Tag Archives: Africa

Affluence Without Abundance

My father in law is an excellent amateur mixologist. I don’t drink alcohol very often, but we’re all up at the cabins, so last night I had a paper plane. And I believe this is what led to a night of strange and extensive dreams, and in my dreams was my recently deceased PhD adviser, Irv DeVore. (Irv was not dead in the dream.) DeVore is famous for having initiated, with Richard Lee, the first scientific study of extant living foragers, and they worked with the Ju/’Honasi of Botswana/Namibia/South Africa.

So, it was strange to have the lingering dream on my mind as I opened the latest Science magazine to see a review, by Alan Barnard, of a recent and interesting book on those people: Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.

A vibrant portrait of the “original affluent society”–the Bushmen of southern Africa–by the anthropologist who has spent much of the last twenty-five years documenting their encounter with modernity.

If the success of a civilization is measured by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen of the Kalahari are by far the most successful in human history. A hunting and gathering people who made a good living by working only as much as needed to exist in harmony with their hostile desert environment, the Bushmen have lived in southern Africa since the evolution of our species nearly two hundred thousand years ago.

In Affluence Without Abundance, anthropologist James Suzman vividly brings to life a proud and private people, introducing unforgettable members of their tribe, and telling the story of the collision between the modern global economy and the oldest hunting and gathering society on earth. In rendering an intimate picture of a people coping with radical change, it asks profound questions about how we now think about matters such as work, wealth, equality, contentment, and even time. Not since Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People in 1959 has anyone provided a more intimate or insightful account of the Bushmen or of what we might learn about ourselves from our shared history as hunter-gatherers.

Barnard says:

The book is full of illuminating observations from the Bushmen themselves. In one passage, for example, Suzman relates an encounter with ?Oma, one of the resettlement community’s most established residents, who once served as a foreman when Skoonheid was still a working farm: “If you are foreman,” ?Oma tells Suzman, “then you are the eyes and the ears of the baas [boss] on the farm. You are the chief of the workers and are in charge when the baas is away.” Despite better pay and greater social standing among the white farm owners, ?Oma never entirely succeeded in securing the respect and deference he demanded from his fellow Ju/’hoansi. Today’s Bushmen are part of two worlds, one guided by the group’s traditional commitment to egalitarianism and the other based on subjugation.

In general, anthropological commentary is kept to a minimum, but Suzman’s descriptions are full of insight. “To them everything in the world is natural and everything cultural in the human world is also cultural in the animal world, and ‘wild’ space is also domestic space,” he writes, for example, in chapter 7. “So while Ju/’hoansi consider the litter to be an irritation, few see it as pollution—at least in the way the tourists do.”

Suzman’s frequent reflexivity (e.g., “I never hunted with /I!ae. I was too clumsy, loud, and slow.”) makes the book far more interesting than typical accounts full of statistical detail, academic references, and the like. The book offers few references, and details are limited to those that make for good reading. There are, however, several useful (albeit simple) maps of the areas described and a brief explanation of how to pronounce clicks.

The review is here, but I’m not sure if you can see it without a subscription.

The Oldest Human Bones, Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

You’ve heard to story. I’m here to give you a little context.

A pretty typical early handaxe, made by a Homo erectus. This was a big flake made from a bigger rock. The big flake was subsequently flaked to make this handaxe. The word “handaxe” can be spelled about nine different ways.
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.

This shows the Victoria West technique, used during the Fauersmith though this particular rock may be later). See the extra small flaking along one part of the rock? That was done to prepare the platform for the controlled detachment of a flake.

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.

The levallois technique. this involved shaping a rock to look like a turtle. Then, you shape one end of the turtle to look like the old fashioned hat of a French policeman. Then you hit the policeman on the hat just right, and a perfect flake comes off. In Africa, this was usually used to make blades and triangular points, but sometimes ovals.
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.

Eventually, very advanced technologies and very advanced modes of thinking, such as exemplified by this possible calendar object from the Semliki Valley in the Congo, emerged.
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.

For completeness, this is a modern South African cell phone tower.
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.

About that 130,000 y.o. Human Occupation in California

A claim is being made, in a recent issue of Nature Magazine, that humans were active in the vicinity of San Diego well over 100,000 years before archaeologists think humans were even in the New World. Most commentary on this claim dismisses it out of hand, but out of hand rejections are no better than foundationless assertions. Let’s take a closer look at the Cerutti Mastodon Site. But first, some important context.

