Summary of Appeal against Housing Approval

Careful excavation at the Sibudu rock shelter.




Executive summary


Sibudu Cave is one of South Africa’s most important archaeological sites and its nomination for World Heritage status demonstrates that it is also one of the World’s most important archaeological sites. The heritage at Sibudu belongs to all humanity. Sibudu has been widely publicised in the popular media as well as in scientific journals. The creation of a World Heritage site with its associated public facilities (for example, a tourist theme park) will be immensely beneficial to the area; it will have great educational and tourist value. Sibudu cannot be moved so it must be protected from potentially damaging influences in its vicinity. The proposed Wewe/Driefontein Development will result in damage to the sensitive archaeological site. Furthermore, the development immediately adjacent to Sibudu will result in the rejection of Sibudu’s nomination as a World Heritage site because the surrounding area will have lost its integrity. If this happens, KwaZulu-Natal will have missed an opportunity to showcase one of its treasures. We recommend cancelling permission for the housing development immediately adjacent to Sibudu (Portion 1 of the farm Wewe no. 17825: title deed number t40186/2009 of 150.7875 ha). We do not ask for rejection of the entire development.


Background to Sibudu 

Sibudu Cave is one of South Africa’s most important archaeological sites. It was excavated 1998-2011 under the directorship of Professor Lyn Wadley, University of the Witwatersrand, and it is now being excavated under the directorship of Professor Nicholas Conard, University of Tübingen, Germany. It is known all over the world, to the extent that it even features in a display in the renowned Smithsonian Museum in the USA. It has been the subject of 100 scientific peer-reviewed publications since 2001, many of which were published in internationally renowned journals. The list is attached at the end of this document. It has also featured in popular magazines, including internationally important ones like Science and The Economist, both of which have hundreds of thousands of readers across the globe. Enclosed in the Appendix is an Excel file listing more than 600 international press releases in December 2011 in response to the breaking story in one of the world’s top two science magazines:

       Wadley, L., Sievers, C., Bamford, M., Goldberg, P., Berna, & Miller, C.  2011. Middle          Stone Age bedding construction and settlement patterns at Sibudu, South Africa.                                                                                              Science 334: 1388-1391.


The Sibudu story reached every corner of the world. In addition to the press releases, there were radio interviews carrying the story in almost every English-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking country. The press releases alone must surely be convincing evidence that this incredible and prolific archaeological site needs protection for the intellectual and cultural benefit of future generations in South Africa as well as the rest of the world.


In addition to its media profile, the site is proclaimed important by archaeologists and scientists world-wide. Letters and quotes from letters by eminent researchers and the spokespersons for eminent scientific associations are attached in the Appendix. They stress the importance of Sibudu and the need to protect the site from problems that will arise if there is an increased human footprint in the area close to it.


As a result of its heritage significance, Sibudu is on the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) list as part of a serial nomination for World Heritage status together with five other South African Stone Age sites that inform us about the way in which early modern humans developed complex behaviour of the kind performed by people today (see It is also in the final stages of being declared a Provincial Heritage and National Heritage site (the application for this status was lodged in April 2011 and has been delayed by administrative problems in both the heritage agencies, Amafa and SAHRA).


Amongst finds of great importance, Sibudu has some of the world’s earliest sea-shell beads (71,000 years old), the earliest bone arrowheads for hunting with bows (65,000 years old), and it has the earliest known use of herbal medicine in the world (77,000 years ago). It also has the earliest preserved plant bedding in the world (77,000 years old). The site is well-dated and it preserves the remains of extinct animals, like giant horses and giant buffalo, as well as seeds and charred wood from trees not found in the area today. It is therefore a valuable environmental archive as well as a cultural one. Archaeobotanists have identified plants at Sibudu that, today, have medicinal value for a variety of purposes. These plants were located in specific places in the rock shelter, suggesting that they were deliberately selected and not accidentally included in firewood bundles. Sibudu therefore helps to demonstrate the antiquity of South Africa’s profound indigenous knowledge. This is not a small matter because South Africa should be celebrating indigenous knowledge far more than it presently does. It is one effective way to build a national sense of pride. This is well known in South Africa and the National Research Foundation (NRF) specifically and preferentially funds projects that explore indigenous knowledge.


The importance of the site requires that, in the national interest, any developments in Sibudu’s vicinity are made in a way that ensures its safety in perpetuity. Sibudu has a non-renewable heritage resource that deserves protection.  Sibudu cannot be moved in order to preserve it; it has to remain where it is. In contrast, it is possible to place housing estates elsewhere. Indeed, it is particularly feasible to re-position an estate before it is built.


Valuable data remain to be explored and recovered from Sibudu and these will be lost if urgent action to protect the site is not taken. While the major responsibility for such protection may ultimately rest with South African heritage agencies such as Amafa (the KwaZulu-Natal heritage agency) and SAHRA (the national heritage agency), all South Africans need to appreciate their irreplaceable heritage. Urgent steps must be taken to prevent the inevitable damage that will be caused by a potential increase of population in close proximity to Sibudu. It is not appropriate to claim simply that Sibudu is not on the land to be developed. If a developer were planning a mine, or a piggery, the proximity of such developments to neighbours would be taken seriously. The rather different threat posed by a housing development planned adjacent to a potential World Heritage site must also be taken seriously.  

The remainder of the appeal can be e-mailed on request to you by the Friends of Sibudu.  It is structured as follows:

Page 1. Background to Sibudu

Page 3. What does it mean to be a World Heritage site?

Page 4. Why should Sibudu be saved?

Page 5. Recommendations

Page 6. One hundred Sibudu Peer Reviewed Publications 2015-2001

APPENDIX (letters of support from professional archaeologists for the Sibudu appeal, and 600 media reports from December 2011)