The Perspective from Africa – Sarah Wurz: Klasies River – Archive of Human Behavior in South Africa


(whooshing sound) (typing sound) (instrumental music) – [Narrator] We are the paradoxical ape. Bipedal, naked, large
brain, long the master of fire, tools and language, but still trying to understand ourselves. Aware that death is inevitable, yet filled with optimism. We grow up slowly. We hand down knowledge. We empathize and deceive. We shape the future from our shared understanding of the past. Carta brings together experts from diverse disciplines to exchange insights on who we are,
and how we got here. An exploration made possible by the generosity of humans, like you. (chiming music) (digitized music) – Good afternoon, it is an honor and a privilege to be here. Thank you very much. I will talk about Klasies
River main site today. Klasies River main site is situated in South Africa, on the southern Cape coast. And what you see there
is that it’s situated close to quite a very
few well known Capes, which we know quite a lot about, especially the evolution of modern humans. On the picture below, you
can see there’s a picture of Klasies River and there you can see that it’s right on the coast. So it’s very picturesque to work there, a very nice environment. Also on that bottom
slide, you can see that there’s a lot of lush
vegetation around it. It consists of forest,
fern, moss and thicket. That is enough to see to
all of your plant needs, if you had to rely on that for food. This picture shows you
Klasies River main site and what you may first see is that it consists of four recesses or caves, that we call by different names. With Cave One A, I’ve put
two little human figures to show you the scale. This is against all of these cave, 21 meters of shell midden deposits formed. This means it’s one of
the largest shell middens in Africa, dating to between
120 and 48,000 years ago, then there was a break in occupation, and then after some
erosion of the deposits, later stone age or Holocene people came in again and occupied the site from 4,800 to 2,300 years ago. This vast amount of shell midden deposits is one of the best features of the site, but it’s also one of the most challenging, because if you have only one career, where do you start? So there’s a lot of work to do. What I want to talk to you about today, being such a large deposit, is just flashes of light on some of the aspects on which Klasies River
can throw some light. At Klasies River, we have
quite a few hominine or hominid human representatives. I will talk about some evidence that highlight the ecological genius and cultural flexibility and complexity of our early ancestors, and I would like to emphasize that they achieved this without our current super culture. So they really adapted
to that environment. So, who lived at Klasies River? We’ve got more than 50 human fossils at Klasies River and most of them date to between 120 and 90,000 years ago. What we can see from the
remains that we have, and in the previous slide you will see that they were quite broken up, small pieces of human remains, so we don’t have a full skull or a complete skeleton. Fragmentary remains, but what we can still say from that is that it’s
a morphologically variable population with very small individuals, as well as larger, robust individuals. Interestingly, for Klasies River, we get mostly adults represented. For most of the other
Sun Cape sites, we find mostly infants represented. So that is perplexing,
why is this the case? We do have only three teeth of infants. In the picture that you see there, that’s the Howiesons Poort deposits, dating to between 70 and 50,000 years ago. If you find teeth of infants,
you have to think that it was families that lived here. These Howiesons Poort
Deposits are the deposits that we can see the highest density of occupation in the site, so that’s quite interesting that we find
the infants in this layer. Something that’s really
interesting for Klasies River is that almost all of the human remains, especially the lower deposits, those between 120 and 90,000 years ago are burned, as you can probably see from this picture, and many
of them have cut marks. So what is the logical conclusion is that it was probably cannibalism
that was practiced. Was it ritual cannibalism? Was it dietary cannibalism? We do not know. It is one of those issues that we hope to throw light on in the future. If you look at the remains
from Klasies River and that these are mostly the food remains, you can see that the deposits from the lower most layers, 120,000 year layers consist of dense shall middens with all
the foods that went into that. So, it’s foods from the
coastal environment, fauna, fireplaces, et cetera. So from this, you can see that in this time range that they followed, from 120,000 to 48,000 years ago, we know that the climates fluctuated. And in that time period, they targeted different kinds of foods. Klasies River is over facetiously called the earliest seafood
restaurant in the world, (audience laughs) because
at this site, we do find, as I said, in the lowest layers, these dense, dense shell middens. This is one of the earliest occurrences of this very dense shell middens. So here you see a few of the food remains that we find very often there. Seal remains, shellfish, and fish. This is combined then with large fauna and small fauna. So I put this very large,
we call it a bovert a size class five, it’s
above 900 kilograms, very large boverts. And to be able to hunt
such a bovert successfully, you have to cooperate. So, we can see throughout this sequence that they were very
successful, intelligent, cooperative hunters, that not only targeted the bigger animals, but also very small animals. Interestingly, since
I’ve started excavating at this site again at around 2015, the layers that we’re
targeting now are about 110,000 years old, and what we observed in these layers are these
reddened quartzite blocks, that we haven’t seen before. These blocks are associated with leached ashes and food remains. In this picture you see post-doc, she was my post-doc Silje Bentsen, who did a lot of experiments on quartzite and how it behaves if it
comes into contact with fire. And what we did determine then is that probably these quartzite
blocks were used to roast food on, and that’s a very early occurrence of that kind of behavior. Also at Klasies River,
you find many hearths. So what you see here on
