Exhuming mankind’s past

Once the museum’s lecture hall, the space has been repurposed as an ordered laboratory where plastic bags of various sizes contain artefacts that are key to understanding how humans lived thousands of years ago.

Rows of plastic sacks filled with insignificant-looking soil line the floors, awaiting analysis. Shelving was being installed in the lab this week to hold the newly acquired stash.

Now that the fieldwork component has been done, exacting analysis will follow.

Scientists from all over the world will arrive at the lab, which is the heart of the P5 (Pondoland Paleoenvironment, Paleoclimate, Paleoanthropology Project) archaeological project, to sift through the artefacts and unlock their clues to human development.

“Within those sediments are microscopic pieces of stone and bone that can tell us so much about the past.

“There are remains of frogs and shrews that could have become susceptible to climate changes, so it gives us a really good idea of what was going on in the past,” says US archaeologist Dr Erich Fisher, carefully peeling open bags to reveal artefacts.

Fisher, an assistant research scientist at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, and his 20-strong team, recently returned from a five-week excavation at the magnificent Waterfall Bluff site at the Mlambomkulu River mouth near Lusikisiki.

The P5 project was initiated in 2011 when Fisher, as its principal investigator and director, identified the

Pondoland coastline as key to “filling the gaps” about when humans first started eating shellfish and the impact this nutritious diet had on their cognitive development.

“I was part of a sister project based in Mossel Bay, where the earliest evidence of people eating seafood like shellfish was found dating back to 167000 years ago,” explains Fisher.

“The problem was that in those 167000 years there were major gaps and we didn’t understand where, when and how the role of super-nutritious seafood influenced our evolution.”

Fisher explains that these “gaps” were caused by dropping sea levels during glacial periods, when the coastline was at times 10km or more away from where it is today.

People would move onto exposed continental sea shelves but when the sea levels moved back, all the evidence was destroyed.

“This situation was pretty much all over South Africa, except on the Wild Coast and that’s why I’m here.”

Fisher learnt of a specific section of eastern Pondoland, where the continental shelf is 10km wide no matter how low sea levels dropped over a period spanning 400000 years.

“This means we would always be within 10km of any site that had been in the reach of hunter-gatherers, so this is a very important area.

“It gives us our only shot at finding really rare records of how people adapted to coastal environments in periods when we have very little understanding of what they were doing along the coastline.”

In 2011, Fisher, funded by the National Geographic Society, began scouting the area and by last year, four sites had been identified.

“We excavated at four sites to see what was in the ground and were very successful at three.

“We were pretty amazed at what we found, especially at Waterfall Bluff, so this year we returned there.”

The 20-person team was made up of specialists from Australia, Spain, the US and Chile, students from the States, Australia, Europe and Port Elizabeth and a team of senior scientists from the South African Council for Geoscience, Wits and the University of Johannesburg.

“We also had the best excavation team in South Africa – the Xhosa-speaking MAP – CRM team from Mossel Bay. They trained four Pondoland excavators in archaeological methodology because it is important to integrate and employ the local community.

“We plot everything with a laser to within a millimetre of accuracy and sometimes dig with implements no larger than a teaspoon,” he said.

Respecting the local community is essential and involved liaising with the chief of the Lambasi traditional lands.

“We give lectures and reports to

communities and also provide them with resources in lieu of camping fees. For example, we bought 500 chairs for the local community for meetings and gatherings,” Fisher said.

“The project is not just about taking but also about giving back and this extends to employment as well.”

The five-week excavation at Waterfall Bluff yielded a ton of material including charcoal, plant remains, well-preserved leaves, seeds and animal bones, every single shard of which has already been assigned a barcode.

“We found a lot of animal remains, which are especially important to understand what the local ecology and environment was like in the past,” says Fisher, who was also excited by stone tools found at the coastal midden.

“But we can’t just look at what people were doing.

“We need to look at the total environment. What plants and animals were there and whether it was dry or wet.

“We need to understand everything about their world and only then can we put our findings about their behaviours into perspective,” he said. — barbarah@dispatch