Wildlife

Sailing Halfway Around the World to Find Our Oldest Ancestors

The view of the coastline around Mossel Bay in South Africa from the deck of Hōkūle’a. This is where some of the oldest remnants of humanity can be found. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Last week, Hōkūle’a arrived in Mossel Bay, South Africa, which marks the farthest point away from Hawai’i that this voyaging canoe can possibly travel. From here on, every mile we sail will no longer be heading away from home but rather, closer to it. But Mossel Bay carries much more significance than just being a longitudinal antipode. In fact, I believe that Mossel Bay is one of the most important stops in the Worldwide Voyage because it connects us to humanity in the most profound way.

Crewmembers with Dr. Peter Nillsen stand in front of the famous Cave 13B at Pinnacle Point. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Crewmembers with Dr. Peter Nillsen stand in front of the famous Cave 13B at Pinnacle Point. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Mossel Bay rests on the southern coast of South Africa, widely known for its beautiful coastal landscapes and treacherous seas (both of which we have experienced firsthand on this leg of the voyage). This region boasts one of the most temperate climates on the planet, thus allowing a great diversity of flora and fauna to grow and flourish.

This became extremely important during the last ice age when Homo sapiens were driven towards the southern coast of Africa to escape the cold environment everywhere else. According to an article in Scientific American, every person in the world today is descended from the few people that lived in this region of South Africa who survived the last ice age and, over the last 160,000 years, expanded their reach to every corner of the Earth.

The path leading down to the Pinnacle Point caves. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
The path leading down to the Pinnacle Point caves. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

The more we read about Mossel Bay, the more we knew that this was going to be a crucial part of our voyage. Fortunately for us, Dr. Peter Nillsen, a leading archaeologist in this field, felt the same way. Upon hearing that Hōkūle’a was stopping in Mossel Bay, Peter graciously offered to help us better understand the story of human origins that he has spent his career working on. To do this, Peter accompanied us to Pinnacle Point, where a series of cave sites rested along an eastward facing cliff.

Getting to the cave sites is a bit of an expedition that requires crossing through a massive golf resort and a series of wooden boardwalks. The journey itself brought up a range of emotions, but none as memorable as those felt at the jaw-dropping moment when we rounded a corner and turned our gaze upon the massive entrance to 13B, the primary site of Peter’s work.

Prior to entering this sacred space, the Hōkūle’a crew took a few minutes to conduct our own Hawaiian cultural protocol of chant and prayer. Only then did we enter into the cave to listen to Peter describe the significance of what he and his team had found there.

Hōkūle'a captain, Nainoa Thompson, takes a minute to reflect on the immense significance of this location, as a halfway point of the Worldwide Voyage and as a bridge that connects the genealogy of all people on Earth. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Hōkūle’a captain, Nainoa Thompson, takes a minute to reflect on the immense significance of this location, as a halfway point of the Worldwide Voyage and as a bridge that connects the genealogy of all people on Earth. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Finding clues around the Pinnacle Point caves to learn more about the our ancestors from 162,000 years ago. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Finding clues around the Pinnacle Point caves to learn more about the our ancestors from 162,000 years ago. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

In all honesty, there have been many times in these past few weeks where I’ve struggled to wrap my head around the fact that Hōkūle’a has now sailed farther than any Polynesian vessel in known history. However, standing there at Pinnacle Point and knowing that I have actual ancestors from that place was simply mindblowing. In that moment, there was no way for me to adequately put that into perspective. Even Dr. Nillsen, who has dedicated his career to the story of Pinnacle Point, admits that he still gets overwhelmed when trying to fathom its significance for the past, present, and future of mankind.

Perhaps then, in my limited understanding of this bigger picture, it is enough to just appreciate the simplest fact. When we stood there in that cave—crewmembers of all different ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences—we could all say that we had common ancestors who stood in that same spot over 160,000 years ago. But even more than that, this connectivity extends beyond those that are currently living; it weaves together the story of all of the past generations as well as the stories of all the future generations to come. These caves bore witness to the oldest and most important story in the history of humanity: that we are all one family and we should treat every person on Earth as such.

Crewmembers stand in Cave 13B, a place where everyone on the planet shares a common ancestry. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Crewmembers stand in Cave 13B, a place where everyone on the planet shares a common ancestry. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Read All Worldwide Voyage Posts

Dan Lin Photography

More About Human Origins in South Africa

A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University
  • Kiwina Kapiolani

    Great article, just in time as we all suffer from the hatred of terrorism, Yes, we are all FAMILY…make love, not hate…..

  • Prince

    It’s my dream full ur so lucky guy’s because ur god has greatest

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media