What’s New and What’s Happening in South African Archaeology


Call for San rights at the United Nations
The rights of San peoples in Southern Africa have been the subject of recent debate at the United Nations.

Dual Congress 1998 – A Report
This report on DUAL CONGRESS 1998 – The Joint Meeting of the Internation Associations for the Study of Human Palaeontology, and of Human Biologists, has been written by Dr. Julia Lee-Thorp of UCT’s Archaeology Dept.

More than 400 palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists, geochronologists, geneticists, and human biologists attended ‘Dual Congress 1998’ recently in Sun City, South Africa. It was a joint meeting of the Internation Associations for the Study of Human Palaeontology, and of Human Biologists, which came about because both associations had decided to have their meetings in South Africa, at about the same time. In fact South Africa seems to be a popular conference destination right now; at about the time the Dual Congress was taking place in Sun City, two large international geological meetings were held in Cape Town. Although some of us initially wondered a little about the choice of Sun City as a venue (visions of glitz and gambling!), it turned out to be a good choice – the weather was pleasant and sunny, and good accommodation, restaurants and facilities were available within walking distance of the spatious conference venue.

In many ways the meeting was a tribute to, and swansong for, Emeritus Professor Philip Tobias, who presided over the whole affair. There was a very full academic programme, 3-4 sessions running in parallel at any one time. The colloquia consisted of invited speakers, convened and organised by their Chairpersons. They covered a number of topics of importance both in the present, and back in the past, such as Human ecology, Milestones in human diets, Demography of hominids past and present, as well as plain “palaeo” topics such as as Advances in dating of the past and Australopithecine diversity in South, East and West Africa. Speakers in these colloquia included many of the luminaries in the field, and we listened to an impressive array of ‘whats new’ in palaeoanthropology, ranging from implications of recent finds of Ardepithecus as the nearest fossil yet to the mythical missing link to the implications of the recent ‘Out of Africa’ model for antiquity of racial differences in modern human populations. The open sessions covered a wide variety of topics, too many to name. The Middle Palaeolithic/Middle Stone Age and transitions to modern morphology and behaviour received close attention from archaeologists and physical anthropologists alike. Unfortunately, the programme was so busy, something had to give, and as a result the posters were rather neglected, in my opinion.

The meeting received a good deal of coverage in the South African press. And although they managed to make it sound as if an internecine battle had raged between researchers from East Africa and South Africa – the reality was far more pedestrian and more about how “bushy” the hominid family was – the media attention was a really welcome change because it brought the importance of our long human history, and in particular the importance of Africa in this past, right into the homes of ordinary South Africans. Till recently teaching of history has been very Eurocentric and narrow with hardly a hint of the depth and richness of the archaeological past in this country, and evolution is still not taught in most South African schools. So the resultant raising of public awareness of our rich past was a real achievement of this meeting.

Dual Congress 1998 – Links on the Web
The Dual Congress received a great deal of press coverage. Here are some of the web sites we found that carried stories about the event.

In Search of the Common Man

Racial differences a recent development

A lifetime scouring the veld for fossils

Sorry ET . . . your oupa was black

Out of Africa, East or South?

Top scientists for SA palaeontology congress

Barren Karoo’s fossil treasure house

Note: Please be sure to let us know if you find
that any of the above links are out of date.
Thanks. worth@beattie.uct.ac.za

From the South African Archaeological Bulletin
The following editorial is published in the June 1998 edition of the South African Archaeological Bulletin, which has, for over fifty years, been describing research into southern Africa’s past. Subscription details for the Bulletin can be obtained from The South African Archaeological Society, P.O. Box 15700, Vlaeberg, 8018, South Africa, or from archsoc@samuseum.ac.za

In 1985 the Southern African Association of Archaeologists met in the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown. Midway through the conference, news came that some 20 delegates from South Africa had been banned from attending a major international meeting at Southampton in the United Kingdom in the following year. As if to emphasise the sense of occasion, heavy military vehicles moved through the streets initiating the State of Emergency, and floodlights played nightly across the township on the other side of the valley.

Archaeology’s confrontation with the political had begun two years earlier at the preceding meeting of the Association in Gaborone, Botswana. Here, archaeologists from Mozambique and Zimbabwe had broken away from South African scholars after the latter had failed to endorse a motion condemning apartheid and committing Archaeology to working towards its replacement with a democratic society. Certainly, no one had argued in favour of apartheid during the Gaborone debate. But there was a strongly voiced view that science and academic inquiry should be beyond and above political disputes.

