AS I SWAYED IN A SMALL BOAT at the wild tip of the Dark Continent, the maw of a great cavern in front of me, my wildly beating heart told me that I wouldnt lack inspiration when the time came to write about Operation Zembe (zembe means axe in the local Nguni dialect).
     Not only were we an international expedition, a mix of diving adventurers drawn from around the world, but we were also on a genuinely pioneering quest, an Indiana Jones-style exploration of echoing sea caverns in search of the faintest traces of our long-lost past.
     Added to the mix was the presence of a master predator in the waters around us. The cold, dark currents that wash the Cape of Good Hope and its stark peninsula are the hunting grounds for huge numbers of great whites.
     As a marine biologist and passionate shark enthusiast, I knew perfectly well that the chances of an attack were infinitesimal. No scuba diver has never been taken by a great white in South Africa while under the water.
     But while this is a matter of eyebrow-raising interest while reading about it at home, its slightly trickier to hold that thought while creeping through eerie kelp forests in a muscular swell, the sun dappling the seabed around you, and every dark shadow a lurking monster.
     The fear of great whites is primaeval, a stark negative image burnt on some ancient part of the brain, and the trembling mammal within you makes it difficult to shake off.
     Our quest was inspired by Dr Bruno Werz, a jocular maritime archaeologist who had chanced on a stone-age hand-axe while excavating a 17th century shipwreck in Table Bay. Removing it from the seabed with trembling fingers, he was immediately aware of the significance of his find.

The hand-axe was discovered close to the wreck of the Dutch East India Company vessel Waddinxveen. Both this and its sister-ship the Oosterland sank on 24 May, 1697 during a violent storm, and the wreck sites were partially excavated during the 1990s.
     During a sampling exercise, aimed at studying the sequential build-up of sediment layers, the hand-axe was found in a brownish-red layer that represents an old land surface.
     This layer was about 3.5m below the lowest level in which cultural material from the wreck was found, and separated from it by thick deposits of sand and stone. This indicated that the object was deposited many thousands of years before the wrecking of the Waddinxveen.
     The axe is made of locally occurring stone and represents one of the most common and versatile tools of the Early Stone Age; a kind of prehistoric Leatherman.
     Dating based on typology indicates that the axe is at least 300,000 years old, but may be as much as 1.4 million.
     This makes it the oldest artefact ever found under water anywhere in the world.
     The find was reported in an article in the South African Journal of Science, causing an international stir. One of the immediate results was an offer from the Scientific Exploration Society (SES) to go to South Africa to render assistance.

The Dorset-based SES had put together a truly global team for this project. This was allied with tremendous enthusiasm among local dive operators, and glancing around the boat I saw American, Brazilian, Dutch, South African and British divers, as well as local skipper Mike Millest from Marine Charters, and the irrepressible Reon Coetzee from Dive South. Lives had been put on hold, bank accounts emptied, and many an air mile ticked off to put this team together, and the drive and anticipation we felt as we prepared to explore this cave was palpable.
     We were anchored at the mouth of our first major find, almost at the very tip of the Cape of Good Hope, a jagged peninsula jutting into the great swells where two oceans meet.
     Final checks were completed with the dive team, and after exchanging suspiciously enthusiastic OKs, we tumbled into the frigid waters above the great kelp beds leading to the mouth of the cavern.
     Bruno co-ordinated the team on the seabed, attempting to arrange the divers in a lateral formation to sweep a search area leading to the cave mouth.
     A week of being barrelled along on an undersea roller-coaster from stark ridge to creepy overhang, from streaming kelp bed to jumbled boulders, had honed all of our diving skills, and soon the team were in a neat line ready to advance.

One of the big challenges of Operation Zembe is that a new methodology has to be devised, as no such project had been undertaken before, certainly not in Africa.
     The basic idea is to scan areas of seabed and identify potential sites where prehistoric people may have lived. In the course of these searches, other interesting information may be obtained that can explain the formation of the - currently submerged - landscape, and the transformations it underwent.
     Focal points are rock overhangs or caves that could have provided basic accommodation. The presence of a source for drinking water, sufficient game and edible roots, bulbs and plants nearby, are also important. The basic brief to divers is: If you were walking around here and needed a place to spend the night, where would you go
     To look for potential archaeological occupation sites under water and other features such as palaeo-beaches, it is essential to work systematically.
     The diver searches are similar to those used to locate a lost anchor or a wallet dropped overboard.
     For this first phase of Operation Zembe, divers were often dropped at a demarcated point. Under water, they were lined up and a transect was followed to a point on shore. Later, the information gained during such sweeps will be compared to small-scale survey data provided by the South African Navy and others.