The Near Consensus on North American Prehistory

The Clovis Culture is a Native American phenomenon that occurred between about 12 and 10 thousand years ago (most likely between 11,500 and 11,000 uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present). Clovis_Point

The key feature of Clovis is the rather extraordinary “Clovis Point.” There is another, similar looking, point that goes with the Folsom Culture, which is about as old as the Clovis culture, but a bit younger, and there are a couple of other less common named forms. We refer to them all as “fluted points.”

Unlike some other so-called “projectile points” (many of which are knives or spearheads, many perhaps not even mounted in use) fluted points are rarely found in large numbers anywhere, but are represented over a very large region; They are found across the United Sates and Canada, and as far south as Venezuela.

There is almost no evidence suggesting that any humans existed in North America prior to Clovis times, and this has been known for years. Therefore, “Clovis culture” or more broadly, “Paleoindian” culture has long been thought to represent the first humans to come to North America. Since Native Americans physically resemble East Asians (an observation supported and refined by genetic analysis) it has always been assumed that Native Americans came from Asia as Paleoindians, or developed the Paleoindian culture right after arriving in North America. The dates of Clovis sites cluster into such a tight time frame that it makes sense to assume that these folks arrived on an unoccupied continent, spread quickly over a large area, and subsequently differentiated into diverse groups.

The idea of earlier, pre-Clovis, occupation has long been considered by the occasional daring archaeologist, and even the famous African archaeologist, Louis Leakey, suggested that certain finds in the vicinity of modern day San Diego represented much older human occupation. However, North American archaeologists remained firm on the idea that there is no pre-Clovis, and argued strongly and vociferously against the idea. Indeed, any archaeologist who wished to argue for pre-Clovis risked something close to professional censure, others were so sure about Clovis first.

For a very long time it has been at first quietly, and later less quietly, recognized that there are some problems with the Clovis-First hypotheses. First, even though one might expect the early dates for Clovis, if it represented a sudden and rapid colonization of a world with no humans, to be difficult to interpret, it became apparent that the earliest Clovis is in the far East of the continent, with later clovis being farther west. Recent interpretations of the data have suggested that this may not be true, but those interpretations are tenuous. Oddly, pretty solid dating evidence showing east coast Clovis to be earlier was always rejected as unimportant, while a much less clear argument that Clovis out west is early has been quickly and not very critically accepted, presumably because it fits the underlying assumptions of a sudden colonization from Asia.

Fluted points are way more common in the East, east of the Mississippi, in various Mississippi drainage valleys, and along the East Coast. They are relatively sparse in the west, say, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and they are very rare in Alaska. So, the distribution of fluted points is exactly the opposite of what one might expect with a simple model of Asians arriving in North America, suddenly becoming Clovis, then spreading from there.

Of the fluted points found in North America, the oldest style, Clovis, is mainly an Eastern phenomenon, with later styles, such as Folsom, are more in the West. If the so-called spatio-temporal boundaries of these styles is correct, and Clovis is older than Folsem, then it is very hard to argue that Clovis is a primary phenomenon that came out of Asia as the first thing people did in North America.

These observations together with the absence of Paleoindian culture in Asia strongly suggests that the actual history of people in North America prior to about 10,000 years ago was a little more complex than the usual textbook version. Indeed, Clovis would make a lot more sense if there was a pre-Clovis culture that did some or much of the initial spreading, followed quickly by the rise of a Clovis Culture among those people, perhaps in the east, which then spread across the continents very quickly. That would have simply been an early example of a phenomenon we see again and again in New World prehistory, where a material phenomenon of some kind, a type of projectile point, or a symbolic image, or something, spreads in what seems like an instant across a vast area.

Beginning mainly in the 1980s, a number of archaeological sites were discovered and presented as pre-Clovis. These are dated using various means. They occur across the US in Pennsylvania, Souoth Carolina, Oregon, Florida, Alaska, and elsewhere. They are also found in South America in Brazil, Chile, and Columbia. Most, perhaps all, of these sites — there are about 16 of them — are very strongly and forcefully argued to be real, and have varying degrees of evidence on them.

Most of the sites date to either just a thousand or two years, or sometime, just centuries, before Clovis and would easily fit into a pre-Clovis model as suggested above. This would go with the idea that somehow, humans arrived in North America, spread out, then popped out Clovis Culture soon after. Some of the sites are much earlier, but as far as I know, all the earliest sites have very questionable artifacts or dating that is not very secure.

