You’ve heard to story. I’m here to give you a little context.
But in case you haven’t heard the story, this is from the press release which is, so far, the only information generally available:
New finds of fossils and stone tools from the archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, push back the origins of our species by one hundred thousand years and show that by about 300 thousand years ago important changes in our biology and behaviour had taken place across most of Africa.
In order to understand the significance of this research, and it is indeed very significant, you need to have a detailed history of archaeological research in Europe, the Near East, and Africa. But since there isn’t time for that I’ll give you the following bullet points. Each of these bullet points reflects the general understanding of prehistory at a certain point in time, in order from oldest to newest.
In the 70s and before, we thought this:
As humans evolved they went through stages where the morphology would change, usually involving an enlargement of the brain, along with the behavior, usually indicated by changes in stone tools. So, Homo erectus used acheulean tools (hand axes), Neanderthals used Mousterian tools (Levallois technology) with prepared platforms, and modern humans (“Cro Magnon”) used upper paleolithic technology and they had nice art too. The transition from Neanderthal times to Modern Human times happened 40,000 years ago.
In the 80s we realized that there was no association whatsoever between the various “industries” and the various “hominids” mainly because a lot of research in the Middle East kept finding Neanderthals and Modern Humans randomly associated with various technologies. This caused a disturbance in the force, so the whole idea of linking morphology (i.e, different species or subspecies) with different levels or modes of technological activity was tossed out the window.
Also in the 1980s and continuing into the early 1990s, African archaeologists realized something. Well, they realized two things. Most of us realized that at a certain point of time, which Sally McBreardy and Allison Brooks estimated to be about 250,000 years ago or a bit earlier, a “middle paleolithic” world with a lot of handaxes and some other bifaces (Sangoan-Lupemban technologies, that sort of thing) gave way to a “Middle Stone Age” technology. This MSA technology was essentially the same as but somewhat more advanced than what the Europeans called “Middle Plaeolithic” based on the Levallois technique, a prepared platform technology.
Notice that I keep mentioning that term … prepared platform technology. Put a pin in that.
The second thing we all knew about but not every body liked was an idea by Peter Beaumont, which is that a certain technology had emerged earlier than the Acheulean-MSA transition of 250K, which was called Fauersmith. This was a … wait for it … prepared platform technology of sorts.
Classically, the handaxe based technology of the early stone age was replaced with the prepared platform technology. This meant throwing the handaxes one last time and moving on to blades and points made with the levallois technique. But in the Fauersmith, an industry found mainly in the Cape Province of South Africa and nearby areas (I think I’ve seen it in Namibia), uses … wait for it … prepared platform technology to make handaxes! This industry is thought to be just older than the MSA, so just older than 250K, going back maybe to 350K, or maybe 400K or even 500K, no one is sure.
The Africanists also realized that the Europeans were pretty messed up in their thinking. The species/subspecies link to technology never went away in Africa. While such a thing is never expected to be perfect, it seemed to hold there. The reason the Europeans were confused is this: When it comes to new species and new technologies, Africa is the donor and Eurasia the occasional recipient.
I liken it to figuring out the chronology and technology of trade beads, those little glass beads, still in use, that were carried by Dutch and English (and other) ships around the world mainly in the early 17th century, to trade with the locals and buy things like, say, Manhattan Island. If you look at the trade beads found here and there on colonial sites around the world, and I’ve personally done this, you can figure out a chronology of style and design of those beads that we assume reflects realty in the two or three places they were consistently made. But only by going to the factory neighborhoods in the Netherlands and Italy, and South Asia, can you actually figure out what was going on.
Putting it another way, trying to describe human evolution, substantively, by observing only Europe and West Asia and ignoring Africa is like, oh hell, I don’t know what the heck, why would you ever do that?
Anyway, here’s what many of us have been thinking all along, following the insights of folks like Peter Beaumont and Alison Brooks. Once upon a time there were these Homo erectus doods, and they have some moderate game in the brain department but were definitely not humans. They may have lacked some serious human mind tricks, though they were capable of making and using fire, and their handaxes were very nice, when they wanted them to be. They were also very tough and strong and probably somewhat dangerous. Oddly, the most common cause of death, when we can estimate cause of death, is that they ate something that killed them. So, there is some kind of deficit or something behind that.
Then, some time after about a half million years ago, a subset of these guys, and I know where they lived because I have sat on the exact rock chairs they themselves sat on while making their tools, added something to their hand ax technology. They had probably added other things to their culture, and/or their brains, and this hand ax technology thing merely reflected this, but it also opened the opportunity for developing this technology further, and that may have been actually contributory to the subsequent evolutionary process. Anyway, they added this thing where instead of just whacking a flake off a big rock, with the intention of then flaking that big flake into a handaxe, they would make a few smaller specially and carefully done flakes on the big rock, literally a giant piece of bedrock in some cases, that made the prot-handaxe flake they were about to produce more predictable (and, actually, larger in many cases, I think).
The prepared platform. It made making hand axes better. But, taken to the next step, which seems to have happened in this region probably before the Great Transition in 250K, it actually allowed the production of stone tool doohickies never before seen, never before possible. this eventually developed into the full on prepared platform technique that eventually became common all across Africa, Europe and West Asia.
