• Name: Paul McLerran
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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Dig Spotlight: Investigating Early Man in South Africa

Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai -- for students and others versed in the historic drama of the discovery of human origins, these famous South African sites played a salient role in the ongoing efforts to piece together the puzzle of mankind's beginnings. Now, you can have the opportunity to visit these sites and play a part in the continuing research. A month-long field school in paleoarchaeological excavation and research is being sponsored this summer by the University of Witwatersrand from mid-July to mid-August. Directly from their website, here is the itinerary:

The field school will begin with tours of three famous palaeoanthropological sites near Johannesburg - Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Kromdraai, home of hominid fossils of Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and Homo ergaster. Students will learn about cave formation, the fossilization process (4 to 1 m. y. ago), palaeo-environments, and archaeological site formation processes (2 to 1 m. y. ago). Prof Ron Clarke, distinguished palaeoanthropologist and discoverer of the most complete Australopithecus skeleton ever found, will provide a seminar at the Wits University fossil lab. Students will see original hominid fossils and discuss human evolution with the aid of the extensive collection of casts held in the Sterkfontein Research Unit. Dr Kathleen Kuman, archaeologist at Sterkfontein caves and senior researcher at Wits, will conduct the hominid site tours and practical exercises in stone tool identification, with viewing of Oldowan and early Acheulean artifacts from Sterkfontein. Professor Travis Pickering of Indiana University will conduct additional seminars on taphonomy. The school will then travel to their excavation site in the beautiful Limpopo River Valley along the northern border of South Africa. En route, students will visit the Makapan Valley complex of three famous sites: the Australopithecus site of Makapansgat, the Cave of Hearths Acheulean to Iron Age site, and the Historic Cave.
The Makapan Valley contains extensive palaeontological and cultural deposits. The Makapansgat Limeworks is known for 3-million-year old faunal deposits that have yielded fossils of Australopithecus. The adjacent Cave of Hearths is one of only two deeply stratified Stone Age cave sites in southern Africa, containing a long sequence from the Earlier, Middle and Later Stone Ages to the Iron Age. The Historic Cave is famous for the siege of Makapan in 1854. Here Chief Makapan and several thousand members of the Kekana chiefdom took refuge after their attack on a party of Voortrekkers led to a month-long siege. In the Limpopo Valley, students will excavate open-air lithic sites atop an ancient terrace of the river where Dr Kuman and her students are doing research on the Acheulean and the Middle Stone Age. Although this region is well known for its important Iron Age sites, this is the first Earlier and Middle Stone Age research to be conducted along the Limpopo River of South Africa. The emphasis during the fieldschool will be on understanding the site formation processes and contexts in which the Stone Age sites are preserved. While in the Limpopo, students will visit the Iron Age sites of K2 and Mapungubwe. These sites lie near the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers (where South Africa meets Zimbabwe and Botswana) and have been of interest to archaeologists for over six decades. Between 1000 and 1300 AD social complexity evolved, characterized by class distinction and sacred leadership. Known as the Zimbabwe Culture, Mapungubwe pre-dated the world-famous site of Great Zimbabwe.

Field School Training Seminars on the hominid sites and on the Earlier Stone Age of South Africa will be conducted at the camp in the Limpopo, and students will have an introduction to lithic analysis during lab work. In the field, students will learn excavation techniques, data recording, and use of the total station EDM for on-site recording. The students will be introduced to survey methods and conduct field walking to locate Middle Stone Age sites. Students will participate in a modern taphonomic research component conducted by Prof Travis Pickering.

Costs: $3000 US Dollars. This excludes airfare but includes collection from Johannesburg International Airport and travel during the field school, course registration/tuition fees, lodging and meals.

Accommodations: The first three days of the course are spent in Johannesburg, where students will be housed on campus and provided with meals and transportation. Accommodation and meals on the rest of the trip will be provided in either a research house or a safari bush camp, depending on the size of the group. Both camps have proper shower facilities and flush toilets. If desired, students may also bring their own tents with the permission of the organizers. The accommodation and research areas are adjacent to the Botswana border and this part of the country is remote. Students can expect a peaceful African environment where wild animals are common. Large parts of the research area have already been incorporated in the Vhembe/Dongola National Park. Both camps have a typical rustic African atmosphere and great views can be enjoyed from the doorsteps. There are no shops or restaurants and other facilities, but personal items can be bought once a week during trips to Musina.

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