Remains of a far-distant day


Cape Town - If you wanted to choose a final resting place far from the madding crowd, Mertenhof would be a good choice.

Situated in a narrow kloof directly above the Biedouw River, this modest-sized rock overhang site deep in the northern Cederberg mountains offers all the solitude and natural grandeur you could wish for.

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ANCIENT HOME: the Mertenhof rock shelter (centre) at Bushmanskloof reserve in the Cederberg, where an international team of archaeologists found the interred remains of hunter-gatherer children during excavations to test their theories about life in this region some 70,000 years ago during the Middle Stone Age.picture SuppliedGOING DOWN: one of the excavation squares that archaeologists have dug to research the past history of the Mertenhof rock shelter in the Cederberg.picture SuppliedANCIENT BONES: the ribs, spine, pelvis and lower limbs of the older juvenile burial in the Mertenhof rock shelter. after the cranium had been removed.picture Supplied

So perhaps it’s not surprising that this is where a team of six archaeologists led by Dr Alex Mackay recently discovered two human interments, or burial sites, containing the remains of three young children aged between about 10 months and three to four years, dating from the hunter-gatherer era.

These skeletal remains, currently at UCT where they are being analysed by Professor Susan Pfeiffer of the University of Toronto in Canada, have yet to be carbon-dated to determine exactly how old they are, but Mackay is prepared to venture a cautious guess that “somewhere in the last 3 000 to 4 000 years would be unsurprising”.

Although many such human skeletons have been found in the coastal region of the Western Cape, few have been recovered from this inland mountainous region.

In a 2000 research paper that described the “rescue excavations” of three juvenile hunter-gatherer skeletons from the Pakhuis Pass area, UCT archaeology professor Judith Sealy and colleagues explained that their research on these human remains supported earlier suggestions by archaeologists that hunter-gatherers from the Cape’s Fold Mountain Belt region were economically and socially distinct from hunter-gatherer communities at the coast – at least between 4 000 and 2 000 years ago.

Two of these excavations were close to Mertenhof, named from the original farm, but now part of the Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve that supports the work being done by Mackay and his colleagues, two of whom are South Africans: Wesley Flear and UCT Master’s student Kyla Bluff.

The skull and other skeletal remains of what initially appeared to be two individuals in burial contexts were encountered during the team’s first season of field work.

“Horizontally, they’re about 1m apart, but vertically we found them in quite different settings – one was apparently interred at depth and the other in a shallower pit that had probably been covered with a cairn of stones,” Mackay said.

“The bones were very poorly preserved and it was only when Susan examined the teeth that it became apparent there were more than two individuals represented – at least three children, all probably younger than 4.5 years, and possibly more. That’s something we’ll work to resolve next year.”

The removal of these remains was covered by the team’s excavation permit, he added.

“I don’t think many archaeologists particularly enjoy disinterring human remains, and the remains of children perhaps even less so. To that end you want to do the best possible job and that means slowing things down considerably.

“Both individuals for whom we found post-cranial (bones other than the cranium) material took more than a week to excavate.The remains are currently housed at UCT for analysis, but will eventually go to Iziko (museum) for permanent curation.”

While these human remains are obviously of interest to Mackay and his team, they were not their major focus and the archaeologists were not looking for them specifically

Rather, Mertenhof is the third site in this region that they are excavating to test an hypothesis developed on work at the other two sites: that during certain time periods, human habitation in the eastern Cederberg area was limited by prevailing environmental conditions that were possibly drier because of the rain shadow effects of the mountains.

This thesis was derived from evidence (or rather, lack of evidence) from the first excavation in the Putslaagte valley, about 20km to the north, followed by a second excavation at the Klipfonteinrand rock overhang, also at Bushmans Kloof, that was completed in 2012 and the analysis of which is ongoing. At these two sites, there were surprisingly few artefacts from what archaeologists call the Howiesons Poort and the post-Howiesons Poort tool-making eras – technically, lithic (stone) technology cultural periods – of the Middle Stone Age, probably dating from between 65 000 and 55 000 years before the present.

“If our hypothesis was true, it would give us some insight into the environmental factors influencing behaviour in those periods,” Mackay explained.

“So during April and May we opened Mertenhof as the third and final shelter site in the programme to test that hypothesis, returning again in September and last month.”

In the very shallow layers, or sequences as archaeologists refer to them, dating from recent times, they found artefacts like glass beads, ostrich egg shell, a metal button and even a ceramic pipe bowl.

But their real interest was in the sequences in the deeper levels of the excavation squares, and here they found large numbers of stone tools made from hornfels, quartzite, quartz and silcrete, as well as pieces of ochre.

And in the deepest square, they recovered 30-odd finely-worked artefacts commonly associated with the Howiesons Poort, and also some exquisite bifacially worked stone points associated with the even earlier Still Bay industry period that dates from about 70 000 years ago.

So Mertenhof with its dramatic increase in artefact density and large numbers of backed artefacts (very small blades made of flaked stone) effectively debunked their original hypothesis about the occupational characteristics of the area east of the Pakhuis, Mackay explained.


In turn, this meant the lack of Howiesons Poort artefacts at the first two sites might reflect conditions specific to those shelters, rather than a technological and/or occupational response to the environments of the broader area.

“In some ways it’s a pity, but in others it does highlight the need to increase our sample size for sites of these earlier time periods.

“Building models with small samples is fun, but the flip-side is that you might be just a few trowel scrapes away from falsification.”

Referring to their future plans, Mackay said the team expect to be back at Mertenhof in September and/or October next year to continue excavations.

“Based on what we have now, I would expect that at least one more season after 2014 will be required to get the squares we have opened all the way down to bedrock, and that’s our objective.

“I doubt we’ll find more burials, principally because all the squares are now down into the Pleistocene (the “Ice Age” geological epoch that lasted from about 2.6 million to 11 700 years ago, with repeated glaciations) and none has had bone for a while.

“Our guess is that the upper squares are now somewhere about 30 000 to 50 000 years ago, while the lower square is probably beyond 80 000 years.”

- Sunday Argus

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