Victor and Bertie bent over their task, clearing away the sandy earth from their latest discovery. With each, painstaking brushstroke a blackened skull began to take shape.
Victor Peers stood up, and with hands on hips he pushed his shoulders back to relieve the aches. He walked over and looked out from Skildergat Cave. Grasses outside swayed under the north-westerly wind, but the sandstone shelter protected him and his family from the rain the wind brought. Victor could see Fish Hoek, nestled below in the sand hills. His lookout, more than 100 metres above, gave him the perfect vantage to view the panorama of the Atlantic Ocean in the west or across False Bay towards the Indian Ocean in the east. The sea (a bountiful supplier of fish, mussels, shellfish and crayfish collected by the cave’s ancient inhabitants) lapped the wind-swept valley of shifting sand dunes on two sides.
The voice of his son broke Victor’s reverie.
“Dad, I think we might have something special here.”
“Let me look, Bertie,” said his younger sister, Dulcie, as she picked her way from her seat amongst the detritus of the midden that her father and brother had excavated over the previous months.
The men had spent every bit of their spare time on weekends and annual leave to dig through over one metre of the midden, finding bones and artefacts used by the cave’s inhabitants. Dulcie had helped on occasions by carting the spoil away, but her trips to the heap had lessened this day as the men slowed down their excavation of this one treasure, located below the midden layer and deeper than anything they had found before.
Belle joined her daughter as well, and with Victor they went to see what Bertie’s efforts had uncovered. Dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, the young man sat on the ground of the cave, crouched over the current area of interest. The trowels and sieves of father and son had been cast aside, exchanged for more meticulous tools. Bertie continued brushing away the earth.
Dulcie’s enthusiasm waned. Impatient with the process, she retired to her former seat amongst the debris. She’d seen it before – another skeleton to add to the collection of bones, shell pendants, ostrich eggshell beads, and stone tools that were in their house in Fish Hoek. The skeletons represented more modern man, but the thousands of stone tools that adorned the Peers house were relics of Middle Stone Age man, between 40,000 and 200,000 years old.
The new discovery intrigued Victor, and he rejoined his son to help extricate the skull from its grave where it had lain for thousands of years.
That day, the skull, considered too precious for the rucksack full of other artefacts they had found, was carried home in Belle’s hat.
Bertie Peers with the skull discovered in the cave 
This discovery had archeologists the world over abuzz, and it brought fame in 1929 to the amateurs, Victor and Bertie. The skull bones, designated Fish Hoek Man, were the oldest fossilised bones of modern man discovered up until that time.
Bertie Peers inside Skildergat Cave (now Peers Cave) 
The Peers men, Victor, a keen amateur botanist, and Bertie, a collector of wildlife, particularly reptiles, were members of the Cape Natural History Club. They came across the cave in their many excursions around Fish Hoek looking for specimens. Often, Belle and Dulcie accompanied them.
When the men saw the shells and realised the potential for prehistoric relics, they obtained a permit to fossick. After they found the first implements, Bertie sought the advice of John Goodwin, South Africa’s first archeologist. Goodwin trained the Peers in archaeological techniques. They discovered many stone and bone implements, along with beads and ornaments. They also found the remains of a number of people buried in the shelter.
Bertie Peers said of the area,
“we have come to the conclusion that if we go on digging for the rest of our lives – we do all the excavation work ourselves – we shall not come to the end of the precious things that are hidden in this valley.”
– Cape Times (South Africa), October 26, 1927
And they did go on digging, although the frantic excavation carried out in the first two years probably slowed down. In all, three metres of fill was removed from the cave. They also dug some trenches another three metres below that, where they found older, Early Stone Age artefacts.
Bertie had a snake park in Capetown, where he milked snakes of their venom, used in the manufacture of an antivenene for snake bite. Despite using the antivenene on himself in 1939 after a cobra bit him, he died soon afterwards.
Victor’s love was the flowers of South Africa which he collected and propagated for exhibition in flower shows and to donate to the National Botanic Gardens in Kirstenbosch. After suffering poor health for a while, he died in 1940, soon after Bertie.
Dated at 15,000 years in 1929, modern carbon dating has now given the Fish Hoek Man skull an age of just over 7,000 years, but is still some of the oldest human remains found in the area. The skull and other artefacts found by the Peers are now in the South African Museum. Skildergat Cave was renamed Peers Cave in 1941.
1.Brass, Michael. The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored. Baltimore, MD: America House, 2002. p 107 [back]
2. Scanned from the book – Story of the Fish Hoek Valley from the Beginning of Time. Fish Hoek, Malcolm M Cobern, M.M. Cobern, 1984. [back]
3. Scanned from the book – Story of the Fish Hoek Valley from the Beginning of Time. Fish Hoek, Malcolm M Cobern, M.M. Cobern, 1984. [back]
4. Primitive Man of the Peninsula. Cape Times (South Africa), October 26, 1927 [back]
Brass, Michael. The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored. Baltimore, MD: America House, 2002.
Cobern, Malcolm M. Story of the Fish Hoek Valley from the Beginning of Time. Fish Hoek: M.M. Cobern, 1984.
Deacon, J. & Wilson, M. “Peers Cave – the cave the world forgot”, in The Digging Stick, Journal of the South African Archaeological Society Vol. 9 (2), 1992.
Rosenthal, Eric. A History of Fish Hoek, 1818-1968. Fish Hoek Chamber of Commerce, Jubilee Festival, 1968.
Walker, Michael. The Far South: Where Oceans Meet: Fish Hoek, Kommetjie, Simon’s Town, Cape Point: A Brief History Illustrated with Postcards of a Bygone Era. St. James: M.J. Walker, 2005.
The Fish Hoek Excavations. Cape Times (South Africa), March 3, 1928
Primitive Man of the Peninsula. Cape Times (South Africa), October 26, 1927
Peers’ Cave – Skildergat – https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC2M0FB_peers-cave-skildergat?
Shepherd, Nick. Remembering and Forgetting Peers Cave.
Stynder DD, Brock F, Sealy JC, Wurz S, Morris AG, Volman TP. 2009. A mid-Holocene AMS 14 C date for the presumed Upper Pleistocene human skeleton from Peers Cave, South Africa. J Hum Evol 56:431–434