Speaker:         Dr Janette Deacon

Location and history

Matjes River Rock Shelter is on private property above the western bank of the mouth of the Matjes River, a small stream a few hundred metres east of the beach at Keurboomstrand.  It was declared a national monument in 1960 because it is one of the largest shell middens in a rock shelter in the world.  Since the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) replaced the National Monuments Act, all former national monuments have become Provincial Heritage Sites and in the Western Cape are managed by Heritage Western Cape in the provincial Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport in Cape Town.

 A ‘midden’ is simply a pile of discarded food remains such as ash, shell, vegetable matter and bone. This one, which is about 30 m long, 15 m wide and 10 m deep, tells the story of the people who lived there between 10,800 and 1,000 years ago against a backdrop of the climatic changes that took place worldwide during that time. Mussels and limpets were a major food source and have added to the bulk of the midden. Over 100 people were buried in the shelter, most of them children.

In 1928/29 the first archaeological excavations of the midden were undertaken by Prof T.F. Dreyer, a Zoologist at the University of the Orange Free State.  After World War II, further excavations were done in 1952-57 by Dr A.C. Hoffman of the National Museum, Bloemfontein, and Dr A.J.D. Meiring of the State Museum, Windhoek. They were interested mainly in the burials in order to identify the hunter-gatherer people who lived there.  In the belief that most of the graves would be against the back wall of the shelter, they dug away all the midden in that area, and put a trench at right angles to it in the middle of the midden, thereby isolating two piles of deposit that are no longer supported by the rock wall. They concluded that the inhabitants were the ancestors of the San (Bushmen) who were joined within the last 2000 years by ancestors of Khoe herders.

Some 40 years later, Prof H.J. Deacon, head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Stellenbosch, conducted further excavations in 1993-94 and the results were reported in a MA thesis by Willemien Dockel. The purpose of this excavation was to test whether the earlier work had reached the base of the midden (it had), and to obtain radiocarbon dates on the shells to correlate changes in sea level, and therefore climate, over the past 10,000 years. Unfortunately, erosion of the top of the midden caused by wind erosion and people trampling on it, had already removed the most recent 4000 years of the deposit in Layer A.

The results of all three excavation seasons confirmed that the rock shelter was occupied by Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers who made stone and bone tools and shell ornaments, collected shellfish, fished, hunted small game animals and seals and collected plant foods such as bulbs, herbs and fruits from the coastal forest.  They lived on the midden, made fires there, prepared skins for leather clothing and made hunting, fishing and gathering equipment. Graves were sometimes covered with powdered red ochre, and sometimes with large stones – one of which had an enigmatic painting on it – and a few were accompanied by shell and ostrich eggshell ornaments.

Changes through time

Over the time that people have lived in Matjes River Rock Shelter many changes have taken place.


   •          Layer A (4000 to less than 2000 years ago): a few potsherds at the very top, a few stone tools, a stone sinker, beads of shell, ostrich eggshell and tortoiseshell, small antelope bones

   •          Layer B (4700 to 6700 years ago): stone and polished bone tools for working leather, seal and fish bones

   •          Layer C (6700-7900 years ago): well made small stone tools and ornaments, burials covered with red ochre

   •          Layer D (9600-10,800 years ago):  large stone tools, bone ‘fish gorges’

Economy and lifestyle

A major change in economy took place when, between 1000 and 2000 years ago, Khoe herders came into the area and left behind some sherds of the pottery they made to store milk products from their sheep and cattle. They also hunted and collected shellfish.

Their lifestyle contrasted with that of the earlier San hunter-gatherers.


Changes in shellfish species reflect changing climate over the past 10,000 years. During the Last Glacial Maximum which peaked at 18,000 years ago, there was so much water locked up in the ice caps at the north and south poles that sea levels worldwide were 130 m below their present level. At that time you would not have seen the sea from Matjes River rock shelter. Global temperatures began to rise and the ice caps began to melt from about 14,000 years ago.

Layer D has mostly white sand mussels and black mussels indicating a sandy beach, lower sea level, and colder sea temperature. At this time (between 11,000 and 9000 years ago), the ice caps at the north and south pole were continuing to melt but the sea level was not yet as high as it is now.

In Layer C there are more limpets indicating a rocky shore as the sea level continued to rise.

In Layer B, the predominance of brown mussels indicates warmer sea temperatures. At this time (5-6000 years ago) it was slightly warmer worldwide and the sea level was about 2 m higher than at present.

The earlier excavators reported brown mussel shells in Layer A but as this layer was absent in the 1990s, the numbers of shellfish species could not be confirmed.

Conservation challenges

For some years after the rock shelter was declared a national monument, a caretaker was employed to be present at the site during school holidays and at weekends. After the caretaker died, no one was appointed to replace him. Visitors walked on top of the midden and climbed the steep slopes, and the fence and notice board were broken. When the excavations were completed in 1993, a wooden boardwalk was constructed with the help of the National Monuments Council, CapeNature and local donors to keep visitors away from the top and sides of the midden. Sandbags were wrapped in geotextile to protect the slopes and two information boards were installed. A peel of the sections was made for display purposes. About ten years later, after damage to the geotextile and bags by people or baboons, the Keurboomstrand Property Owners Association coordinated repairs and put up a ladder for easier access to the forest path, and SANParks with a Working for Water team made the path safer.

Because there is no sand available in the vicinity of the rock shelter to fill more sandbags, wind continues to erode the slope of the midden that has not been supported by sandbags and geotextile. The next step is to persuade some young and energetic people to fill bags with dry sand from the sides of the river mouth and carry them up the hill to the rock shelter. When we have enough, they can be wrapped in geotextile and stacked in place.

Any volunteers?