CAHO Seminar Series

Postcard from South Africa #2.

May 18, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths

Monday 4th May. Another emotional day in South Africa.

We drove up from Joburg this morning heading for Mokopane and the archaeological and palaeontological sites at Makapansgat, now known as Makapan. The name will need little introduction to human origins students. The Limeworks cave is famous throughout the world. It was here that Raymond Dart identified Australopithecus prometheus, a fire using Australopith, later reclassified as A. africanus. Ron Clarke has resurrected the name for a new species of Australopith he believes is present here and at Sterkfontein, the Littlefoot skeleton. It was also at the Limeworks that Dart established his Osteodontokeratic industry, believing his fire making Australopiths made weapons from the bones, teeth and the horns of the animals they killed, as well as using them on each other. At that time the Australopiths were seen by many as the root of Homo, so the ‘killer ape’ hypothesis was the explanation for the aggression seemingly inherent in our own species. There is some great video footage of Dart wielding huge bones as clubs or suggesting that jaws could be used to gouge out eyes. He actually looks as if some brutal atavistic forebear has suddenly possessed him – scary, but then this was the time of Apartheid, Vietnam, and the race riots in the American south. Maybe it made a kind of depressing sense back then. Thankfully that nonsense was refuted by South African scientists and their colleagues.

Clare, Johan and I were taken around the Limeworks by Moloko and Peter, two of the local guides at Makapan. The sites in the valley are now a northern extension of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site in Gauteng (the other satellite site is Taung). I’d forgotten how big the Limeworks cave actually is. The side chambers disappear off into the murky distance. It is no wonder that Alf Latham and his then student Andy Herries spent so long trying to work out how all the bits related to each other, but then that’s cave stratigraphy for you. The breccia dumps outside the cave still preserve fossils discarded from the mining operations.

For me the most poignant part of our visit was the Cave of Hearths, the next locality on our Makapan tour. I had worked here in the late 1990s and early 2000s with Anthony Sinclair of Liverpool University and Pat Quinney now at Wits. It’s a fantastic site, and one of the few Acheulean localities with a secure(ish) date. The cave today is an open shelter-like space. In the Middle Pleistocene, before progressive roof collapse, it was a much more enclosed space, with a narrower entrance and a talus cone leading into a dark and narrow tunnel-like cavity. Between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago, handaxe making hominins either lived inside the cave or at its entrance. The famous hearth’s from which the cave got its name were really manganese deposits, but Revil Mason who dug the cave in the early 1950s, reported evidence for localised concentrations of fire within the cave itself. The handaxes and cleavers from the site are now stored in Wits University. They are made on quartzite mostly, either from big flakes or natural slabs. The proximity of this fine grained high-quality tool stone must in part explain the hominin presence. But I was always intrigued by Judy Maguire’s discussions of the Makapan cave valley. The valley is a micro-climate with water and vegetation through-out the year. Just to the south is the open veld of the Springbok flats. Standing above the cave and looking down into the valley it is not hard to see why early humans found it such an attractive place to live. A focus on micro-climates with perennial resources would be a good strategy for handaxe makers living in and around the mountains here.

Photostich panorama of the Cave of Hearths, taken from the entrance to Historic Cave.

Photostich panorama of the Cave of Hearths, taken from the entrance to Historic Cave.

From the Cave of Hearths the board walk leads you up to Historic Cave, the scene of a terrible massacre in the early 1850s when the local tribes’ people were cornered by Boers. Opinions vary as to the cause of the conflict. It is an eerie place that always makes me shiver – uneasy ghosts. Moloko vividly reconstructs the story of the last days of the poor souls trapped in the cave. I never want to stay long here.

From Historic it was quick trips to Buffalo Cave and to Ficus, the very deep cavity with a small lake at the bottom of it. Not one to forget in a hurry. Again Peter and Moloko enthusiastically describe the work done at these sites and you can still identify the sampling points where speleothem has been taken for dating. All around us are the evidences of Iron Age peoples as well, re-emphasising the Makapan valley as a rich multi-period archaeological locality. All in all it was good to go back – many happy memories to chase the ghosts away.

From here it was off to the local hotel we are staying in, and dinner. All three of us are tired, but feeling today was a full and interesting day. Tomorrow we go north to the border and the ‘lost city’ of Mapungubwe. I am really excited about this as I have never been before and it is one of the glories of SA archaeology.

Till I write again, wishing you were here,


Categories: Blog.