2014 digging season: Mossel Bay welcomes archaeologists

Mossel Bay Tourism has welcomed the large contingent of scientists who are currently digging at the Pinnacle Point Provincial Heritage site – the caves that have revealed the earliest evidence for modern human behaviour.

The scientists are attached to the SACP4 Project (South African  Coastal Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology and Palaeoanthropology Project) under Professor Curtis Marean, an associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, established the Mossel Bay Archaeology Project.

“Prof. Marean and his team have been studying the caves since 2000, and what they’ve found has placed Mossel Bay and the Southern Cape region as the birthplace of modern human behaviour, and also as the birthplace of both culture and complex stone tool technology – and this has created enormous interest for Mossel Bay amongst scientists and the general public from around the world,” said Mossel Bay Tourism’s Marcia Holm.

She said that the archaeology has generated numerous opportunities that benefit the economy of Mossel Bay.

“The digging seasons attract significant numbers of scientists – many of whom come to Mossel Bay for weeks at a time; the project has created full-time employment for nine researchers and field technicians (some of whom come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds); and public interest has lead to the creation of an exhibition at the Great Brak River Museum which explores the local peoples’ place in the development of modern human behaviour, and to the creation of the ‘Point of Human Origin Experience,’ during which members of the public can enjoy a lecture on modern human origins, and a tour of the Pinnacle Point Caves.

“The archaeology has given Mossel Bay a differentiator unlike any other anywhere in the world, and Mossel Bay Tourism believes that the number of opportunities will only increase as the studies progress.

“It’s expected to be a game-changer for our tourism economy,” said Ms. Holm.

Prof. Marean said that the current season will see twenty six students and scientists visiting Pinnacle Point for up to seven weeks at a time.

With material dating back from 162,000 years ago (in cave PP13B at Pinnacle Point) to about 60,000 years ago (in caves PP5-6), Mossel Bay has the longest record of modern human habitation.

According to Prof. Marean, the current excavations are concerned with the sediments in PP5-6, where scientists have been able to create a sequence of habitation from deposits from 90,000 to 60,000 years ago.

“We were missing sixty to fifty: for a long time we couldn’t figure out where those deposits were.” But, he said, the team solved the riddle late last year, and this year’s dig, “Will fill out our sequence from 90,000 to 50,000 years ago.”

Prof. Marean said that he is the recipient of a $1 million grant from the USA’s National Science Foundation that is being used to build a palaeoscape model – a detailed reconstruction of the different climate conditions in the land- and marine environments of the past which will include details of the plant and animal resources that were available during each period.

“Computer modeling of human behaviour is one of the most exciting technologies available to us today, he said.

Prof. Marean said that one local man – Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University masters student Jan De Vynck – is working with indigenous people from the area to calculate the nutritional return per unit of effort (how many calories are burned while gathering each item of food) through observing how and what ancient societies traditionally harvest from the sea.

With this kind of information to hand, “We can then release into the computer model an artificial intelligence – which is essentially a human acting as a forager,” and so make experimental observations of how humans would have reacted to changes in, say, rainfall or temperature.

This will help the scientists gain a better understanding of the archaeology, and of how human behaviour has responded to changing climates.

Prof. Marean said that the SACP4 Project has begun extending its studies to other parts of the Southern Cape – including Knysna, where one of his former students, Naomi Cleghorn (a South African and now a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington), will begin a major excavation later this year; and Blombos, in the Klein Karoo, where decorated shell fragments point towards the existence of trade between inland and coastal communities at a time when the sea was some 90 kilometres further south from Mossel Bay than it is today. (“What we’re interested in in that project is looking at the origins of extended social networks… We’re trying to figure out when do humans have long-range, cooperative connections with other groups.”)

An important adjunct to this year’s digging season will be a ‘Palaeoscape 2014’ symposium that will take place at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Saasveld campus during July (an invitation-only event which is being arranged by Richard Cowling, a research professor in the University’s department of botany).

During the symposium, scientists from around the world will review the work that’s been accomplished so far, and will discuss what’ll be needed in the future. Participants will also enjoy field trips to both Mossel Bay and the Klein Karoo.

For a video interview with Prof. Marean, please see below.

More information:

 

Curits Marean Interview

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