Twelve Skeletons

I’m almost certain that when I mention the term ‘hunter-gatherer’, an image of nimble men comes to your mind, carrying spears or bows and arrows, and darting through the African savanna in the blazing sun following the footprints of an antelope…

Something like this:

This depiction of a hunter-gatherer is actually surprisingly realistic when it comes to the San (bushmen) of the Kalahari desert. The San are the indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa. This makes them an incredibly interesting group to study as they are ‘the oldest known lineage of modern human’ (though they may have some european genes after all).

As a testament to how ancestral these hunter-gatherers are, sequencing of their genomes has shown that they are more genetically different from each other (on average) than a European and Asian are. This is because they have had a much longer time to diversify. Amazing.

Then, around 2,000 years ago, pastoralism arrived in South Africa (shown by archaeology and genetics), through the meeting of San hunter-gatherers and Bantu-speaking pastoralists.

Project 1

In a little rock shelter, three and a half hours north of Cape Town, 12 San hunter-gatherer skeletons were unearthed by Anthony Manhire (from the archaeology department at the University of Cape Town) in the 1980’s. Radiocarbon dating of these skeletons has found that they are between 2150-2000 years old: the exact period when pastoralism appeared in South Africa.
I have joined a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, geneticists and microbiologists, to reveal as much as possible about the 12 individuals found at Faraoskop (Pharaoh’s Head – the name of this site), partially through the artifacts found which date back to 16,000 years ago. These include stone tools, ostrich eggshell beads, shell pendants, and arrows.
Most important questions include; How are they related? Were they all buried in one event? How similar are they to extant San? How did they die – were they murdered? What were they eating?

We have already extracted the mitochondrial DNA from several of the skeletons, and a very exciting effort is underway to sequence their entire genomes, which would reveal an incredible amount. Problem is, DNA degrades quicker in hotter climates (not a problem for European Neanderthal DNA etc.), so extracting enough viable DNA may be a big problem. We’ll soon find out.

The implications are that we will discover more about the ancestors of southern Africans, their burials and levels of violence, as well as how humans shifted from solely hunting and gathering  to domesticating animals.

So that’s a pretty amazing project. And it’s a beautiful site in the middle of nowhere…



Prof Parkington & Nonhlanhla

Project 2

Finding out what seasons southern African hunter-gatherers occupied cave and rock shelter sites is the aim of another project. Here we’re using a ‘dassie calendar’ (which uses the timing that teeth erupt in the jaw bone of dassies) to see what month they were killed, and therefore when humans were occupying the site (results so far suggest they inhabited the caves mostly in winter, ate loads of dassies and shellfish, then left).

Have a look at this paper for more detailed description if you are intrigued.

Quite a few of the dassie jaws we find are charcoaled; the victims of undoubtably delicious hunter-gatherer barbecues.

Dassie mandible

So these projects are involved in the late stages of human evolution: late hunter-gatherer behaviour and the spread of pastoralism, both of which are hugely important in understanding our history

[Note: All turquoise text is a link, mostly to scientific studies]


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