Now, let me tell you a little story you won’t hear, likely, from somewhere else. I was once visiting my friend Peter Beaumont, and he showed me a skull, that was unfortunately unprovenienced, i.e., no one could be sure of where it came from, that looks a lot like the Jebe Irhoud skull and others of that general form and age range. He did have it dated using a technique that, without knowing more about the context of the skull (it has been collected in antiquity by a farmer, supposedly, in the region) could not be fully reliable, but the date was somewhere between 300K and 400K, closer to the latter, if I recall correctly.
Here’s the thing. Assume for a minute, and this is a major oversimplification but I’ll defend it if necessary, that there is some sort of reasonable association between species or subspecies and technology. I’ve already described, just now, how that is messy. The late Homo erectus of the Cape, if I’ve got my story right, were using MSA technology before they were “early modern humans” for example. But that is expected. Just assume that there is a general correlation, for the purpose of a though experiment.
Now, go out in that thought experiment landscape and imagine looking for both artifacts and diagnostic skull bits, so you can put the story together of a few different hominins over time, one evolving into the other, and their material culture, especially their stone tool technology.
You will figure out the boundaries in time and space of the technologies long before you verify the species or subspecies by the remains of their actual heads. the reason for that should be obvious, but if it isn’t, just go around the city and look at all the litter you find. Look carefully at all the litter. Cal me as soon as one of the pieces of litter is a human head. Actually, call 911 first, then me.
This new find is a head butting, perhaps, against the early time range for this species, previously expected from the Fauersmith theory.
I fully expect the key points in the article to be ignored and for Sub Saharan Africa to be broken off from the rest of Africa so that this find can be European/West Asian in stead of Africa, but to address that I’ll quickly tell you this; The Sahara may not have even existed then, so there may not have been a Sub Saharan Africa. Just an Africa. Where modern humans arose.
Everything I’m about to tell you in this story is true.1 You might not want to read this story while you are alone or while sitting in the dark.2
Kimberley South Africa is said to be the most haunted city in the world, and it certainly is a city with a remarkable and dark history. The culture of Kimberley is constructed from the usual colonial framework on which are draped the tragic lives of representatives from almost every native culture from thousands of kilometers around, as well as the seemingly ubiquitous Europeans with their greed, their unexamined privilege, and their wars.
The city’s very existence is highly questionable from legal, moral, and ethical standpoints, yet it is historically central to South Africa itself; the resulting trope is a rather quaint denialism. The most significant historical event here was a military siege of the town, but during that siege, it would appear that black and other non-white labor3 built the protections that saved all the white women and children and many of the white men from death from either bombardment or starvation. Then the laborers went home and were exposed to the worst conditions imaginable, and the death toll is to this day left off all of the brochures and plaques commemorating the glorious war. That is just one example of the problem that Kimberly has. All cities of prosperity and historical significance are linked to a darker side. In Kimberly, the ethical conundrum of modern civilization is neatly packaged within the municipal borders, set off from civilization in the middle of the arid lands of southern Africa, unconnected to any other place by anything more than a two lane road and a small airport.
Kimberley grew up next to and entirely because of The Big Hole. The Big Hole is where there used to be the remnant plug of an ancient volcano. It is the largest hole ever dug by hand. But why was it dug? That is going to require some explanation.
It is now known that diamond is the natural state of carbon at very high pressure, so it seems that there are places at the base of the earth’s crust where carbon in the mantle has condensed into diamonds. Some volcanoes consist of large flows of magma that include unmelted chunks of this basal crust. A very long time ago such a volcano existed in this spot, at present day Kimberley. It did its volcano thing and then stopped and cooled down. Then, the landscape was eroded down quite a ways, so that the volcanic cone, the ash, lava, or whatever it is the volcano had belched out onto the landscape is long ago eroded into the sea a thousand kilometers away. All that is left is the vertical tube of hardened magma and bits of the lowest reaches of the earth’s crust carried along by the magma. If you go to this area of South Africa today you will see several such ancient “plugs” of various different volcanoes, some with diamonds some not, often sticking up from the surrounding flatness.
Then the white people came to this interior region of South Africa between the Gariep and Vaal rivers, and discovered diamonds laying around on the surface. They saw that this was good, and they knew that God had put these diamonds there for them to prosper (more on this later). And somewhere along the line someone figured out where some of the diamonds were eroding out of. They did not know this was a volcanic plug, as they had very little knowledge of geology. But God had put this concentration of diamonds, with clues leading to it, so that the whites could prosper, and that was good enough for them. So they started to dig and they found more diamonds. So they dug more and more and divided the plug into little horizontal patches, each a ‘claim’ just a few feet square, which were over time bought and sold and dug and sold and dug and bought and dug until many people died digging a hole that is larger than any hand dug hole ever dug by our species on this planet.
The Big Hole.
During this time, as the city of Kimberley was being built up, this location became a center of all sorts of activity. There were little wars going on everywhere in Africa at at that time, and so a rather brisk trade in illegal arms emerged. Mercenaries moved through the area, and there was illegal rhino horn trade, illegal ivory trade, and illegal slave trading. Cowboy-like miners and traders got drunk and killed each other now and then. And by “now and then” I mean, “all the time.”