I am not certain, but I think most of the North American archaeologists who so forcefully argued against pre-Clovis of any form have either moved off that position, stopped talking, or died off. Now, I believe, most North American archaeologists accept that there is a distinct possibility that there is what I would call a “near-Pre-Clovis.” But, since there are just over one dozen sites across two continents, one must be reserved in assuming this. Such a small number of sites could represent a small number of aberrant if well meaning interpretations of sites that have something wrong with them. I personally have excavated many, many archaeological sites, and I have seen things that can’t be explained. Personally, I think some of the late pre-Clovis sites are good. But, I would not be surprised if an all knowing alien with a time machine landed nearby and proved that I was wrong.

The CM Mastodon Site: Humans in the New World at 130,000 years?

The Cerutti Mastodon site is in San Diego County, California. The site was excavating in the early 1990s by a team from the San Diego Museum of Natural History. If you ever get a chance to visit that museum, do so. It is one of the many museums of Balboa Park, which also includes the famous San Diego Zoo.

3F9FD05F00000578-4447720-image-a-2_1493212011779The finds at this site include a juvenile Mastodon, Mammut Americanum, as well as dire wolf, horse, ground sloth, camel, and mammoth.

The site is dated using Uranium-thorium dating on the mastodon bone, to 130,000 +/- 9,400 years b.p.

A recent analysis of the site, just published in the journal Nature, claims that the bones show evidence of human modification, and that some stones also found on the site show evidence of having been used to modify the bones.

The modification suggested is the smashing of bone to extract marrow, and possibly, to make some flakes or otherwise modify the bone to make tools.

The authors of the paper suggest that there are, as commonly agreed by North American archaeologists, four criteria that a site must meet to be considered a candidate for early pre-Clovis human evidence:

1) archaeological evidence is found in a clearly defined and undisturbed geologic context;

2) age is determined by reliable radiometric dating;

3) multiple lines of evidence from interdisciplinary studies provide consistent results; and

4) unquestionable artefacts are found in primary context

They argue that all of these are met. From the abstract:

The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. 230Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7?±?9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production. Systematic proboscidean bone reduction, evident at the CM site, fits within a broader pattern of Palaeolithic bone percussion technology in Africa, Eurasia, and North America. The CM site is, to our knowledge, the oldest in situ, well-documented archaeological site in North America and, as such, substantially revises the timing of arrival of Homo into the Americas.

That the site is in a good geological context is apparently beyond question, as far as I know. The “refitting” referred to is where bits and pieces of one thing that was broken apart can be glued back together, showing that since the breaking event not much has moved around, which helps to argue that the site is not too messed up by geological processes. The dating seems good. Everything seems good.

Yay, an early site showing humans in North America way before we ever thought!

But wait, not so fast …

Why this site could be real, and other comments on the early Americas

Archaeologists have a conceptual problem with discontinuity. They don’t believe in it.

Say you are working in a previously unstudied part of the world (there are none, but pretend). You find a site with some pottery on it, and date the site to 1,000 years ago. In the same area, you find several sites, of various dates, from 1,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago, but they are all sites with chipped stone tools on them and no pottery. But then, you finally find another pottery bearing site. The pottery looks different, and the site was fairly deep down, so when you get your dates back from the lab and they are about 4,000 years old, you are not surprised.

And, now, you know that pottery using people lived here from 4,000 years ago to 1,000 years ago, right?

Wrong. It is possible that people showed up here with pottery, and left, leaving behind non-pottery using people, then came back later. Or, people moved here with pottery, or invented or were introduced to pottery, 4,000 years ago, then stopped using it for some reason, then pottery made a return, somehow, more recently. The problem is, most archaeologists will not accept that once something happens, it can unhappen, even though we actually do know of places in the world where pottery was brought there with the first people, then forgotten about or rejected for some reason, later.

So, here’s the idea. During warm periods, like the interglacial of roughly the age of the CM site, and the present, hominins tend to spread. Even the ones that like warmer regions, maybe not even humans, spread around during warm periods, and spread north. So, naturally, some of them get to the New World somehow, and these are them. They don’t even have to be chipped stone tool using humans. They could be bone breakers. They could be bigfoot! They could be anything.

