Wild Coast gives up its secrets

Researchers examine remains to reveal history of human evolution in SA


A research team led by an American scientist is hoping to uncover how hunter-gatherers lived, ate, evolved and used the land’s resources along the Wild Coast.
Begun in 2010, the P5 Project, led by Arizona State University associate research scientist Dr Erich Fisher, sees an international team of over 20 research members including archaeologists, geologists, excavators and students visit Mpondoland for six to eight weeks at a time.
On his most recent visit this week, Fisher said that Mpondoland was an extremely important site because it provided the only evidence of coastal foraging (eating seafood) during an ice age in South Africa.
Fisher hopes the information found and analysed by his team will help conservationists understand the area better in order to preserve and protect it.
“The world is facing drastic climate change which has various effects such as the depletion of fish stocks, warmer oceans and a change in natural habitats.
“Our analysis can provide a long-term history of the Mpondoland area – how it changed, what resources were always available, the animals that lived there and the long-term vegetation history of the area.
“This can assist conservationists to understand the area and its history better and therefore look after it, repopulate it and deal with future human impact,” explained Fisher.
The P5 Project – which stands for Pondoland Paleoecology, Paleoenvironment, Paleoclimate and Paleoanthropology – has already yielded a treasure of stone tool artefacts, soil, charcoal and plant and shell remains which shed light on how humans lived and evolved in the area over the last 300,000 years.
The fragments of pre-history are dated using radiocarbon dating and luminescence dating. The remnants are curated and analysed at the P5 lab which is set up in a spacious hall at the East London Museum.
Some items are also sent to laboratories around the country and the world for further analysis by specialist members of the team.
“To understand humans who lived during those times, we have to recreate their environment, the climate, and the animals that lived on land and in the ocean. We have to reconstruct their entire world and what it was like 10,000, 50,000 or more years ago,” Fisher said.
“Six weeks of digging takes years to sort through and analyse so I can easily see myself continuing with this project for my entire career.”
While Fisher hopes to see the area preserved, he also wants to see Mpondoland receive the recognition it deserves as it offers unique records of human occupation in SA. “Our findings fill in the gaps in human evolution in SA, because up till now we didn’t have detailed records of coastal living during the height of a glacial maximum (ice age),” said Fisher.
“We now know what people were doing and how they were living during those times without any missing pieces in between. Mpondoland offers a complete 300,000-year history of human occupation. It’s extremely exciting, especially for us as academics who completely geek out over this stuff.”
Fisher will be heading back to the US on Thursday, but he and his team plan to return to Mpondoland in May for a six-week excavation and will spend much of their time at the East London-based lab to examine their findings.
“I am so grateful to the East London museum, because without this space and their efforts this project would be unsuccessful,” said Fisher...

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