Wonderwerk Cave is an archaeological site, formed originally as an ancient solution cavity in dolomite rocks of the Kuruman Hills, situated between Danielskuil and Kuruman in the Northern Cape Province, South Africa. It is a National Heritage Site, managed as a satellite of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. Geologically, hillside erosion exposed the northern end of the cavity, which extends horizontally for about 140 m into the base of a hill. Accumulted deposits inside the cave, up to 7 m in depth, reflect natural sedimentation processes such as water and wind deposition as well as the activities of animals, birds and human ancestors over a period of some 2 million years. The site has been studied and excavated by archaeologists since the 1940s and research here generates important insights into human history in the subcontinent of Southern Africa. Evidence within Wonderwerk cave has been called the oldest controlled fire. Wonderwerk means “miracle” in the Afrikaans language.
The cave contains up to 6 m depth of archaeological deposits reflecting human and environmental history through the Earlier, Middle and Later Stone Ages to the present. Cosmogenic dating suggests that basal sediment entered the cave some 2 million years ago. Rock art occurs in the form of parietal paintings within the first 40 metres from the entrance, possibly all less than 1000 years old, and small engraved stones found within the deposit, mainly from the Later Stone Age sequence where they date back some 10 500 years. The associations of older engraved or striated pieces have yet to be substantiated.
Major damage was caused in the 1940s when local farmers dug up large parts of the cave interior to bag and sell organic-rich material as fertiliser – which in fact comprised stratified archaeological deposits containing artefacts, bone and other material that would have been crucial to an understanding of the cultural and palaeoenvironmental history of the site. The presence of bone was reported upon, leading to the first archaeological and zooarchaeological investigations.
The initial archaeological studies of the 1940s, by Malan, Cooke and Wells, were followed up briefly by K.W. Butzer in the 1970s. Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley then carried out major excavations at the site between 1978 and 1993, with Anne Thackeray and Francis Thackeray working at the site in 1979, excavating and researching the Later Stone Age levels from cultural and archaeozoological perspectives respectively. Current work is being led by Prof Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto in collaboration with the McGregor Museum (where excavated assemblages are housed). A digital model of the site was created by laser scanning, forming part of the Zamani Project. Key team members working on the dating of the lower units are Hagai Ron (magnetostratigraphic or palaeomagnetic dating), Ari Matmon (cosmogenic isotope dating), and Naomi Porat (Optically stimulated luminescence dating). Latest results of these archaeological, dating, sedimentological and palaeoenvironmental studies were reported at a symposium convened by Chazan at the site in June 2009.
The sediments within the cave exhibit often exceptional preservation of organic remains including fauna (i.e. animal bones), both larger and smaller (macro and microfauna) which shed light inter alia on species extinctions relative to the end of the last ice age circa 10 000 years ago – studied by Francis Thackeray. Margaret Avery researches the small mammal remains introduced to the cave sediments as part of the contents of owl droppings and which are indicators of palaeenvironmental conditions outside the cave. Liora Kolska Horwitz and James Brink are analysing the fauna from a taphonomic perspective.
Also preserved are pollens, another key source of information on changing environmental conditions outside the cave, studied by E.M. van Zinderen Bakker and Louis Scott. Lloyd Rossouw is researching phytoliths from the cave, which show changing vegetation profiles, while preserved charcoal is being studied by Marion Bamford to generate data on woody plants.
Deposition processes have been the focus of work by Karl Butzer and, currently, Paul Goldberg.
Progress in researching the palaeoenvironmental record at the site were summarised at the 2009 Symposium at Wonderwerk Cave.
Indications of the cave’s contemporary social or ritual significance relate inter alia to the occasional collecting of water, by local African people, for healing purposes. Other nearby sites where beliefs concerning the ritual power of water (associated with a mythic watersnake) are remarked upon, for example by members of the Zion Christian Church, include the Kuruman Eye and Boesmanspit.
The past ritual significance of the site is subject to on-going archaeological investigation.
The deep interior as ritual space
Aspects of the use of the cave's deep interior reaches are also being considered in these terms. Chazan and Horwitz refer, as Beaumont had done, to the introduction of manuports (unmodified natural stones) "with special sensory properties" by terminal Acheulean hominins, more than 180,000 years ago, to the deep interior of the cave which is characterised by "singular acoustic and visual qualities." They argue that the site provides a "unique and extensive diachronic record of milestones in the development of symbolic behaviour" and "evidence to support the position that elements of symbolic behaviour emerged long before the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa."
Wonderwerk Cave in literature
- Julia Martin devotes a chapter to Wonderwerk Cave in her book A Millimetre of Dust, the title of which was inspired by a remark about the site.
- Michael Cope's anthology Ghaap has sonnets inspired by Wonderwerk Cave.
Wonderwerk Cave, within a servitude ceded to the McGregor Museum, was declared a National Monument of South Africa in 1993. It was opened to the public, as a site museum, in 1993. In the same year a major graffiti-removal project was carried out. In 2000 new legislation made the site a Provincial Heritage Site. Between 2003 and 2009 it was assessed in terms of the grading system prescribed by the National Heritage Resources Act and graded as a Grade I site (ie: of natonal significance). Declaration as a National Heritage Site followed, being published in the Government Gazette on 12 March 2010. Coupled in a serial nomination with Border Cave and Klasies River Mouth for South Africa's Tentative List for World Heritage inscription, it was re-nominated in its own right for the Tentative List in April 2009.
- Beaumont, P.B., & Vogel, J.C. 2006. On a timescale for the past million years of human history in central South Africa. South African Journal of Science 102:217–228; Chazan, M., Ron, H., Matmon, A., Porat, N., Goldberg, P., Yates, R., Avery, M., Sumner, A., & Horwitz, L.K. 2008. Radiometric dating of the Earlier Stone Age sequence in Excavation I at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa: preliminary results. Journal of Human Evolution 55:1–11.