At the edge of town, someone seems to have had the job of digging one hole every day. The hole was about six feet long, two and a half feet wide, and six feet deep and perfectly squared off. This attention to perfection is an African thing. I feel almost like I know the guy who dug this hole (or more likely three or four guys sharing one job). The hole was perfectly positioned a couple of feet over from the last hole, and it was perfectly executed. And into this hole was placed, tossed, gently lowered encoffined, whoever happened to die that day. If no one died that day, which would happen only now and then, these guys had the next day off. If two or three people died that day, then the hole took less time to fill in because the bodies took up more space. If the person who died was just some slob (which was the normal run of events), the body was unceremoniously tossed in. If the person who died was of some importance to someone and there was cash available, the deceased was placed in a coffin and lowered in. Or something in between happened.
At some point in Kimberley’s past, this is how the graveyard was filled with dead people. About one person a day on average, plus or minus.
There were some bad days. In 1888 202 miners died in one fell swoop owing to a fire. And, during the Big Siege, several hundred more people died. The 1918 Spanish Influenza was devastating here.
The Big Siege was the event most closely connected by modern day historians and ghost hunters with a particular building which is now the McGregor Museum, which is central to this story. The Siege of Kimberly was part of the Anglo Boer War.
The so called Anglo Boer war is a complicated mess of history. There are people who will get mad at me for calling it the Anglo Boer War instead of the First and/or Second Boer War or some other thing. But I’m not going to mess with these details here. Let’s just say that a lot of bad shit was going down in what is now South Africa in the late 19th century. Let’s just say that the Afrikaners and the British of the Cape Colony had two or three points of difference in opinion about things like the rules of government and society which would eventually become Apartheid, about slavery, and so on. And let’s just say that the discovery of diamonds near Kimberley … complicated things.
So there was a war fought in South Africa between October 1899 and May 1902. It was mainly a war between the United Kingdom and the British in southern Africa on one hand, and the Boers (that would be the Afrikaners, the descendants of the Dutch in South Africa) on the other. The United Kingdom had colonial forces in India and elsewhere that they brought to bear, and nearly every community in the UK proper supplied forces. It became the largest single military engagement ever undertaken by the British, and arguably one of the largest wars ever to date. The burnt earth policy was developed during this war. Although concentration camps were already a thing (used in the Spanish American War) they were brought to the highest level ever. All of the Boars in the region of fighting were rounded up and put in the concentration camps because whenever they were captured and release they tended to simply rejoin their Army and kept fighting, for some reason. New kinds of rifles and new kinds of cannon were use in this war, making it a key historical moment for the history of large scale killing of each other. This included the “smokeless cannon.” That was important because when cannons let off a lot of smoke, the enemy could figure out more easily where you were located and shoot back sooner. With the smokeless cannon, that was harder to do.
Have you seen the movie Breaker Morant? That was this war.
At the outset of the war, the British occupied and essentially annexed Kimberley and the surrounding mines, and the Boers surrounded Kimberley and bombarded the city with mortars and cannons. They did this for 124 days, but fighting continued around the city even after its liberation by British forces.
The number of people who died here is somewhat controversial. During the bombardments and fighting, the armed defenders of the city suffered 134 casualties, but close to 1,500 “blacks” including children may have died of disease and famine. Over 67% of all white babies and 91% of all “coloured and black” children died. Well over 2,000 British casualties were suffered by the force that relieved the city.
In Kimberly one finds the old Kimberley Sanatorium, built at the suggestion of Cecil John Rhodes as a high class hotel and health resort in 1897, but used for other purposes since then. Rhodes lived there during the Siege, and the compound served as the military headquarters for the British. Later, it was used again as a hotel, and still later, as a convent. To this day people argue over the origin of the various ghosts said to occupy the structure. Are they the spirits of those who stayed in the hotel for their health, but died anyway? Are they those that lost their lives during the siege? Most ghost hunters agree that at least one is a nun who forever roams the corridors.
Eventually, the hotel was converted to house the McGregor Museum, which is part of the South African National Museums. This particular museum addresses the local history, the military history associated with the war and the siege, and the regional archeology. For several years, I’ve worked off and on in the Northern Cape (the province Kimberley is in) and had the opportunity to work with the folks at this museum. And one year, I stayed for a few weeks, with a small group of students, in the guest quarters of the museum itself.
I have been told, true or not I cannot say, that many of the dead but not gone passed away in agony in the upper floors of the infirmary, in very rooms which now constitute the guest quarters, and in which we stayed during this period.
Indeed, we were warned when we moved in.
“Your’re a scientist, like I am,” said the archaeologist who lived downstairs from the Rooms of Death and Misery, as the students were carting gear and luggage up the stairs to the apartment, winging on about how they had to do all the work. “So I understand if you don’t believe me, but….”
“… But what?” I said, as I glanced up the stair wondering what the students were whispering to each other about and concerned that they were taking the good rooms for themselves.
“Well, the place is haunted, or so it is said,” he continued.
I stared at him. Like, what is that supposed to mean, I thought.
“The Norwegian scientists who came last month …. they were supposed to stay for three weeks but left after five days.”
“The ghost drove them out. Oh, by the way, avoid the bedroom that is an extension of the hallway.”
“Just avoid it.”
So I went upstairs and the students, disgruntled because they had personally carried all our stuff up the stairs while I talked to the archaeologist on the first floor, had indeed taken the two best bedrooms, set our stuff up in the third actual bedroom for use as a common space and informal office, and put my luggage in …. the dreaded hallway extension bedroom.
