Carpets of artefacts, mountains of baboons

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I must admit, I’ve slept in some pretty adventurous places…

And although I love spending the night on top of Mayan jungle temples and on Nicaraguan volcano-islands, I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer to sleep in the middle of a baboon hangout. But, for archaeology, anything….

I have arrived at my final few weeks in South Africa, but it has definitely not slowed down. It has in fact done the exact opposite. Since arriving back in January it has been almost non-stop excavations and surveying, from 500,000 year-old hominins on the shores looking out to Table Mountain, to rock-art searching in the beautiful Cederberg mountains, to Late Stone Age human burials in residential Cape Town, to trekking through the rivers and mountains of South Africa’s semi-desert: the Tankwa Karoo.

Here’s a brief impression of our time in the Tankwa Karoo in search of stone tools…

I was lucky enough to be invited to explore this incredibly beautiful yet very strange landscape in the hunt for tools made by humans both recent(ish) and ancient. Emily Hallinan, a PhD student with Cambridge, has been working in an area east of the Cederberg mountains for a little while now and recruited University of Cape Town collaborator Matt Shaw, as well as another UCT student and myself to venture through the never-ending valleys of the Tankwa to find artefacts.

The area that Emily has honed in on for this trip is a mid point between two sites of hers, one in the Cederberg mountains and the other further in the Karoo.

The team L-R: Matt Shaw, Candice Koopowitz and Emily Hallinan

The team L-R: Matt Shaw, Candice Koopowitz and Emily Hallinan

This is a really special place. Not only did we walk across landscapes so dense with Late Stone Age (~40,000 – 3,000 ya) stone tools that a ‘carpet’ is a accurate term, but they were lying right alongside those from the Middle Stone Age (~300,000 – 40,000 ya), as well as the Early Stone Age (~3.3m – 300,000 ya)! Unbelievable.

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A Middle Stone Age point

An Early Stone Age (ESA) hand-axe (1 million years old or older)

An Early Stone Age hand-axe (1 million years old or older)

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A Middle Stone Age radial core

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The artefacts Emily and Matt have found include stunning silcrete points made in a way not seen anywhere but north Africa…until now! (Have a read of their article for more details).

Surface scatters of lithics (stone tools) are rarely in their original archaeological context, however the bizarre intermingling geology of the Tankwa (sandstone, quarzite, diamictite and others) combined with a spectacularly low annual rainfall has created a ‘desert pavement'(as Emily has put it) restricting the movement of material.

The type of lithic you want to make is achieved by using certain types of rock, by knapping rocks together in very intricate ways, and by modifying the product further afterwards. The earliest lithics, now dated to ~3.3 millions years ago in Kenya, were very rudimentary involving smashing two rocks together. Over the following millions of years, techniques developed into much more precise and selective behaviours as a result of exploiting new environmental niches and the evolution of greater cognitive abilities. Over the two weeks of research, we saw this spectrum of technological development with our own eyes, coming across cruder Acheulean hand-axes (likely ~1m years old or more) up the valley from much more recently crafted blades and retouched points. We even found ostrich egg-shell beads and hunter-gatherer handprints on the cliff wall. Amazing.

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Most of the time we stayed in a stunning little house perched on the side of a river valley. We reached the start of our surveying hikes either through driving around the river or canoeing along it. The canoe trips were mind-blowingly beautiful, the river so glass-like that you could turn your head upside down and convince yourself you’re standing upright. In an unexpected, yet classic archaeology-fieldwork kind-of way, we discovered a hole in our canoe whilst paddling back one day, the boat filling up by the minute! In an act of self-sacrifice, I plugged the hole with my thumb, rewarded later with extra chocolate rations (thanks Emily!). The terrain of the surveying was incredible – vast valleys, endless rocky desert, or forests of stabbing 4-inch long acacias…DSCF8162DSCF806611110796_10153448525976874_5581473344415973029_o

To continue the craziness of the trip, we learned the house had been booked for the weekend. In the spirit of adventure, we thought it would be fun to camp on the porch of a derelict house in the middle of a dry river valley. The one small catch was that this happened to be the centre of baboon nighttime festivities.

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We woke up sometime in the early hours to loud baboon barks behind the house, and a large male replying down the front path. I’m unsure how familiar you are with baboon dental morphology, but lets just say the canines are of an unfriendly size.

Having survived the night (largely through Matt honking the car horn, flashing the lights repeatedly, and revving the engine – maybe we could have hafted lithics to spears if we had the know-how), we were looking forward to staying in a house the farm owners had allocated for us. Unfortunately for us, it turned out to be the most bone chillingly, death-horror-movie worthy, no-one-can-hear-you-scream dilapidated house imaginable. Saying that, we had a great game of carcassonne and slept like babies.

All this drama was only in addition to the catastrophe of the car nearly rolling over down a hill potentially crushing Matt underneath it as it rolled the week before… And yes, there were groups of baboons surrounding us there too.

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We even managed to head over to the insane South African version of Burning Man Festival – Afrikaburn. Think thousands of hippies running around in the middle of the desert, setting fire to gigantic wooden sculptures, wearing florescent everything.

What a two weeks! But next time, I’m not partaking without a machete.

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