Now, this may seem like a crazy idea, and it almost certainly is. But, the rejection of occupation as early as 130,000 years ago because we have no evidence of anything half that old requires that the new world can be occupied in only one way: something or someone shows up, then they never leave. This is in direct conflict with the known migrations of large mammals, many of which migrated either to the New World from the Old World, or the other way round, several times over that last 5 or more million years, and most of which do not exist in the place they migrated to now.

Why the Old World makes the CM site highly unlikely

I know an archaeologist who once said this. She said, teaching her class, that the discovery of a house structure at about 5,000 years ago (by the way, it might have been the house structure I discovered, which for a time was the oldest one in North America) tells us that by 5,000 years ago, Native Americans had a concept of building a house, like a wigwam, and the technology to do so. I once read an archaeological monograph that suggested that the presence in some 3,000 year old pottery of impressions of woven material show that by that time Native Americans could weave cloth. One textbook refers to the earliest fire in North America (several thousands of years back) indicating that we now knew that by that time, at least, Native Americans had fire and thus could possibly cook their food.

I’ve read and heard North American archaeologists say things like this over and over again. These statements assume that the first proto-Native American people to come to the new world, say as just-pre-Clovis people, must have arrived naked and technology free!

People in the Old World had chipped stone technology, whereby stones were used to break stones in a very systematic (and not too easy to learn) way to produce, ultimately, tools. Our ancestors had this technology before the genus Homo existed. In fact, it may be the case that our ancestors were stone tool chipping bipedal apes for as long before the rise of the genus Homo as after (this remains to be pinned down). Modern humans have existed on this planet for only a fraction of the time that hominins were making chipped stone tools. Until the abrupt and dramatic near perfect elimination of chipped stone technology in recent centuries, chipped stone tool technology was as much a part of human behavior and culture as walking on two legs was.

We know this because of all that Old World archaeology that has been done. Despite the limited understanding of world prehistory by many North American archaeologists, the truth is that a human (even a non-fully modern human) presence in the New World would have chipped stone tools with it.

If a creature was at the CM site with a culture that lacked chipped stone tools, but that used hammer and anvil stones to break up bone, it was an ape, not a hominin. It was Gigantopithecus, or something. Bigfoot! CM is potentially believable as a site if it occurred in a larger time horizon with definitive human evidence. In other words, a bunch of chomped up elephant bones down the way from clear unambiguous human occupation on a landscape with many sites of that date might be acceptable as a human site, but not this. Not just pounded bones with no other cultural manifestations.

Now, I want to add new rules to the ones listed above.

5) The artifacts have to include evidence of proper chipped stone tool technology, as this is a ubiquitous trait of Homo and proto-Homo

6) Among the chipped stone, there must be both flakes and pieces that are flaked, because many natural processes will produce one or the other (usually flaked pieces) without human engagement.

7) The flakes must exhibit many cases of clear striking platforms, the part where the flake is hit to make it fly off the parent rock, and those striking platforms must be mostly below 90 degrees angle, because that is the experimentally established difference between “natural” flakes (including those made by cars running over rocks and rocks falling off cliffs, etc.) and human made proper flakes.

8) If flaked bone is invoked as an artifact type, the flakes must be numerous and have the same low angle of percussion, and there must as noted above, also be stone flakes.

This is the underlying fact that must be understood by people considering the CM site as human. Humans bust up bones, but busted up bones in the absence of any other evidence of human activity does not constitute unquestionable artifactual nature. Ever.

Just to make sure that I was still up to date on bone breakage taphonomy, the study of how to interpret bone breakage, I asked Professor Martha Tappen of the University of Minnesota, a bone taphonomist, for her opinion about the site. She told me, “I would say that the breaks appear to be consistent with human breakage, but quite possibly other causes, too, such as backhoes and perhaps other scenarios involving trampling. Other evidence is needed to support the idea that people reached the new world at this early time.”

What really happened at CM

I spent a certain amount of time living among the elephants of the African Rain Forest. Well, OK, I wan’t actually “living among them” but I was living there doing archaeology and other things, and they were there too. In fact, I studied elephant movement and trial making, and in so doing, observed a lot of places where elephants tromp around.

Some of the elephants we observed in the Ituri (along with the afore mentioned Professor Tappen) which had been killed over the years by Efe hunters (they are the traditional elephant hunters of the region), died on or near regular elephant trails. Once an elephant is all butchered up or scavenged, I assume the living elephants walk around the remains, though in some areas they have been known to play around with the bones of the dead. But eventually, the bones get incorporated with the undergrowth and the sediment, and get trampled by the elephants. The elephants also trample rocks. I saw locations where the elephants walked a lot, including trails and one location where they had dug a cave to obtain sediment that they would eat, where there was so much elephant trampling of stone that most of the stone looked human modified.