“So, who told you that the hallway was extra haunted?” I asked them snarkily.
“Everybody knows the hallway is extra haunted” one of them replied, super-snarkily.
That night, everyone was pretty tired which was good, because when the disembodied footsteps came walking down the hallway …. and back and forth a couple of times … I think I was the only person who heard them. But that was not to be the case for very long…
The Ghost in the Hall
So there we were in the Haunted Guest Quarters of the Old Infirmary, and I had already heard the ghost once. In the morning, my colleague and BFF Lynne who was staying with us for a couple of days noted that she had heard the mysterious footsteps as well….
“Greg, one, maybe both, of your students are really afraid of ghosts,” she said.
“Why were they even talking about ghosts?”
“They’ve talked about little else since finding out that the ghost tour business is the biggest thing in town! And sooner or later they’re going to hear whatever that was walking down the hall last night.”
“Nah, they’ll just get drunk and pass out every night as usual. Don’t worry about it.”
“We’ll see. What do you suppose that was walking up and down the hall anyway? I looked out and saw nothing,” she said a little too casually.
“Everything has a scientific explanation, my dear friend.”
“Somehow I knew you were going to say that…”
It did turn out that both of the two students harbored beliefs in things like ghosts and spirits. They were not the only ones in town who did. We quickly confirmed that our temporary abode was indeed on the route of the local ghost tour. The ghost tour is actually one of the more stable businesses in Kimberley, City of Ghosts, as one might imagine. The local ghost tour bus, a Volkswagen “Eurovan” style vehicle, would travel round the city bringing people to various haunted houses. So one evening after we figured out that we were on the tour, we saw the van pitch up on a nearby public street. Several tourists who seemed to be from East Asia got out of the van, and the tour guide began to point in our direction and gesticulate, presumably telling stories about the museum and its ghostly inhabitants, as the tourists alternated between glancing at the tour books and pamphlets they carried with them and the building itself. This is when the students put on their show. They had covered themselves in sheets. They flashed the lights on and off and danced back and fourth in a ghostly manner passing between the various windows that were visible from the street. I may or may not have assisted.
Pretty soon the rather shocked looking tourists piled back into the van and drove off as quickly as possible.
And, as Lynne had suggested, the students did eventually hear the Thing in the Hallway.
I did not hear it every single night, but that may simply be because I slept through it. The phenomenon consisted of the sound of foot steps in the creaky hallway, going from one end of the hallway to the other, then often coming back the way it came. Frequently, the sound of footfalls would stop for various lengths of time, then continue. If you looked in the hall there would be nothing there. But the regular occurrence of the footfalls caused the students to avoid using the bathroom until sunup (which was great for me because I could shave and bathe early without interruption) and one of the student required that I tuck her in and turn out her bedroom light for her until I got her an extra flashlight that she could use as a night light. This is how it was at The Old Scary Infirmary for a couple of weeks.
Then, one morning, when I was down in the bathroom shaving … the strangest thing happened….
Who is that kilted man with the big gun?
Well, we were living with this ghost who would walk up and down the hall in the middle of the night, invisibly, leaving behind only the sound of its footsteps. But before I tell you how this all came out, I want to tell you a related side story.
As I had mentioned, I had the “hallway extension” room. Let me explain.
To get into the apartment, you would walk up a set of stairs and through a lockable doorway. Then to the right was a bedroom, and to the left a bathroom. Moving on ahead down the hallway were two more bedrooms on the right for a total of three. On the left side past the bathroom was a kitchen. Then, at the end of the hall, the hallway took a left and went up a step, and continued on for about 15 feet until it met a door that was always locked and that we were told that we should not attempt to open.
That L-shaped part of the hallway — the hallway extension — was fairly wide, and a second door had been fitted at the beginning of it, where the step went up, so it formed a long narrow bedroom with a small twin bed on one side and no other furniture.
That was my room.
The first night I stayed there, I was sitting in my room messing with my luggage or something when the light went out. I assumed the bulb had blown. I looked around for a new bulb but did not find one. So that night, after we went out to dinner and came back, I simply kept the door ajar to let in some light from the hallway while I set up the bed and prepared for my evening retirement.
The next day I forgot about the light having burned out, and nothing interesting happened, but the morning after that, we were staying in the apartment later than usual and while I was sitting there getting stuff ready to go out, the light mysteriously turned on. Right after the light turned on, I heard footsteps on the other side of the door that was not to be opened. I went over and looked through the keyhole and through the keyhole I could vaguely see the form of a 19th century looking chap in a uniform of the style that would have been worn by a Royal Scots Dragoon Guard, kilt and all.
“I’ll have to check this out in more detail” I thought, as an explanation for the strange behavior of my bedroom light started to form in my mind.
Indeed, later that night, after a day in the field doing archaeology, I went to my room intentionally at a certain time, and turned on the light and waited. Soon enough, I heard footsteps on the other side of the door that was not to be opened, and in a moment, the light went off. And away walked the footsteps.
The next day, after getting back from the field a bit early, I went round to the entrance of the McGregor Museum’s public galleries, talked my way past the ticket taker, and hopped up the stairs along one of the old Infirmary’s wings. At the top of the stairs was an open door into a larger room, and in the room were glass cases of manikins of men in various uniforms that dated to the time of The Siege. Near the back of the room was a gatling gun, and behind the gun, a locked door. Next to the door was a light switch.
