A window into 16,000 years ago

Although the skeletons found at Faraoskop (our current site) were all buried ~2000 years ago, the site itself shows evidence of occupation dating back to over 16,000 years ago.

This we know by discovering artefacts over different stratigraphic layers, and these you can date with radiocarbon dating.

Only a small part of the Faraoskop rock shelter has been excavated, but despite this we’ve found some amazing artefacts. These were excavated in different layers, and so date back to different times, though unfortunately before UCT archaeologists could arrive at the site, the farmer had dug up a fair amount of material and so the date of these is more difficult to attain. None the less, they all reveal a lot about how these hunter-gatherers were surviving…

Here are some which I stumbled across the other day;

Reed arrows (note how one is fletched and the remnants of plant fibre wrapped around the top)


…and the bone arrow tips (showing remnants of red ochre). These were attached with mastic (tree resin)


Antelope leather stitched together to make material (layer 1, ~670 years old)


Ornamental beads made from bone and seeds (found in all layers: from ~670 to ~16,500 years ago)


String made from plant fibres (found in layer 1, ~670 years old)


Bone ‘spatulas’ used in cooking (note how they’ve been smoothed and a groove made in the middle)


So Faraoskop was occupied multiple times over the last ~16,000 years, by different generations and groups of San. Clearly these groups were actively hunting, cooking (there’s also evidence of fire use), making clothing and other materials, decorating themselves with ornamental jewellery, and crafting string. Not mentioned here are the numerous stone tools (found up to the deepest layer ~16,000 years old), pottery, decorated ostrich eggshell, mussel shells (used as scrapers), and animal bones also found. The change in the species of animal over the layers can reveal changes in climate – we’ve found a shift from large grazers (like buffalo) to small browsers (like bushbuck) over 16,000 years, indicating the decline of grassland and proliferation of fynbos bushes and trees (so cooler to warmer temperatures).

Finding these sorts of artefacts allows us to peer into the life of southern African hunter-gatherers from the late Pleistocene to recent times. But Hominins have been crafting material items since at least 2.5 million years ago (though probably longer – see this and this), gradually gaining the cognitive and technical ability to dream up and make ever more complex tools (such as these bone spatulas and fletched arrows). So our findings represent only the very end of an incredibly long object-manipulating process that has slowly been perfected since the hominin and chimpanzee lineages split ~6.5 million years ago.

Faraoskop tool evolution

Aren’t we amazing?


Violence, trauma, and hunter-gatherers

(Dewar, 2010)

A fascinating project I’m currently working on involves twelve ~2000 year old San hunter-gatherer skeletons.

These were found in Faraoskop Rock Shelter, where they were (likely) all buried at the same time. They include two children of 2 and 6 years old. How could this possibly have come about? There are no other findings of this many individuals buried in one event in the Late Stone Age of South Africa.

The possibilities include;
1.  They all died from illness (unlikely in nomadic populations)
2.  They were attacked by a large predator (no signs of this)
3.  They were part of some sort of ritual sacrifice (unlikely in these numbers)
3.  They died from exhaustion or another incident (but these are professional hunter-gatherers)
4.  …OR they were murdered (perimortem trauma as we like to call it)

Despite surviving on an omnivorous lifestyle (meat and two veg), San hunter-gatherers have always seemed rather gentle in the minds of the public. I’m afraid there’s plenty of archaeological evidence to suggest that they too resorted to their fair share of manslaughter, and perhaps our Faraoskop folk were the unlucky ones. Here are some of the highlights of South African archaeological hunter-gatherer violence:

These are all perimortem, but there are plenty of cases where intentional damage is evident but they survived the attack (antemortem – here’s a good review)

So perhaps the most likely explanation for fourteen ~2000 year old San hunter-gatherer individuals being buried at the same time is that they were victims of violence… digging sticks, sharp stone tools, and bows and arrows have all been shown as weapons. So it seems that Late Stone Age San hunter-gatherer life wasn’t entirely rosy, and indeed still isn’t: Richard Lee has observed that one contemporary San group (Dobe Kung) may have a murder rate of 30 per 100,000 (compared to 8.4 per 100,000 in Mexico City)! Not so rosy at all.

Next step: properly analyse the Faraoskop skeletons for damage. Go!

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]