CM site has several animals, including some large ones. Something about this site attracted animals that then died, but at one point were alive. This is a very common phenomenon in paleontology, and is not fully understood. It is very likely that the broken up bones and the seemingly modified stones look the way they do because huge multi-ton animals stepped on them repeatedly.

But what if …

I don’t want to rule out CM out of hand. I don’t want to do this because Archaeology is full of stuff that was ruled out by orthodoxy then later found out to be important or real, but data was lost because of the narrow mindedness of the narrow minded. I believe it is appropriate and necessary to reserve a part of our dogma for possibilities, evidence for things that we are pretty sure are not real but that have just enough credibility, just enough of a question, to allow for a later surprise. I would love to see more large mammal sites of the late Pleistocene excavated carefully to see what they look like. A program of exploration for and investigation of sites during and near the Last Glacial Maximum in the Western US is a good idea, and should yield some very interesting paleontological results. If there was some kind of a hominin running around then — which is very unlikely and indeed almost impossible to imagine — but if there was one, it would eventually be bumped into. Meanwhile, think of all the cool extinct animal stuff we would get to learn no matter what the human prehistoric story turns out to be!

Why I ate a Pangolin

The Lese people practice swidden horticulture in the Ituri Forest, Congo (formerly Zaire). Living in the same area are the Efe people, sometimes known as Pygmies (but that may be an inappropriate term). The Efe and Lese share a culture, in a sense, but are distinct entities within that culture, as distinct as any people living integrated by side by side ever are. The Efe are hunter-gatherers, but the gathering of wild food part of that is largely supplanted by a traditional system of tacit exchange between Efe women and Lese farmers, whereby the Efe provide labor and the farmers provide food. The Efe men also work on the farms sometimes, but their contribution to the family’s diet is more typically from foraged goods, including plants but mostly animals, and during a particular season of the year, the products of honey bee nests.

For several years, in the 1980s and early 90s, I lived in Zaire (now Congo) for several months out of each year (generally between May and January, roughly), and for much of that time I was in the Ituri with the Lese and Efe. During that time, I spent much of the time in the forest with the Efe (very few of the researches on that long term multidisciplinary project did that — most spent their time with the Lese for various reasons).

To go from our study site to the grocery store (which was not really a grocery store because they did not exist in that part of Zaire, but a city with markets) was about a week’s trip or more. Only a few days of that was driving, the rest fixing the broken truck, doing the shopping, etc. So, one did this infrequently. There was no local market during my time there, though one opened up 10 clicks away for a while, at which one might or might not be able to buy a chicken or a yam, if you showed up early.

I (and this pertains to most of my colleagues as well, only a few of us would be at the site at a time) would buy sacks of rice and beans and other long term food items in the city, and carefully curate them at the base camp, a small village constructed of wattle and daub leaf-roofed huts and outhouses. When I went to the forest just to live with or observe the Efe, I would bring the exact amount of food I would need to survive if all I did was feed myself. This way my presence would not affect the Efe’s food budget. But, this is a sharing culture and it would have been very bad for me to just eat that food. I feely shared my food with my fellow camp members, and they shared their food, and my food was almost exactly the same as their local food (rice was grown there) except I would have beans and they are not local. Otherwise, the same.

This meant that I ate what they ate.

Other times, I would hire Efe and maybe one Lese to go with me to the forest to carry out research. I’d be careful to hire them for limited amounts of time to not disrupt their lives too much, but there was very little difference between them working for me and, say, getting honey during honey season. I would only ask them to work with me for a few hours a day and they would otherwise forage. On these trips, I brought more food, for them, because our geographic location and the work we were doing interfered with their normal food getting activities, so I made up for that. But still, during these times we ate plenty of forest foods.

So, what do the Efe (and their Lese compatriot) eat?

Locally, the plant diet is insufficient nutritionally, and often, children are undernourished. There is a hunger season during which the plants from the forest and gardens are rare or absent at the same time, and this is often the death season. No one dies form starving, really (though that apparently can happen) but they have another dangerous disease, and the lack of food may put an ill individual over the top. During one bad hungers season, a small family attempted mass suicide, and mostly succeeded.

