Palaeoenvironments and plant availability during MIS 6 to MIS 3 on the edge of the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain (south coast, South Africa) as indicated by phytolith analysis at Pinnacle Point

Irene Esteban, Curtis W. Marean, Richard M. Cowling, Erich C. Fisher, Dan Cabanes, Rosa M. Albert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The Cape south coast presents some of the world's most significant early modern human sites preserving evidence for complex human behaviour during the Middle Stone Age (MSA), and it is centrally located in the megadiverse Greater Cape Floristic Region. The extinct Palaeo-Agulhas Plain (PAP) once abutted this region, forming an important habitat for the subsistence strategies of past hunter-gatherers during the MSA. Here, we use phytoliths — amorphous silica particles that formed in cells of plants — extracted from archaeological deposits of two sites at Pinnacle Point (PP; cave 13B [PP13B] and site 5–6 [PP5-6]) to investigate the interactions between environments and hunter-gatherer foraging strategies along the Cape south coast during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 6 to MIS 3. To do this, we developed an analytical approach built on a modern plant and soil reference collection for using phytoliths from archaeological deposits for palaeoenvironmental reconstructions. In the latter phases of MIS 6, phytoliths indicate shrubby vegetation, possibly limestone fynbos, which might have occurred in inland landscapes, and this was the area preferred for plant foraging practices by the inhabitants of PP13B. During MIS 4, phytoliths at PP5-6 indicate the presence thicket and riparian vegetation on the rocky cliffs and the exposed PAP, along with some type of fynbos vegetation above the actual coastal cliffs. During interglacials MIS 5(c-e) and MIS 3 when the PAP was less exposed, the phytolith record points towards a mosaic of habitats with fynbos and thicket/forest, but also a constant presence of vegetation with high grass content dominated by a mix of both C3 and C4 species. Our data suggests a continuous inland regional mosaic of habitats with fynbos, thicket/forest and grassy vegetation that persisted during the glacial-interglacial periods. The changes observed in the phytolith record might be indicative of changes in plant foraging preferences along with slight vegetation movements in accordance with climate changes and sea level fluctuations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105667
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • C-C grass distribution
  • Cape south coast
  • Climate dynamics
  • Greater cape floristic regions
  • Humans landscape-adaptation
  • Palaeovegetation
  • Phytoliths
  • Pleistocene
  • South Africa
  • Vegetation dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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