I walked over to the light switch and turned it off. The lights in the museum room went off. I got on my hand and knees and looked through the old keyhole of the door, and could see nothing. But I reached up to the light switch and flipped it on, and suddenly through the keyhole I could see my room, with my bed, and all my junk on the bed. “Hmm,” I muttered,”Really should keep that neater since I’m kinda on public display here.”
As I stood to leave, I turned to the people who had been looking at the kilted manikin and said “You know, this place is really haunted!”
“I know!” each of them said, eyes wide, in unison with each other.
So, getting back to the original ghost story…
I see dead people. Hey, It’s my job!
I wrote earlier about the graves that were dug daily to receive Kimberly’s dead. In truth, the details of this procedure are still being worked out by archaeologists at the McGregor Museum, but when we were there on this particular trip, part of the grave yard to which I refer had been just discovered, accidentally uncovered during a public works drainage project. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in all my years as an archaeologist.
It should not have been terribly surprising that there were graves in this particular patch of land, just across a small road from an existing cemetery. Indeed, bodies had been discovered in past decades in this neighborhood, and many people suspected that the graveyard was in fact much larger than the marked area with the headstones that was traditionally defined as a cemetery.
We saw the graves opened and carefully excavated. Each hole, as described earlier, was carefully emptied out of all but the skeletons and some of the objects. A 24 hour guard stood watch to make sure no one or no thing got in … or out. Not that there was anything of real monetary value, but people do covet the strangest objects.
Many of the holes did have more than one skeleton, and quite often the skeleton was clearly tossed in haphazardly. In one case, a person’s body was lying at the base of the grave, but his legs were stiffly leaning against the wall. All of his bones were in place but his kneecaps, which rested enigmatically on his pelvis. What has happened was this: The knee caps were, of course, where they were supposed to be (at his knees) when his body was tossed in the grave. Later, his flesh rotted away, but his pants remained for a while, forming a tube shaped void containing his leg bones. The kneecaps slid down the tube and on to his lap, and later the void filled with dirt.
Another grave had a haphazardly tossed-in skeleton and on top of that was a carefully placed and well decorated coffin containing a woman.
Many of the skulls were cut transversely as one would do to remove the brain. It seems that the coroner or the undertaker or someone was harvesting this particular organ. Those were the days when everyone was doing physical anthropology. Perhaps the local doctor was conducting a study…
The people of the neighborhood were of course concerned about this graveyard, in part because many of these people descended from earlier Kimberley citizens, and in part because these days in South Africa burial of the dead is taken quite seriously, and treatment of the dead is a major social and political issue. In parallel cases elsewhere in the country, the people demanded that the burials be recovered and left alone. But in this case the overwhelming feeling was to apply science to the finds, to figure out as much as could be learned about the history and circumstances of these original burials.
Personally I attribute this local citizen’s interest in the science to the excellent work done by the archaeologists at the McGregor Museum in developing an awareness of archeology and its benefits. In addition, as I have alluded to earlier, there is a certain amount of historic denialism associated with the events and affairs connected to Kimberley, South Africa. And today, the inclination of many South Africans seems to be to discover rather than deny that which can be known.
But I mention the skeletons here because if we are talking about ghosts wandering around in an old infirmary, it is notable that those hearing the ghosts had been messing with the remains of the dead on the other side of the town.
In fact, that’s not the only way we were messing with the dead…
The Grave on the Hill
One of the main reasons we were staying in Kimberley was to assist the museum staff with a particular, and rather singular, survey and excavation. The location and circumstances of this field project were quite remarkable.
This was on the location of an historic hunting reserve, where every one of the buildings where guests were quartered and entertained was built well before World War II. Even the huge ancient charcoal refrigerator was intact and in use. This was a large cylindrical structure with double mesh walls. When the game was afoot and dozens of buck were killed by sports hunters over a few days, the space between the double walls was filled with charcoal and wetted down. The steady evaporation from the charcoal chilled the space inside the cylindrical building down to refrigerator temperature, so the carcases could be hung, processed, and aged over a week’s time.
The accommodations sported brass-fixtured porcelain bathtubs, fine cut glass adorned cabinetry, an excellent dining facility and a bar. None of which we were allowed near except for the one brief tour snuck in between paying guests.
Within the reserve was a small flat topped hill. This hill was the gravelly remains of an ancient river bed, the old thalweg of the Gariep River4, or some version of it, that probably flowed at this spot several tens of million of years ago. The volcanic plugs I mentioned earlier were already old at the time that this river flowed, so the gravel bed of this ancient river could contain diamonds eroded out of those plugs, which may have been upstream.
Subsequently, the land was eroded down such that what was once a river bed was now a hilltop.
Now, here’s a bit of geological esoterica for you: There is a debate raging between three or four guys that no one has ever heard of as to whether the river in this area flowed from east to west as it does now (more or less) or if this river channel was part of a system that flowed from the south to the north (and then to the west). I’m betting on the latter because in this river bed we found the eastern most known occurrence of a certain type of rock known as Asbestos Hills Jasperite. In order for this Jasperite to have gotten here, either the Jasperite deposits to the southwest of this site once extended well to the east, which is impossible, or the river flowed from the southwest.
