Steven James Walker from the department of archaeology at UCT extracts a sample from between the red sands and the Earlier Stone Age archaeological deposits at the Kathu Townlands site. Picture: VASA LUKISH AND STEVEN JAMES WALKER & ET AL

Cape Town - More needs to be done to preserve an extensive prehistoric site at Kathu in the Northern Cape, says a group of researchers who have found tens of thousands of Earlier Stone Age artefacts there.

Excavations by archaeologists at the site, situated between Upington and Vryburg, have uncovered stone tools, including axes.

A team of archaeologists – from UCT and the University of Toronto, in collaboration with the McGregor Museum in Kimberley – visited the area for fieldwork last year.

According to their research, published last week in the PLOS ONE journal, finding the artefacts at Kathu Townlands presented “a challenge to our understanding of early hominin behaviour”.

It described the Kathu area as a “complex and massive archaeological context” which required additional research.

“Given the rapid development of the town of Kathu, long-term protection of the deposits at Townlands is imperative. However, simply preserving isolated artefact-dense patches of land will not preserve the information necessary to interpret the Kathu Complex. Preservation cannot be limited to the presence and absence of surface archaeological material.”

Kathu, a major iron mining area, was one of the richest early prehistoric archaeological sites in South Africa and it was estimated the site was between 700 000 and one million years old.

UCT department of archaeology’s Steven James Walker, lead author of the journal paper, said: “The site is amazing and it is threatened. We’ve been working well with developers as well as the South African Heritage Resources Agency to preserve it, but the town of Kathu is rapidly expanding around the site. It might get cut off on all sides by development and this would be regrettable.”

He said archaeologists and developers would have to find strategies to co-operate.

Michael Chazan, director of the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto, said: “We need to imagine a landscape around Kathu that supported large populations of human ancestors, as well as large animals like hippos. There is no question that the Kathu Complex presents unique opportunities to investigate the evolution of human ancestors in southern Africa.”

Cape Times