Diepkloof Rock Shelter

Middle Stone Age in South Africa

Diepkloof Rock Shelter
Diepkloof Rock Shelter. Vincent Mourre

Diepkloof rock shelter is an important Middle Stone Age cave site, located on the Atlantic coast of Western Cape Province of South Africa, about 180 kilometers (112 miles) north of Cape Town. The 3.1 meter (10 ft) thick Middle Stone Age deposits include evidence of both Still Bay and Howiesons Poort techno-complexes, spanning Marine Isotope Stages 5d and the beginning of MIS 3, or about 115,000-60,000 years ago.

Diepkloof's three square meter (32 square feet) across deposits are remarkable for the recovery of engraved ostrich egg shells and ochre fragments, as well as exceptional preservation of organic material including seeds, flowers and twigs.

Radiocarbon, thermoluminescence and optical luminescence dating techniques have each been brought to bear on the archaeological deposits, to date and identify the stratigraphic units apparent at the site. The site record, while not perfect, provides important evidence concerning the dating and technological capacities of early modern humans in South Africa.

Human remains recovered from Diepkloof are restricted to two pedal phalanges and a deciduous first molar, all early modern humans.


  • Lithostratigraphic Unit 4 (LU4), 77-50 thousand years ago (ka), Late and Post-Howiesons Poort
  • LU3, 83-77ka, Intermediate Howiesons Poort
  • LU2, 107-83ka, pre-Still Bay, Still Bay, early Howiesons Poort
  • LU1, >107 ka, uncharacterized MSA

Dates from Diepkloof (greatly simplified here) add to the growing data on early modern human behaviors in South Africa represented by technologically distinct artifact traditions, including but not limited to Howiesons Poort (HP) and Still Bay (SB), and indicating that both were present in South Africa by 100 ka.

Early Modern Behaviors

Diepkloof's deposits contain evidence for behavioral modernity with activities such as collecting raw material for stone tools from long-distance sources (~105ka, early HP), engraving abstract decorations on ostrich egg shell containers (~105 ka, early HP and ~83ka, intermediate HP), and using a hafting adhesive (early HP, 105 ka and intermediate HP, ~83ka). Ochre powder production is in evidence at Diepkloof beginning at least 107ka, and non-local ochre sources are present by ~77ka. Soft-hammer percussion to produce blades, and geometric backed pieces are in evidence by 100ka (early HP).

Faunal remains from the site indicate a somewhat changing repertoire of foods, partly a result of climatic changes over the period. The earliest levels show a dependence on land mammals such as hares (Lepus spp), dune molerats (Bathyergus suillus), hyraxes (Procavia capensis), and small bovids (steenbok or grysbok, Raphicerus spp). Marine mammals (cape fur seal, Arctocephalus pusillus) and shellfish (mostly black mussel [Choromytilus meridionali] and limpets [Cymbula granatina]) were found in the deposits dating as early as 85ka.

Lithics and Eggshell

Lithic (stone tool) materials include a wide variety of stone materials, including quartzite, quartz, silcrete, and hornfels.

A geological survey was conducted for the coastal zone area of the western and northern Cape provinces, and exotic materials (classed as at least 20 kilometers [12 miles] from Diepkloof) were found to include a high quality silcrete. Exotic materials were found to make up more than 50% of the Howiesons Poort and Still Bay phase collections.

A total of 408 engraved ostrich eggshell container fragments were recovered (Texier et al. 2010, 2013), from levels throughout the HP sequence. Engravings were primarily a series of deep, straight, sub-parallel lines or hatched bands. Ostrich egg shells average 160 millimeters (6 inches) long and 130 mm (5 in) wide, with an average volume of about one liter (~2 pints).

After refitting some of the shell pieces, researchers (Texier et al. 2013) have identified five motifs in the engraving patterns on the eggshell: hatched-band (including orthogonally and obliquely hatched; n=121 fragments; crosshatched grid (n=9); sub-parallel intersecting lines (n=43); reversed curvature (n=2); and sub-parallel rectilinear or curved lines (n=37).

Others bears isolated striations.

Technological Change

The excavators at Diepkloof are of the opinion that, based on their results, what archaeologists call bifacial Still Bay and Howiesons Poort techno-complexes are the result of fairly rapid technological change, brought about by the rapid adoption of innovations by resident populations. This is in sharp contrast to other interpretations elsewhere, which suggest that these techno-complexes represent the movement of distinct cultural groups around the landscape.


Diepkloof rock shelter was first investigated in the 1960s for the rock paintings on the shelter walls. The first excavations were made by J.E. Parkington and C. Poggenpoel in 1973, who identified Middle Stone Age occupations buried beneath shallow Later Stone Age ones. Reexcavation of the Howiesons Poort layers took place in 1986, and in the late 1990s, Jean-Philippe Rigaud and Pierre-Jean Texier combined with Parkington to conduct studies comparing Middle to Later Stone Age South Africa to Middle to Upper Paleolithic Europe.


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Howiesons Poort/Still Bay, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Charrié-Duhaut A, Porraz G, Cartwright CR, Igreja M, Connan J, Poggenpoel C, and Texier P-J. 2013. First molecular identification of a hafting adhesive in the Late Howiesons Poort at Diepkloof Rock Shelter (Western Cape, South Africa). Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3506-3518.

Igreja M, and Porraz G. 2013. Functional insights into the innovative Early Howiesons Poort technology at Diepkloof Rock Shelter (Western Cape, South Africa). Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3475-3491.

Miller CE, Goldberg P, and Berna F. 2013. Geoarchaeological investigations at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa.

Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3432-3452.

Parkington JE, Rigaud JP, Poggenpoel C, Porraz G, and Texier PJ. 2013. Introduction to the project and excavation of Diepkloof Rock Shelter (Western Cape, South Africa): a view on the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3369-3375.

Porraz G, Parkington JE, Rigaud J-P, Miller CE, Poggenpoel C, Tribolo C, Archer W, Cartwright CR, Charrié-Duhaut A, Dayet L et al. 2013. The MSA sequence of Diepkloof and the history of southern African Late Pleistocene populations. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3542-3552.

Porraz G, Texier P-J, Archer W, Piboule M, Rigaud J-P, and Tribolo C. 2013. Technological successions in the Middle Stone Age sequence of Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3376-3400.

Texier P-J, Porraz G, Parkington J, Rigaud J-P, Poggenpoel C, Miller C, Tribolo C, Cartwright C, Coudenneau A, Klein R et al. 2010. A Howiesons Poort tradition of engraving ostrich eggshell containers dated to 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(14):6180-6185.

Texier P-J, Porraz G, Parkington J, Rigaud J-P, Poggenpoel C, and Tribolo C.

2013. The context, form and significance of the MSA engraved ostrich eggshell collection from Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3412-3431.

Verna C, Texier P-J, Rigaud J-P, Poggenpoel C, and Parkington J. 2013. The Middle Stone Age human remains from Diepkloof Rock Shelter (Western Cape, South Africa). Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3532-3541.

Tribolo C, Mercier N, Douville E, Joron JL, Reyss JL, Rufer D, Cantin N, Lefrais Y, Miller CE, Porraz G et al. 2013. OSL and TL dating of the Middle Stone Age sequence at Diepkloof Rock Shelter (South Africa): a clarification. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3401-3411.