This is not a digression … there is a relevant point to be made here. The ancient volcanic plugs with the diamonds were to our east (and west) but not to the south. If this river was draining the region of the volcanic plugs, there is a good bet that this gravel deposit would include diamonds. If, however, the river flowed form elsewhere, say from the southwest, then there is no reason to expect diamonds.
Whether there were diamonds or not, this hilltop was still a gravel bed representing an old river base, and in this region of South Africa, this meant that people would show up with bulldozers and strip it for diamonds. Regular people (with bulldozers) could legally file a diamond claim pretty much anywhere. A claim needed to be used within a very short time after filing, and you could not renew it indefinitely. Many of the old claims owned by the apartheid-linked megacorporations had been abrogated. The diamonds were now owned by the people. This was probably a good thing in a way, but is also meant that a bunch of Joes with bulldozers could legally take down the fence to this game park and strip this hilltop. Legally they were then required to restore the land to its original state, but that sort of thing almost never happened.
As a result, the megacorporation that owned this particular game reserve … and if you’ve heard of diamonds you’ve heard off this corporation … decided to strip out the gravel themselves so that no one else could work this claim. This would minimize damage to the game reserve. The geologists had gone over the deposits and had found no diamonds. If there were diamonds there, there were not too many. Unfortunately, the word “diamond” was part of the place name assigned a century ago to this spot. So, the idea that diamonds were not here was absurd to anyone looking at a map.
Meagdiamondcorp decided to remove all the big trees, strip out the gravel, process it for diamonds, throw the gravel back on, and replant the trees. This would be done in a few months time with minimal disruption to the game park. But there was one small problem: The hilltop was covered with archaeological sites.
And that is what the McGregor Museum was doing there. My field school joined the McGregor team and we carried out a survey and excavated a bunch of stuff. The archaeological materials ranged from the Fauersmith (close to a half million years ago) to historic, with various time periods in between represented. It was great fun to work on this project because we were working on foot in the middle of a game park. As you know, this is how I roll.5 As they say.
And of course, on the edge of the hill overlooking the best potential hunting grounds, ancient Bushmen/San6 people had made a pile of rocks, as they tended to do. These cairns were often linked with ceremonial activities, and now and then, they were burials.
So we excavated the pile of rocks that was fairly likely to be a burial. The procedure we followed, which is normal, is to excavate very carefully and on the first sign that the feature was a burial, we were to stop and then other things would happen. That would be complicated, but such things are fairly routine for the McGregor staff. If we found no evidence of anything at all, then we would assume that the pile of rocks was a pile of rocks.
But until then, it was safe to assume that we were messing with yet another grave. It is said, and I cannot tell you where I heard this, that messing with bushmen graves gets you extra ghosts. Not that I believe that, but that is what is said…..
Since we’re talking geology …
Since we are talking about geology, I do not want to give up the opportunity to bring up one of the coolest stories of geology ever, given the discussion of science and religion we often have here. You will be asking for a source for this story. Look it up in Wikipedia, where all knowledge resides, and you will not find it there.
There are things, it turns out, that The Great Knowing Web Site does not know. My source is a combination of primary and secondary documents, written histories, and a documentary that is not generally available bit that I did watch in South Africa.
Barney Barneto nee Barnet Isaacs was a key player in the historical development of the diamond industry of South Africa. Barneto, his acquired name, stands for “Barnet Too” which was his tag line when he worked as the secondary, added-on attraction in a magic act operated by his brother in South Africa. The act would be introduced ignoring him, and he’s yell out “And Barnet Too.” Barneto is one of two men, the other being Cecil John Rhodes. Yes, this is Rhodes as in Rhodesia, and this is the same man who led the British in Kimberley during the Siege. In fact, the private game reserve I mentioned earlier …. that was his.
Barneto and Rhodes would ultimately consolidate the myriad diamond claims in the Kimberley region. After Barneto and Rhodes had scarfed up most of the claims, Rhodes bought out Barneto’s consolidated claims. The Megadiamondcorporation to which I earlier referred is the resulting company, and if you own a diamond, this corporation likely sold it to you. If you own an antique diamond more than a few decades old, there is a good chance it came from Kimberley.
It is said, and I think even Wikipedia may know this, that when Rhodes issued the multi-million dollar check to Barneto to acquire all of his claims, that instrument … the check itself … was the largest banking instrument ever issued to that date.
Anyway, Barneto did not simply acquire diamond claims. He acquired certain diamond claims. As I had mentioned much earlier, the average white South African believed that god had placed these diamonds here for the white man to attain wealth. The local black and other non-white South Africans had other stories which were typically much more poetic and typically less post-hoc, but no more scientifically correct.
I should mention that it was during this time that diamonds actually became the most valuable (more or less) gem. Indeed, there was another south African gem, called Tiger’s Eye, which was considered at the time to be potentially more valuable and useful as a domestic use gem (like for wedding rings and stuff) than diamonds. Tiger’s Eye comes from the Asbestos Hills Jasperite deposits I had mentioned earlier. It is said, and I have this on good but unsubstantiated authority, that a sample of Tiger’s Eye had been sent back to Europe at around the time the diamonds were being discovered here. A return letter asked “How common is this Tiger’s Eye gem? It is quite nice and potentially much more valuable than these plain, clear diamond rocks people are starting to ship here” or words to that effect. The answer sent back by a settler in the Asbestos Hills: “Oh, there’s piles of it. It is quite common.”