As we began to move, eyes scanning ahead to evidence of further overhangs, I took the time to glance around me at what must be one of the richest cold-water dive sites on Earth.
     The waters of this region support a dazzling array of life, and the colours in the shallows defy description. Blue and red anemones sit alongside luminous green sponges, with urchins moving in sedate herds in the patches between.
     Everything is set against a backdrop of a Tolkienesque forest of kelp, all dappled light and great stalks extending to spread over the surface.
     Beneath almost every tiny overhang and small crevice are crayfish, present in greater densities than anywhere else I have ever seen. Garishly striped pyjama sharks sweep along white sand airstrips between the boulders, watchful for raggedtooth sharks and the ever-present seals.
     At the start of our trip we had stood on the Cape road, watching the great swells hurl themselves at the shore, while four southern right whales rolled lazily in the embers of an African sunset.
     On the previous day, I had spent the entire dive being effortlessly outwitted by an octopus which seemed as interested in my presence as I was in enticing him out of his hole. The highlight was a lazy tentacle extended in my direction as I finally moved away, brushing over my dive kit in a final exploration.
     Such thoughts were rudely interrupted as the water darkened around me, and we at last entered the narrow mouth of the cavern.

During the first phase of the project, a number of caverns and caves were located and inspected, some just above water level or partly submerged. They provided the first clues of the potential presence of similar underwater sites and so were incorporated in the survey.
     Most dry or semi-dry caves that the team found were cut by waves during periods in the geological history of the Earth when the sea level was slightly higher than today. Others may have become elevated as a result of uplifting of the Earths crust, or a combination of both.
     Several of the caves just above sea level are nowadays accessible only by boat, Which may explain why they do not feature in the scientific archaeological literature as yet.
     The results of the first survey with SES involvement may change this soon, as even a cursory glance at these sites by an archaeologist reveals great promise.
     The surfaces within these caves seem pristine, covered in a layer of bat guano with no evidence of digging and not even a footprint. The absence of graffiti, broken beer-bottles and other evidence of modern human behaviour are further encouraging signs, and it is hoped that future excavation may reveal evidence of prehistoric activity.
     The same applies to a few of the caverns discovered under water. Although in some instances the sea had clearly scoured out such sites, destroying evidence of past occupation, some caverns may still contain deposits that warrant further sampling.

The constricted entrance of the cavern neatly funnelled the great swells of the Atlantic into its dark interior, and the walls echoed to the percussive boom of massive waves dashing themselves against the chamber within.
     This same channelling effect swept the dive team inwards with a sudden rush of acceleration through the narrow mouth of the system into the wider middle section, the power of the waves dissipating around us.
     Lit by an eerie light from the cave mouth, the interior swept away either side of us, the roof arching off overhead into the gloom in a series of serrated outcrops.
     The whole effect was cathedral-like, made even more impressive by the boom and hiss of wave action all round us.
     Looking back, there seemed to be a distinct lip to the cave, and a flat area before us stretching away to the far wall, gradually coming into focus as our eyes adjusted to the low light.

Those caves and caverns that were occupied by prehistoric man often had similar features. Their location offered a vantage point over the surrounding area from where grazing wild life or approaching visitors could be watched.
     To offer shelter against the elements, a roof and side walls were essential. They also had to contain a relatively levelled living floor, and the access point was often demarcated by a kind of doorstep. This lip provided protection against the wind.
     Quite often, a clear distinction can be made between the cave interior and the area immediately outside. Inside, clearly distinguishable living floors can be found on top of each other, indicating different periods of occupation.
     Outside, however, sequences are not always that clear. Like us, prehistoric people discarded their rubbish, but instead of taking the bin outside, they just tossed the remains of their meals and broken tools over the lip outside.