Fifteen years later, the relationship between politics and intellectual enquiry is still controversial (and will probably always be so). But within the next six months, South Africa will host two major international congresses: the Dual Congress of the International Association for the Study of Human Palaeontology and the International Association of Human Biologists, and the fourth meeting of the World Archaeological Congress. South Africa is now a place to be.

That the World Archaeology Congress (WAC) will meet in Cape Town in January 1999 is particularly significant. The Congress was formed in 1986 as a consequence of the international rift in the discipline that followed the Southampton boycott. Those who believed that the study of the past should not involve politics stayed with the parent body – the IUSPP. But many others went to Southampton, asserting that it was not possible to separate academic work from the persistence of a reprehensible regime. WAC became the first – and so far the only – international archaeological organisation to specify in its statutes that membership would not be allowed from a specified country by virtue of its politics (the story of the Southampton controversy has been written by Peter Ucko in his Academic Freedom and Apartheid. The Story of the World Archaeological Congress, London, Duckworth, 1987).

Fortunately, circumstances in South Africa changed more rapidly than anyone predicted, and by 1990 when WAC met for the second time (in South America) South Africa had been granted observer status. Four years later again, South Africa was formally admitted to membership and delegates from the other countries in Africa proposed that the fourth meeting should be in Cape Town. For many, this represents the squaring of the circle – a suitably symbolic closure to a phase in Archaeology’s developing history.

That there is everything to celebrate in South Africa’s transition to democracy is beyond question. But there is little basis for any assumption that the politics of the present have been erased from the study of the past. Over the past decade, the ways in which interpretations of the past are used have become far more complex – a process which is linked with increasing globilisation. Rapid communications, increased travel and the spread of an advanced consumer culture has been matched by an emphasis on local identity and historical roots – the new ethnicities of the turn of the millennium. In many parts of the world, this is resulting in a renewed discovery of archaeology, whether to trace the origins of British identity in the face of European union, the continued insistence on Australian aboriginal identity, or the claims of Hindu nationalism that brought chaos to the 1994 meeting of the World Archaeological Congress in New Delhi. Many of these issues will be the subject of symposia at the Cape Town meeting in January 1999.

Where does this leave contemporary archaeology in South Africa? Strangely out of step. Although the imminent host to several major congresses, the discipline has, in some respects, never seemed weaker. One university department has closed and others may be under threat. Museum budgets have been cut to the level of the absurd. There is little media interest, and newspapers are more likely to report bog burials in Europe than the results of local research.

Why? In contrast with many other parts of the world, archaeology in South Africa has little popular base. Because of years spent inside the fenced enclosure of the white group area, the potential and importance of archaeology is little appreciated beyond limited parts of the academy. There is little public appreciation of archaeology in museums, and those that grew so strikingly in the 1970s are now in danger of limiting their activities, or even closing down, through lack of funding. Those political movements that are mobilizing evidence for the past, such as the various “colourdist” tendencies in the Western Cape, are largely bypassing organized archaeology and are constructing pre-colonial histories for themselves. In South Africa’s new democracy, archaeology does not seem to be a priority on anyone’s agenda.

The next five years will be crucial in the history of archaeology in South Africa. Either the discipline will attract steadily fewer students, museum departments will close, and little knowledge of this aspect of the region’s precolonial history will spread beyond the academe. Alternatively, archaeology will be integrated within the intellectual mainstream and popular discourse, and will open up new vistas on the long and rich history of Africa. Perhaps the real challenge for the international congresses of the coming months is whether, after the delegates have gone home and the proceedings published, a far wider cross section of people have become aware of archaeology’s unique importance in understanding southern Africa’s past, from the earliest hominids to the material traces of the recent past.

That this would be accomplished was certainly the wish of Bassey Andah, long an opponent of apartheid South Africa’s participation in the international arena and, as the President of the World Archaeological Congress, the principle supporter for South Africa’s acceptance and for Cape Town as a venue for the fourth conference. Bassey Andah died in Nigeria in December last year; it will be an appropriate tribute if a truly public appreciation of the importance of the past is achieved.