Locally, there is no beef, or as is the case a couple of hundred clicks away in most directions, commercially harvested fish. They have goats but the are ceremonial and seem to be never eaten. The Lese have chickens, a few, and they are eaten now and then. The wild animal foods they eat are incredibly important. Without that, they would be in very bad shape.

The most common animals they eat, as in day to day and mundane, are a form of antelope called the Blue Duiker, and monkeys, usually Mangabeys. During a certain season they eat a fair umber of another animal, like but not exactly a duiker, called a water Cheverotain. But since food supply is so unpredictable, they are always on the lookout, and they eat everything. A song bird or bat that flies too close may be batted down with a machete, a Honey Badger that stumbles up on a group of resting Efe may be chased own, an Elephant Shrew that happens on a camp will be dispatched by an archer and cooked up. The only time I ever saw the Efe not go after an animal that happened to show up is when a small herd of elephants came along, and the Efe made a lot of noise to chase them off, while at the same time making plans to hide in the nearby hide-from-the-elephant trees (yes, they have them.) And snakes. Something odd going on there with snakes (see below).

One of the focal points of my research was to look at how animals reacted to the Efe’s presence, and it is striking. Since the Efe will kill and eat almost anything they encounter, most of the animals are very careful to avoid the Efe, and even the Efe’s habitually used trails.

There is a certain amount of elephant hunting. Pygmies, generally, are the African elephant hunters, and apparently, have been so for a very long time. The importance of elephant is very under-appreciated by most experts. The data show that most of the food the Efe eat is plant food, and animal food makes up a percentage of their diet typical for tropical or subtropical African hunter gatherers. But those data never include elephant. I’ve estimated that the total amount of elephant meat they eat over medium periods of time, left to their own, is about the same as all the other meat combined. This happens because when someone does kill an elephant (a rare event compared to the daily killing of a duiker or other more common mammal), everyone from everywhere shows up and gorges on that meat for a few weeks.

So, even though most researchers would classify elephant as uncommon in their diet and therefor not a major contributor to the diet, they’ve simply got that wrong. It is a big deal.

Beyond that, the range of animals is huge, because the number of species native to the area is huge. Oddly, the Efe I was with (and these were more than one distinct group) didn’t seem to eat snakes, tough I know that others do. These Efe also often have a particular species of snake as their totem animal, and you don’t eat your totem animal. So, maybe that is the reason.

Because Efe live the life they live, one without the privilege of access to unlimited supplies of cattle flesh, swine meat, domestic birds, and commercially caught or raised fish, they have a wide dietary niche. Because they live in a remote part of the African rain forest, this list includes a lot of animals many may have never even heard of, or that most regard as exotic, though they are very common there. They live a life where the plant foods often fail them, and collectively do not provide a sufficiently nutritious diet, so they do not have the privilege of eschewing meat, and in fact, perhaps with the knowledge that meat is the real hunger-killer in their environment, they prefer to spend as much time as they can chewing meat.

And I spent a lot of time sharing their culture and ecology with them, and in so doing, had the privilege of getting much closer to truly experiencing another culture than most ever get. Close enough, in fact, to know that I wasn’t even close, and knowing that is a privilege the dilettante missionary or subscriber to National Geo can not have.

Ebola: Have more knowledge, need vaccine more

I just watched, at a the Twin Cities Science Film Festival, a film called Nzara ’76, which is about the first known Ebola outbreak, the one that gave it its name, in southern Sudan. That’s about 150 miles, as the Mvo-Mvo flies, north of my long term project area in the Ituri Forest, an impassable distance over an unforgiving terrain if you are a person, well within the migratory range of an Ebola carrying fruit bat.

Back in the day, when Ebola would strike here and there, killing dozens, then disappearing back into the wild as quickly as it came, there was not much movement to get a vaccine. Then, one day, a fruit bat, carrying ebola, dropped some bat spit covered fruit bits to the ground, which were later picked up and mouthed by a toddler, who became patient zero in a pandemic that would ultimately kill over 11,000 people and sicken nearly 30,000. That would be a good argument to get a damn vaccine.

But, one could argue that even though Ebola is known to have been around since the 1970s, and may have been around before that (entire villages falling to a deadly disease is known historically in the region, with no understanding of what the disease was), it only arose as an epidemic once, so really, what’s the big deal? Next epidemic we’ll attack much more efficiently and quickly, and only hundreds, if that, will die.