As a result, Tiger’s Eye became nearly valueless and Diamond became the gem of choice, even though Tiger’s Eye is considerably rarer than Diamond. Orders of magnitude rarer.
But that is a digression. I want to get back to Barneto, and then, eventually, on to the exciting end of this ghost story.
So, Barneto was busy buying up diamond claims in several localities that were under active mining. Most of the miners were content with a religious explanation for the diamonds being where they were, and that is important because it never occurred to anyone that there were at least three distinct types of material being dug to find the shiny little rocks. Outside of the volcanic plugs, and this was not being exploited much yet in those days but it is where the diamonds were first found, were gravelly deposits that are former river channels. Farmers who found these diamonds did not know that these were former river channels, because there is no reason for there to be former river channels on a landscape created as you saw it by God Himself. In the old volcanic plugs, there were two main types of deposit, a bluish earth and a yellow earth. The yellow earth was easier to dig, so all else being equal people tended to prefer claims … and remember, these claims were tiny, like a few feet by a few feet in size … that were primarily in yellow earth. Indeed, at the time Bernato was buying up claims, many sections of bluish earth were being dug around and were left standing in the ever-deepening holes that were being dug (The Big Hole was one of four that would eventually be mined in Kimberly, the last diamonds coming out in about 2005).
So somewhere along the line, Bernato came across a report written by a geologist. Now, you have to understand that geologists existed in those days, and had been busy working out geological questions for decades before any of this diamond mining was going on, but it seems to me that not much work was going on yet in South Africa. Certainly, the vast majority of human labor expended on the excavation of The Big Hole prior to about 1880 was a labor expended in a nearly science-free (but not engineering-free) context.
Bernato’s acquired report described a theory linking volcanoes, diamonds, and the deposits that were being dug right then in the Kimberley area. This scientific theory, which seemed to have a fair amount of consistency and with evidence to back it and everything, indicated that the place to look for the most diamonds was the blue earth, which was the degraded form of a rock whcih eventually became known as “kimberlite.” Kimberlite is the most pristine part of the earth’s crust brought up from the deep by the volcanic magma. (I oversimplify slightly.)
Ironically, South Africa is now a region where it can be safely said that there is more geology per square mile than anywhere outside of Great Britain. The key point here is that Bernato ended up owning a huge share of the diamond mines because he used science. The other people ended up not owning that many diamonds, and for most people, actually ended up in one of the aforementioned graves that were dug daily at the edge of town, penniless and forgotten, because they thought The Almighty God had put the diamonds there for them.
Ghosts beget ghosts.
And speaking of ghosts, let’s get back to the ghost story…
How I captured the Ghost of the McGregor Museum
One morning I was up a bit earlier than usual, and I was in the bathroom shaving. It was an hour or so before sunup. The lighting in the bathroom was poor, but there was a security spotlight outside the window, as I recall, so I had opened the frosted glass pane to let in a little more light, as well as the clean, cold but dry night air, which would clear the fogged-over bathroom mirror.
As I was just starting to scrape the razor against my face in the bathroom, I heard the ghostly footsteps walking one way down the hall .. away from me. Then I heard the preternatural footfalls coming back the other way. Slowly, deliberately, the steps grew closer and closer until they paused right by the bathroom door.
I was just about to open the door and see what the heck was out there, when suddenly a sound came from just outside the bathroom window. With my attention abruptly drawn to this new sound, I turned, rather startled, just in time to see a giant furry cat drop from the roof onto a nearby ledge. Leaping, she came in through the bathroom window and landed directly on the bathroom sink, and without an introduction of any kind, proceeded to insisted that I pet her.
Which I did. And after a minute of this, she became bored and leaped out of the window onto a ledge, and back on to the roof of the building. And there, she walked to the other end of the roof over the guest quarter’s hallway, and my observation of her doing this allowed me to understand the nature of the ghost that had haunted us all these days and, indeed, driven the Norwegians to alternative quarters.
The roof was metal. There were joints in the metal roof. As the cat pitter-pattered along the roof in it’s cat-like fashion, she would come to a certain point along the roof, in relation to these joints, and the joint would creak or ping. This was just like walking along a creaking floor, which will occasionally let out a sound depending on where you step, but much more regularly. Like footfalls. Like ghostly, preternatural, disembodied footfalls.
So, the ghost was a cat walking back and forth on the roof one or a couple of times a night almost every night. Looking for an opening. And finally, I gave her one. And then she …
Well, for the rest of the day, I couldn’t get that song out of my head.
Interested in some Anthropologically Inspired fiction? Have a look at Sungudogo by Greg Laden.
1Unless this statement itself is not true, in which case, how can you know what is true and what is not true? And besides, it can’t really all be true because some of it is about ghosts.
2It is hard to read in the dark.
