Pinnacle Point [PP13B] (South Africa)

Pinnacle Point Cave entrance
Overview of Pinnacle Point on the south coast of South Africa. © Science/AAAS


Pinnacle Point, also known as PP13B, is the name of a sea cave in the coastal cliffs near Mossel Bay, on the southern coast of South Africa. The site includes an extensive Middle Stone Age deposit with multiple occupations, dated between 39,000 and 162,000 years ago, consisting of uncemented deposits with intermittent hearth ash.

Formation and Occupation

Pinnacle Point was created by wave action during elevated sea levels, preferentially eroding out fault breccias in the South African coastline.

The first sedimentary deposits in the cave date to 400,000 years ago, during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS)11. Human occupation of the cave began about 162,000 years ago and lasted until about 90,000 years ago, when the cave was closed by sand dunes. The cave opened up again after about 40,000 years ago, although the occupation at that time was limited.

The current cave has a circular opening which faces east and overlooks the ocean: high tide meets the cliff about 15 meters (50 feet) below the cave opening. The cave floor is approximately 30 m (100 ft) long by 8 m (26 ft) wide; and it still provides shelter for local fishermen.

The cave is one of several South African Middle Stone Age sites which show multiple lenses of burned material and hearths. Recent phytolith studies at Pinnacle Point indicate that the fires included herbacious monocots and sedges, and to a lesser degree tree bark, leaves and timber.

Wood was not readily available to the residents.

Modern Behaviors at Pinnacle Point

The oldest levels at Pinnacle Point have been dated by a combination of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and uranium-thorium dating of a speleotherm to 162,000 years ago. The oldest level includes both Levallois and bladelet (Howiesons Poort-like) technologies, and hundreds of pieces of pigment (red ochre).

The largest pieces of ochre show evidence of use, haivng been either ground or scraped: the color of all the pieces is a deep, saturated, very dark red, and the source has been located some 5 kilometers (3 miles) north of the site. The faunal assemblage is limited to shellfish, collected primarily from nearby tidal pools.

Pinnacle Point represents the oldest known occurrence of human consumption of shellfish and an early use of ochre. Most interesting is that the bladelet technologies associated with the Howiesons Poort-like assemblage are dated to ca 70,000 years old; the Pinnacle Point assemblage is not Howiesons Poort, but shares some technological characteristics.

A recent (2009) examination of worked silcrete stone from Pinnacle Point indicates that it was heat-treated. This is the oldest known example of such technology. All of these features indicate a sophisticated level of modern behaviors thought until recently to have been associated with the Upper Paleolithic of Europe: Pinnacle Point is one of the key pieces of evidence supporting the early florescence of modern human behaviors in Africa.


This glossary entry is a part of the Guide to the Middle Stone Age in Africa, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Albert RM, and Marean CW. 2012. The Exploitation of Plant Resources by Early Homo sapiens: The Phytolith Record from Pinnacle Point 13B Cave, South Africa. Geoarchaeology 27(4):363-384.

Bar-Matthews M, Marean CW, Jacobs Z, Karkanas P, Fisher EC, Herries AIR, Brown K, Williams HM, Bernatchez J, Ayalon A et al. 2010. A high resolution and continuous isotopic speleothem record of paleoclimate and paleoenvironment from 90 to 53 ka from Pinnacle Point on the south coast of South Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews 29(17–18):2131-2145.

Brown KS, Marean CW, Herries AIR, Jacobs Z, Tribolo C, Braun D, Roberts DL, Meyer MC, and Bernatchez J. 2009. Fire As an Engineering Tool of Early Modern Humans. Science 325:859-862.

Marean CW. 2010. Pinnacle Point Cave 13B (Western Cape Province, South Africa) in context: The Cape Floral kingdom, shellfish, and modern human origins.

Journal of Human Evolution 59(3–4):425-443.

Marean CW, Bar-Matthews M, Bernatchez J, Fisher E, Goldberg P, Herries AIR, Jacobs Z, Jerardino A, Karkanas P, Minichillo T et al. . 2007. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 449:905-909.

McBrearty S, and Stringer C. 2007. The coast in colour. Nature 449:793-794.

Thompson JC, and Henshilwood CS. 2011. Taphonomic analysis of the Middle Stone Age larger mammal faunal assemblage from Blombos Cave, southern Cape, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 60(6):746-767.