- Beaumont, P.B., & Vogel, J.C. 2006. On a timescale for the past million years of human history in central South Africa. South African Journal of Science 102:217–228
- Chazan, M., Ron, H., Matmon, A., Porat, N., Goldberg, P., Yates, R., Avery, M., Sumner, A., & Horwitz, L.K. 2008. Radiometric dating of the Earlier Stone Age sequence in Excavation I at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa: preliminary results. Journal of Human Evolution 55:1–11.
- Thackeray, A.I., Thackeray, J.F., Beaumont, P.B. & Vogel, J.C. 1981. Dated rock engravings from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Science 214, 64–67.
- Mitchell, P. 2002. The archaeology of Southern Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Malan, B.D. & Cooke, H.B.S. 1941. A preliminary account of the Wonderwerk Cave, Kuruman district. South African Journal of Science 37, 300–312; Malan, B.D. & Wells, L.H. 1943. A further report on the Wonderwerk Cave, Kuruman. South African Journal of Science 40, 258–270.
- Butzer, K.W., Stuckenrath, R. & Vogel, J.C. 1979. The geo-archeological sequence of Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Abstract of paper presented to the Society of Africanist Archaeologists in America, Calgary, April 1979; Butzer, K.W. 1984. Archeogeology and Quaternary environment in the interior of Southern Africa. In: Klein, R.G. (ed.). Southern African prehistory and paleoenvironments, 1–64. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.
- Beaumont, P. 1990. Wonderwerk Cave. In Beaumont, P. & Morris, D. (eds.). Guide to archaeological sites in the Northern Cape, 101–134. Kimberley: McGregor Museum; Beaumont, P.B., & Vogel, J.C. 2006. On a timescale for the past million years of human history in central South Africa. South African Journal of Science 102:217–228; Beaumont, P.B. & Vogel, J.C. 2008. Discovering the deep African past at Wonderwerk Cave. Quest 4(3):3–7; Binneman, J. & Beaumont, P. 1992. Use-wear analysis of two Acheulean handaxes from Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape. Southern African Field Archaeology 1, 92–97; Mercier, N., Valladas, H. & Valladas, G. 1995. Flint thermoluminescence dates from the CFR Laboratory at GIF: Contributions to the study of the chronology of the Middle Palaeolithic. Quaternary Science Reviews 14, 351–364.
- Humphreys, A.J.B. & Thackeray, A.I. 1983. Ghaap and Gariep. Late Stone Age studies in the Northern Cape. Cape Town: South African Archaeological Society Monograph Series No.2.
- Chazan, M., Ron, H., Matmon, A., Porat, N., Goldberg, P., Yates, R., Avery, M., Sumner, A., & Horwitz, L.K. 2008. Radiometric dating of the Earlier Stone Age sequence in Excavation I at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa: preliminary results. Journal of Human Evolution 55:1–11; Rüther, H., Chazan, M., Schroeder, R., Neeser, R., Held, C., Walker, S.J., Matmon, A. & Kolska Horwitz, L. 2009. Laser scanning for conservation and research of African cultural heritage sites: the case study of Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 36:1847–1856.
- Rüther, H., Chazan, M., Schroeder, R., Neeser, R., Held, C., Walker, S.J., Matmon, A. & Kolska Horwitz, L. 2009. Laser scanning for conservation and research of African cultural heritage sites: the case study of Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 36:1847–1856.
- Bamford, M. & Thackeray, F. 2009. Continued excavations at Wonderwerk Cave. The Digging Stick 26(2):21–22.
- Thackeray, J.F. 1984. Man, animals and extinctions: the analysis of Holocene faunal remains from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. PhD dissertation, Yale University
- Avery, D.M. 1981. Holocene micro-mammalian faunas from the northern Cape Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 77, 265–273; Avery, D.M. 1995. Southern savannas and Pleistocene hominid adaptations: the micromammalian perspective. In: Vrba, E.S.; Denton, S.H.; Partridge, T.C. & Burckle, L.M. (eds.). Palaeoclimate and evolution with emphasis on human origins, 459–478. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Beaumont, P.B., van Zinderen Bakker, E.M. & Vogel, J.C. 1984. Environmental changes since 32 000 BP at Kathu Pan, northern Cape. In: Vogel, J.C. (ed.). Late Cainozoic palaeoclimates of the Southern Hemisphere, 329–338. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema; Scott, L., Steenkamp, M. & Beaumont, P.B. 1995. Palaeoenvironmental conditions in South Africa at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. Quaternary Science Reviews 14, 937–947..
- Butzer, K.W. 1984. Archeogeology and Quaternary environment in the interior of Southern Africa. In: Klein, R.G. (ed.). Southern African prehistory and paleoenvironments, 1–64. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.
- Morris, D. 2002. Driekopseiland and 'the rain's magic power'. MA Dissertation, University of the Western Cape
- Chazan, M. & Horwitz, L.K. 2009. Milestones in the development of symbolic behaviour: a case study from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Abstract. World Archaeology 41:521–539.
- Martin, J. 2008. A Millimetre of Dust: visiting ancestral sites. Cape Town: Kwela Books
- Ghaap: Sonnets from the Northern Cape. Cape Town: Kwela Books/Snailpress
- Notice No 178, Government Gazette Vol 537, No 33006, 12 March 2010, pp 11–13.
- World Monuments Fund (6 October 2009). "World Monuments Fund Announces 2010 World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites". World Monuments Fund. Retrieved 8 October 2009.