3I use the term “non-White” along side the terms “Black” and “White” to signal that there is complexity here. There are three sources of complexity. One is linguistic, one is ethnic, and one is historical. First, the “ethnic” or “racial” issue: to the extent that these concepts are valid at all, which is very questionable, the indigenous non-European people of South Africa can be thought of as being divided broadly into two groups: Bantu-speaking “blacks” and non-Bantu speaking “Khoisan” (or some other term may be used here) and it is supposed to be true that these people look different from each other. That is not entirely true, but it is widely believed. Linguistically, South Africans formerly and to some extent today use the words “Black” for those Bantu-speaking people and “Colored” for some other people who are not Bantu-speaking. Who the “Colored” (or sometimes “Cape-Colored”) people are is tricky. In my view, these people mainly descend from Khoisan (foragers and cattle keepers who were not Bantu-speaking) and who probably also intermarried with Bantu people and also Whites and other immigrants (as everyone has over the last half millennium of historical time). But in the past, since “San” (the “forager” sub-version, if you will, of “Khoisan”) were considered sub-human, “Cape Colored” people have found it convenient and even necessary to eschew that label just to stay, in some cases, alive. The historical complexity arises from the existence and history of the Griqua (Griqua) people. Griqua is an ethnicity that seems to have once spoken a creole language derived from Bantu and Khoisan origins, who are genetically Khoisan, Bantu and Afrikaner (European Dutch), and who formed a fairly densely populated state in the region of Kimberly (mainly to the West) at the time of the European intrusion into the area. Griqua is a full blown ‘culture’ in the usual sense but one that was constructed for economic and political reasons during the late 18th and early 19th century. Many of the people in Kimberly today may identify as Griqua, and that may have been the case during the Siege.
4“Gariep” is the new name, based on an earlier used name, of the Orange River.
5I hate this expression, not because it is not potentially a smooth, almost sardonic put-off (which is useful) but because I’ve seen it almost always in a context where the writer is excusing his or her crappy thought process or inexcusable behavior by saying that this is his or her behavior. The Hobbsian fallacy is always annoying to me. That’s how I roll.
6As you know, the names of ethnic or cultural groups can be tricky. Up in Botswana, I’m told, the word “San” when applied to the foragers of that region (some of whom may be known to you as the Ju/’hoansi) is an insult. It means “wild primitive” or “wild animal” or something like that. The Ju/’hoansi prefer the term “Bushmen.” In South Africa, the term “Bushmen” is considered pejorative, and the word “San” is preferred. There are other terms and other complexities. One might think it is silly to worry about this, but it is not. The complexity of “San/Bushman/Khoisan/Khoi/Ju/’hoansi/Etc” culture and culture history rivals that of, say, Europe. Calling the South African foraging peoples “Ju/’hoansi” would be roughly the same as calling the French “Bulgarians” …. not for any particular reason, it would simply be that wrong linguistically, geographically, and culturally. Unfortunately, this discussion is beyond the scope of this footnote.
In an old colonial-looking restaurant that served ten kinds of steaks, I met up with an experienced explorer and a local farmer, to have dinner and discuss plans for an upcoming research project that would be managed by The Explorer and that would partly be on The Farmer’s land, which adjoined a rather extensive and remote wilderness area. I don’t remember a lot about the conversation, but one memory of the evening stands out: That was when The Farmer, rooting around in a bag for some cash to tip the waitress, pulled out this big-ass gun … a small cannon, really … that was in the way. For just a moment, the gun came out of the bag and went on the table, then back in the sack. I wondered if this was a random event or if it was a not too subtle way to let everyone around see that This Particular Farmer was packing Major Heat. I’d seen that move before in this part of South Africa, which is where, by the way, this dinner was being enjoyed.
Earlier that day, The Explorer, whom I had commissioned to be my field logistics manager, drove me out to a possible research site — an island centered in one of Southern Africa’s more significant rivers. The island had once been part of a farming project, now defunct, and at some point a levy was built there to divert water into an irrigation system. The now defunct and overgrown levy was about four kilometers long, flat topped, and exactly the width of a vehicle’s wheel-base plus 30 centimeters. There were numerous erosional cuts on both sides of it, so as The Explorer drove our truck along the top of the vegetation-covered berm, the wheels would take turns dropping into these open-ended Potholes-Of-Death. I wondered what would happen if we hit an erosional gully that was a bit bigger than the others, or two at once, and just as I was wondering about that, The Explorer uttered some words that made all that seem less important. Continue reading Manspace→
Wildlife of Southern Africa , by Martin Withers and David Hosking, is new (August 2011) and good. If you are planning a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana or anywhere nearby, or if you live there and like to go to the bush sometimes, consider it.
This is a pocket guide, it is small, has good photographs, is inexpensive, and accurate.
When wildebeest, such as those famous for crossing the Mara River in Tanzania during their annual migration, run into a crocodile or some other danger it is often the first time they’ve seen that particular thing. This is because most wildebeest don’t live very long so many are on their very first migration. One wonders what would happen if you killed all of the wildebeest migrating in a particular year and set new ones out on the landscape to take their place. Would the migration continue? Continue reading No Way Home→
I started to work in Africa in the mid 1980s. Since I had been admitted to a graduate program that was heavily involved with work in Kenya, it would make sense that I’d work there, but I was well aware of the fact that there would be no work at Koobi Fora until the Koobi Fora monograph was done, since those in charge of that research felt a responsibility to get what they had done published before collecting more data from the field. I had the opportunity to work in South Africa as well, and there were good reasons for me to do that, but there was one very large reason not to: Apartheid. I observed the boycott even to the extent at sneering at Paul Simon, I certainly would not work in a country with the most racist regime in modern history. Fortunately, Zaire was there for me, and for many reasons it was a better place to do research for me than either Kenya or South Africa. So I did. Continue reading Celebrate Freedom Day→