of people into the town for weeks at a time. And the number of interns and volunteers who are attracted to Mossel Bay (and who spend between one and twelve months there) is growing steadily – and not only in the sciences directly related to the SACP4 Project, either, but (partly because of the rich marine environment of the Bay, partly because of the number of different disciplines involved) also in marine biology, hospitality, and even communications and film-making. And there’s more, too – because people from local communities have already been trained in archaeology, and now work permanently for the Project.

This influx of highly educated people, the resulting exchange of knowledge and ideas, and the inevitable transfer of skills can only serve to improve the lives of the people of Mossel Bay – and to create a whole raft of new opportunities in tourism.

Because, if Taung, Sterkfontein and the Olduvai Gorge have revealed exciting things about our evolutionary ancestors – Mossel Bay is revealing mind-blowing things about our actual forefathers. About the people – Homo sapiens – from whom everyone alive today can trace their ancestry.

And everyone’s going to want to know about that – which is where evotourism comes in.

I cannot wait.

More information:  – and if you’ve got a fast broadband connection, watch Curtis Marean’s 2008 Nobel Lecture “The African evidence for the origins of modern human behaviour” on the Gustavus Adolphus college web site. (You might find it easier to download the movie and watch it later – the site has a facility for this.)