The biosphere reserve is a centre of immense historical significance. Based on recent and ongoing research, the southern Cape coast is believed to be the place where the lineage that led to all modern human beings was born. The caves at Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay have yielded proof of the earliest human exploitation of shellfish 164,000 years ago, and the earliest known use of fire for technology in making stone tools 72,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe that the use of this technology shows that the early people in the southern Cape were capable of complex language. Heat technology was previously thought to have evolved in Europe 25,000 years ago. Another first is the earliest known human use of ochre in Stone Age rock paintings. The Pinnacle Point caves contain the oldest engraved ochre ever found, a manifestation of abstract thought and the earliest evidence of art (Marean, 2010). The hunter-gatherer San were direct descendants of these aboriginal people, and examples of their symbolic artwork can be found in caves throughout the area.
About two thousand years ago the cattle herding Khoikhoi arrived in the region, having migrated from areas north of present-day South Africa. Their nomadic existence meant that no land areas were the exclusive property of any one society. There was nevertheless some idea of territoriality. The area known today as the Klein Karoo was inhabited by the Attaqua clan, while the Gouriqua clan considered the coastal area east of the Gouritz River as their home. Further west of the Gouritz River was the domain of the Hessequa. Relations between the Khoi and the San were not completely free of conflict but they coexisted in relative harmony with each other, based on an understanding of reciprocity between the two peoples. They are also believed to have shared important traditions and narratives in terms of religion, folklore and myths.Sadly, these oral traditions proved inadequate in terms of understanding the realities of colonial conquest in the early 18th century, and were soon replaced by Christian or colonial narratives. The wholesale destruction of the Khoi and San culture by European colonists is one of the immense historical tragedies in the region. Acknowledgement of this heritage, particularly the intimate connection of their traditions to the natural ecosystems, is an important aim of the biosphere reserve.
The town of Mossel Bay traces its origins back to 1488, when Bartholomeu Dias became the first European seafarer to succeed in rounding the Cape of Good Hope, before making landfall here. In subsequent years, Mossel Bay became a regular stop for Portuguese, Dutch and English ships sailing the lucrative spice route to and from the East Indies. Sailors would leave letters to their loved ones at home in an old boot under a giant milkwood tree, to be collected by ships on their way back to Europe. Today the famous Post Office Tree of Mossel Bay still stands as a monument to this history, and a life size replica of Dias’ caravel is on public display nearby.
The villages of Zoar and Amalienstein are former mission stations. Situated halfway between Ladismith and Calitzdorp, the two settlements have an interwoven history. Named after the biblical name, Zoar was founded in 1817 by the South African Missionary Society as a refuge for the KhoiSan in the Little Karoo. When founder missionary Joubert left in 1833 the South African Missionary Society called in the help of the Berlin Mission Society which took over the station. By 1838 Zoar had a church and huts forming a village inhabited by 300 to 400 Khoi people. The inhabitants were taught farming methods and religious instruction and received an education. Emancipated slaves also settled here. The Berlin Mission Society later bought adjacent land, set up its own station named Amalienstein, after its benefactress Frau Amalie von Stein, and erected a church, school and houses. Later, both stations were handed over to the Dutch Reformed Church. Efforts are currently underway to establish an organic seed production enterprise involving the Zoar Community Trust.
Scattered across the biosphere reserve are remnants of late 19th century British stone forts, a testament to the area’s Anglo-Boer War history. This titanic struggle, fought by the British to gain supremacy throughout southern Africa and by Afrikaner people of Dutch descent to preserve their independence, marks a critical period in the country’s history, and led in 1910 to the establishment of South Africa as a single nation-state.