Copyright: South African Archaeological Society, 1998

Climbing Table Mountain
Dr Ed February (Archaeologist and Palaeoenvironmentalist at the South African Museum in Cape Town)

Dr Ed February Climbing on Table MountainTable Mountain has fascinated people for centuries. An important symbol for pre-colonial communities, the mountain fascinated and terrified the Portuguese, who saw it as Adamastor, a slumbering, temperamental giant. Lady Anne Barnard, part of the first British colonial entourage in Cape Town, had a lighter-hearted view of life: “at last a thousand feet more of rock was surmounted, I left all the Gentlemen behind, envying the lightness of her heels the effect perhaps of the lightness of her heart, and reached the top as tired as it was possible to be, but perfectly refreshed before they joined me. What a wide extended bareness presented itself all around! … to find oneself 3500 feet above the level from whence we had set out, to behold a considerable Town more invisible than the smallest miniature which could be painted of one … to feel the pure air raising one up, it gave me a sort of unembodied feeling such as I conceive the Soul to have…”

Today, South African archaeology has its own expert mountaineer. Dr. Ed February is an archaeologist and palaeoenvironmentalist at the South African Museum in Cape Town who specialises in the identification of wood and charcoal from archaeological sites. At present his primary research interests are in providing a better understanding of climate change in the summer rainfall region of South Africa utilising four different techniques in rainfall reconstruction. These techniques comprise vegetation and rainfall reconstruction using both taxonomic identification and xylem analysis of charcoal recovered from archaeological sites, dendroclimatology and stable carbon isotope analysis of tree rings and charcoal. Ed will be presenting aspects of his work at the World Archaeological Congress meeting in Cape Town.

Outside of his Museum activities, Ed’s major interests are in mountains and mountaineering specialising in high grade rock-climbing. In this regard he has made a major contribution to rock-climbing, taking part in the opening ascent of some 100 routes in South Africa. Most of these climbs have been documented in the annual Journal of the Mountain Club of South Africa. He is a member of the Mountain Club of South Africa Rescue team and a member of that clubs General Committee, has appeared in or been mentioned in a number of National and International magazines and has climbed in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Malasia, Malawi, Namibia, Nepal, Thailand, and Zimbabwe.

Either Ed, or the Mountain Club of South Africa, can be approached by delegates to WAC4 to ask questions about local conditions, or to obtain guides for any activity from following in Lady Anne Barnard’s footsteps through to serious rock climbing. [19-Nov-97]


Mountain Club of South Africa

Ed February
The South African Museum,
P.O.Box 61, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa efeb@samuseum.ac.za

Searching for the origins of behaviourally modern people: Blombos Cave
Blombos Cave is a small but exceptionally rich cave site on the southern Cape coast, about 300 km east of Cape Town, that is providing pivotal evidence for the emergence of behaviourally modern people. Excavations in 1997, under the direction of Chris Henshilwood and Judy Sealy, both of UCT’s Department of Archaeology, have yielded important results: continuing fieldwork is planned for 1998.

The upper strata at Blombos Cave date to within the last 2000 years: the very end of the LSA. They have yielded some of the earliest domesticated sheep remains in southern Africa. Beneath these is a series of well-stratified Middle Stone Age occupation horizons, excavated so far to a depth of about a metre and a half thus far; Sealy and Henshilwood do not yet know how deep bedrock is.

Artefacts in the upper Middle Stone Age layers are dominated by finely-worked bifacially flaked points; “Still Bay” in southern Africa’s Stone Age typology. This is the first time such an assemblage has been found associated with well-preserved organic remains: mammal bones, tortoises and other reptiles, shellfish and some charcoal. There are also numerous pieces of ochre, many of which have been heavily ground or had holes drilled into them.

Sealy and Henshilwood await absolute dates, but all the MSA strata are beyond the range of radiocarbon; they estimate that the later part of the Still Bay is likely to be 50 000 to 60 000 years old.

There are plentiful remains of large fish which are certainly food residues, together with bones of flying birds. Both these elements are lacking at other coastal Middle Stone Age sites, notably the nearby Klasies River Mouth, and have been considered evidence of pre-modern behavioural capacity in southern African populations at that time. At Blombos, at least by the late Middle Stone Age, people had developed very effective fishing techniques. They also made bone tools: Henshilwood and Sealy have found a range of roughly-shaped, unstandardised bone awls, and two carefully-worked, perfectly symmetrical bone points indistinguishable from those made in the southern African Later Stone Age. Bone artefacts have not hitherto been reliably associated with Middle Stone Age assemblages in southern Africa.

Further information: Henshilwood, C. & Sealy, J. “Bone artefacts from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, southern Cape, South Africa”. Due to appear in Current Anthropology, December 1997. [22-Sep-97]

Stable isotope analysis of bone throws new light on coastal diets and settlement patterns at the Cape
Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis, together with radiocarbon dating of Holocene human skeletons from museum collections in southern Africa is proving a useful means of reconstructing diet, especially the relative importance of marine and terrestrial foods.

Geographical clustering of skeletons with similar isotope ratios, indicating similar diets, also provides clues to settlement patterns. In combination with analyses of excavated food-waste from archaeological sites, and site- and artefact-based studies of settlement patterns, these approaches offer a valuable window on the past.