this side is Cave One, where we’re currently excavating,
so this is what we call the redness bulk and these layers go from about 120,000 to about 90,000. This is the picture higher
up in the sequences, where we have the
Howiesons Poort deposits. You will notice here the lower most deposits here are full of hearths. There’s actually lines, as well as these deposits here, full of hearths. What has been done here in collaboration with Susan Mentzer and Cynthia Larbey, is to take samples from these hearths, Cynthia Larbey took samples of the ashy parts of the hearths and the darkened soils under that and did scanning electroscope microscopy on it, and what she did find in these slides or in these remains was the remains of starchy tissue of
underground storage organs. In the ashes of the
120,000 year old hearths, as well as the 60,000 year old hearths. Susan Mentzer, she did micromorphology and she also identified
this parenchymis tissue in the sediments next to the ashes that Cynthia has identified. This is pretty important. So far it’s the earliest
direct published evidence. We also have very early evidence from Boarder Cove, for the deliberate inclusion of starch in diet. We don’t think that it’s the earliest evidence for starch inclusion because the genetic evidence shows that modern humans have more copies of the gene that produces salivary
amylase, that’s the enzyme that breaks down starch, and this change seems to have occurred
already 300,000 years ago. It seems that starch
was an important part of hunter/gatherer diets long
before agriculture developed. So this puts the new
perspective onto the idea that paleo diets consist
just of proteins and fats. So starch was really an important part of their diet as well. (audience laughs) So from this evidence, that I just really discussed with you really superficially, we can say that humans
at Klasies River followed a balanced diet with starchy
cooked roots and tubers combined with roasted protein and fat from shellfish, fish,
small and large fauna. This complexity and ingenuity that we see in their diets, we can also link that to their cultural behavior. Here is a picture of the stone tools found throughout the
Klasies River sequence. I’ve only put the typical stone tools from between 120 and
about 70-65,000 years ago, but what is interesting is that we see just as the humans adapted
their diets through time, they also adapted the way in
which they made stone tools, and it was probably
used for the same kinds of tasks, but they used different ways to manufacture those tools. So this gives us some
inclination of how they thought. We do get clearer snapshots
of cultural complexity during period of more intensive occupation. We think at this site, it’s
around 100,000 years ago, as for example, Blombos
Cave, 65,000 years ago were the Howiesons Poort,
and 4,800 years ago. So time only allows me
to really quickly focus on some of these aspects, and I’ll do that in relation to pigments and to bone tools. Because we seem to find
more of these materials during these time periods. In the 100,000 year old
levels, we do see this pigment that’s be shaped, or
ochre, shaped in a crane, and you can see that it
has these lines on it, so it’s been used and
shaped intentionally. Then there’s also this piece of ochre, which has been scored or engraved. We don’t think it’s a pattern. We just think it was
probably used to make powder. And this occurs in association with these notched bone tools made
on the ribs of a very large animal, like an Eland. Here you can see some of these notches. We don’t know what it was used for. It is still a mystery, but
we are working on that. Then, in the 65,000 year old layers, we’re jumping up in the
sequence about 12 meters. We do find similar pigments
in the Howiesons Poort, but I’ve mentioned earlier that we think it’s one of the highest occupation density parts of the sequence. Here we also find more ochre, and here we can see that
they preferred the color red ochre, they heated some of the ochre, they also used yellow ochre. And interestingly, they
made a white material pigment from different materials that might have contained bone. So that’s a quite interesting phenomenon. Also in the Howiesons
Poort, we get bone tools like this bone point. This looks exactly like
the later stone age and Holocene, and recent
bushmen bone points used in bow and arrow technology, and an engraved piece of bone. Then I’m jumping up to
the top of the sequence, the later stone age layers, the Holocene layers dated to between
4,800 and 2,300 years ago. So these deposits, we are very lucky to have it in the same site as the middle stone age deposits, because it gives us a sharper, much more detailed resolution impression of life ways and behavior. What we do find surprising
is that we don’t find a big jump in complexity. The archeologic materials basically the same types of materials. But what this allowed us is to investigate an often neglected part of
our archeological records, sound and archaeo-music. And in doing this, we’ve
done a lot of experimentation and ethnographic research to try and bring sound back into the
Klasies River Cave One. So this enigmatic implement was found by Singer and Wymer already in 1967, next to a lower jaw of a human. It’s a dual hold, two hold instrument or implement dating to
around 4,800 years ago. So here you see some of the
students doing excavations in that midden, later stone age midden. This is on top of the redness bulk. It’s more or less these layers. What we found when we looked at the ethnographic record, and by
doing some experimentation is that as Singer and
Wymer and others have suggested that this might have been a musical instrument or an instrument to make sound with. I don’t know if you
know what a woer woer is or a wirra wirra, it’s just
the sound that it makes. So, you put it in the middle
like Joshua is doing here. We estimated the length
of the rope used by the ethnographic examples and if you do this, it makes a sound. And interesting, the sound is very similar to that made by bees. We are investigating this further. This Klasies River archive highlights the kinds of achievements of African populations that played a prominent role in the development of humankind, of people like us. I would like to thank
everybody for being here and for giving me the
opportunity to speak to you. Thank you. (audience claps) (digital music)

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