After a careful exploration of the cave, noting regions for further study, filming and photographing key features, ever watchful on gauges and buddies in the darkness, we turned for home, once again being forcefully ejected by the swell, as if the cave was spitting us out into the kelp beds beyond.Although the main aim of the expedition was to explore this and similar marine systems, we were also taking the opportunity to crawl, slither, creep and clang our way into caves we observed from the boat as we hurtled past the cliffs of the Cape.
     This frequently meant diving from the boat to shore, then a rock-scramble up to the cave entrance, the swell bouncing us from boulder to wall, sweeping away legs and clutching at equipment.
     Grazed knuckles and heaving breath were the order of the day, and yet these caves in the cliff walls proved to be some of the most rewarding of all, undisturbed portals to a wealth of archaeological possibilities, the latest page of history lying undisturbed on the guano of the cave floor, unblemished by human footprints.
     Using this diving/climbing/scrambling technique, we found a number of tremendous systems worthy of further exploration, a lifetimes work waiting for the right team.
     One cave above all the others possessed us completely. A great slash in the cliff wall of the Cape, it was here that we made what may be the most significant find of the whole project.
     After moving into shore under water with the dive team, we entered the great overhang and surfaced to see a rocky beach ahead of us.
     Shrugging out of our gear, we moved into the caves great interior, moving in a single line to avoid disturbing the cave floor, dotted with the skeletons of seabirds on an even bed of bat guano. The cave continued ahead of us, our lights lost in the darkness, before opening out into a great vaulted chamber. Its a stone age ballroom, I heard one of the divers mutter behind me. Pushing to the back of the cave, where the ceiling arched down to the floor, we saw a small opening that led to yet another smaller chamber.
     Tying off lines at the entrance, Bruno and I crawled through this opening into the chamber. This really was Indiana Jones stuff, with cobwebs dangling down from the low roof, draping over the gently steaming backs of our wetsuits.
     Bruno paused, and turned to me to whisper that this cavern was a magnificent find. Reaching down, he lifted a rock that seemed to be different to the others around it, even to my untrained eye.
     This could well be a pounding tool, he said, turning it gently in his hand, and these rock shards around the area look extremely significant.
     I had learned long ago that when a scientist, particularly an unflappable one like Bruno, says that something is extremely significant, it is his equivalent of dancing around and whooping like a banshee. Replacing the stone in its place reverentially, Bruno turned for home, crawling past me with a resolute glint in his eye.
     We will, I feel, return one day to this mysterious cavern and carefully attempt to unlock its secrets.

Operation Zembe started in 2002 as a project from the Southern African Institute of Maritime Archaeology (SAIMA), in conjunction with the South African Navy. In 2004, the SES joined in and, during an intensive fieldwork campaign undertaken last November, much valuable data was collected.
     The first phase, aimed at locating potential archaeological sites under water and in the inter-tidal zone along the Cape coast, will continue in the years to come.
     Based on the outcome, promising sites will be selected for future sampling and excavation.
     The project stands at the threshold of a new avenue of research within archaeology, and specifically maritime archaeology.
     Even more important is that it concerns itself with the older phases of the development of humankind, making it of truly global importance.

The project had not been without incident. We had hit bluebottle season, with large swarms of these tiny jellyfish surrounding us on one dive as we surfaced. Looking like tiny Portuguese Men-of-War, they carry a virulent sting, and Bruno was lashed repeatedly across the hand as he lifted divers into the boat from within the swarms.
     A few hundred metres from one of the sites we dived in the early stages of the expedition, a bather was taken by a great white in a ferocious attack that was reported around the world.
     This co-incided with unusually large numbers of sharks being spotted in the shallows around the period of the expedition, once again an arresting thought as we drifted along cliff walls and over the white sand of the shallows.
     Nonetheless, the feeling is of a new book opened in the story of our ancestors. The cradle of mankind could well lie beneath the muscular swells of False Bay, and to be first to explore new sites for excavation was a thrill.
     The foreword of Operation Zembe has been drafted by this expedition, but there are many more chapters to come.

  • Dive South www.divesouth.co.za Marine Charters, 0021 9795672, email: m_charter@mweb.co.za

  • A
    A typical cave system on the Cape of Good Hope.
    The Operation Zembe team
    a diver explores an overhang along Atlantic coast
    Dr Bruno Werz at the cave mouth of one of the main features explored on the expedition
    The prehistoric axehead that started it all off