Almost 200 skeletons from the western and southern Cape have now been dated and their stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios determined. Patterns of change through time and across space vary from region to region, but there are some consistent features:

After 2000 BP, people relied less on marine foods than in earlier times; this may have to do with the emergence of a pastoralist way of life during the last two millennia.
Skeletons reflecting a large intake of marine foods in life are found only on or very near to the coast. Coastal populations seem to have foraged into the hinterland to a lesser extent than most archaeologists have expected.
In the very rich environment of the southern Cape, skeletons from some areas show significantly greater marine food consumption than others. This may be evidence for greater territoriality, with local specialisations in food procurement, than has previously been realised. [22-Sep-97]

Glynn Isaac remembered in Cape Town
Glynn Isaac’s contribution to archaeology is marked by the Glynn Isaac Memorial Lectures, delivered at the University of Cape Town by distinguished palaeoanthropologists; Isaac was a graduate of UCT, and taught briefly in the Department of Archaeology in 1961. The firstold woman lecture was given by Glynn Isaac’s Pulitzer Prize winning brother Rhys, and the second, in September 1997, by Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah, well known for her ethnoarchaeological studies of Africa’s Hadza hunter-gatherers. 1998’s Memorial Lecture will be delivered by Stephen Jay Gould, at a date still to be confirmed, and the fourth presentation in the series will be timed to coincide with the Cape Town meeting of the World Archaeological Congress in January 1999.

In her Memorial Lecture, titled “Another role for food sharing: are human life histories the evolutionary legacy of grandmothers?”, Hawkes argued that Hadza food gathering strategies were enhanced by children working with their grandmothers, relieving pressure on adults. Hawkes suggests that this confers an evolutionary advantage on menopause, as women who cease to bear children comparatively early in their life histories make important contributions to group survival.

Further information: K. Hawkes, J.F. O’Connell and N.G. Blurton-Jones, “Hadza women’s time allocation, offspring provisioning, and the evolution of long postmenopausal life spans”. Current Anthropology 38(4), 1997.

Oldest known footprints of anatomically modern humans footprints

WASHINGTON—A trail of fossilized footprints left more than 100,000 years ago by an anatomically modern human has been found on the shore of a South African lagoon. The fossils, found in a sand-dune-turned-rock dated at 117,000 years ago, are the oldest known footprints of an anatomically modern human.

The National Geographic Society’s Full press release.


The footprints were airlifted to the safety of the South African Museum on Tuesday 23rd June 1998 after sustaining damage from tourist activity. For more on this story go to NBC News.

South Africa’s archaeology featured in “ANTIQUITY”
WAC4 will offer a full range of tours which will provide a good sense of the archaeology of southern Africa. Christopher Chippindale’s editorial in the June 1997 edition of Antiquity gives a good impression of the historical landscape of the Western Cape and the Natal Drakensberg.

“… turning more west, narrowing tarmac then good gravel, we cross the sandveld and come towards Elandsbaai. Sheep, wheat, cattle, ostriches (ostriches! – this is my first time in southern Africa), vines. A spreading flock of sheep on the stubble with dark-skinned herders: the sheep not fat-tailed, but otherwise a wandering flock as shepherding people have grazed this land 2000 years. To the east, the ridges of the Cederberg, blue knife-edges retreating into far grey. Then a long, straight valley, cultivated fields of pure sand on the slope, not even a streak of humus in the beige. To our left the Verlorenvlei, a long narrow pool of water, sometimes with reeds, pelicans, glossy ibis, though we are still 15 kilometres from the sea….

…. The Cederberg landscape strikes me as classic arid rock-art country: broken scrub, with exposures along the river-valleys, and where gullies make little canyons. Metamorphosed sandstone, it’s more like the basalt country of the Mojave Desert in central California. Worn and wonderfully detailed red paintings in the little shelters and overhangs; my eyes often struggle as Tony Manhire points to the faint lines, millimetre thin and sometimes in a a transparent yellow, which make the bows and bow-strings painted as they were held –either out ready for action in the hand or stowed away in the hunter’s bag…

… Up from (Pieter)Maritzburg, on the longest hill that takes you into the high country, and then up again away from the main Durban-Egoli highway into the lower slopes of the Drakensberg, the “Dragon Mountains” … There is the shelter, a good sandstone wall, perhaps 80m long, with chunky slabs breaking away on the talus, perhaps 10m deep, its vertical wall perhaps 6m high, and then overhangs stepping out: very like Arnhem Land shelter, in essentials … I don’t have the words to describe the elegance and the beauty of these loveliest of paintings that make up the main frieze…”

Antiquity, 71 (272), June 1997: pages 255-260.