Aside from the fact that the morbidity and mortality tolls in the tens of thousands should not inure us to the death of dozens or hundreds, we should also consider that the conditions that allowed this pandemic to occur arose only recently, so a pandemic is actually more likely in the near future than it was in the near past. Also, and this is from new research, now that Ebola has infected tens of thousands, it has a temporary reservoir in the post-infection population.

Research that could not have been conducted before has now been conduced (and is ongoing) in the pandemic region. It is now understood that survivors can have ebola in their systems for long periods of time after infection, and that in some cases, they can pass this on. It can be passed on through both breast milk and semen. I assume it could be passed on through blood.

It is simply NOT the case that thousands of post pandemic West Africans are restarting ebola epidemics wherever they go. Post pandemic transmission has been rare, and quickly managed. It is probably true that ebola will eventually leave all the post pandemic people. Humans are not really a reservoir, long term, for ebola.

But, consider the fruit bats. The story I gave above about the start of the pandemic is almost certainly true, but at the same time, fruit bats in the region came up empty when tested for Ebola. There are a lot of reasons that would happen, beyond the scope of this post, but it serves as a model for a near future West Africa. Perhaps ebola will last a long time in some individuals. Perhaps previously infected individuals will become reinfected, but not get sick, and be carriers for a year, or six months.

An ebola pandemic is not going to resurface easily, or form this source, in this population, because of post pandemic harboring. But, here and there, some people may get the disease, and if there is another outbreak somewhere else, we now know that the public health problems are even more complicated than previously thought.

The obvious way to solve this problem is with a good vaccine that is widespread and regularly administered.

The research I’m referring to hear was reported at a conference in Antwerp, Belgium, on September 12, and is briefly written up here, in Nature.

A few highlights, and a caveat, from that work:

Researchers will soon publish the first confirmed report of a person without obvious Ebola symptoms infecting another person. A seemingly healthy mother in Guinea passed the virus to her nine-month-old daughter in breast milk, and the child died from Ebola-virus infection in August 2015…

…some people who became infected during the recent outbreak escaped detection. Miles Carroll… tracked 80 people who had contact with Ebola patients in Guinea but did not themselves become noticeably ill. Yet 15–20% of these contacts developed immune responses capable of neutralizing Ebola viruses, suggesting that they had contracted mild infections that went undetected.

[Researchers] traced a cluster of new Ebola cases to a man who transmitted the virus to a sexual partner 17 months after recovering from his infection…

Researchers must show sensitivity in communicating such findings, says virologist Stephan Günther of the Bernhard Nocht Institute, and take care not to make life more difficult than it already is for Ebola survivors, who face discrimination and lingering health problems. “We have to be careful to stress that these are very, very rare events.”

The Great Human Race: How to survive

The Great Human Race is a new production of National Geographic, in three parts. I recently viewed the first episode, “Dawn” which comes with this description:

All people can trace their roots to the savanna of East Africa, the home of one of the first members of the human species — Homo habilis. Archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney face what early man did as they work together to survive in the wild savanna just as these primitive people did 2.6 million years ago — without any weapons or fire. But they soon find that living like our ancestors is harder than they expected.

Great Human Race premieres Monday, February 1, at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.

Photo at the top of the post: NG Studios

NGS has asked me to participate in a roundtable (here is the link to the roundtable) focusing on this documentary, specifically addressing this question:

Do you think that experts today can accurately replicate the challenges that Homo habilis faced thousands of years ago? And do you think that experts today could survive and thrive as Homo habilis did?

This is very much my area, and I’m glad to contribute to the discussion. The short answer is, of course, no, this is too hard. But, we can try and in so doing, we can develop some interesting thinking about early human evolution.

My contribution to the conversation centers on two rules of being a human hunter gatherer. Homo habilis was not, of course, a human, but we assume that this early hominin had some incipient human traits, further developed with early Homo erectus/ergaster. The two rules of being a human hunter gatherer refer to important aspects of living off the land that my research indicates apply to modern humans living without agriculture or animal husbandry as a source of food. I don’t know if these rules applied to earlier hominins or not … that is the $64,000 dollar question.

Rule 1: If you don’t know where it is, you are not likely to find it.

Much of the story in the first episode of The Great Human Race has to do with the two scantily clad protagonists, a professional survivalist of sorts and an “experimental archaeology” expert, set lose in the African Savanna to see what would happen, searching for various resources. I won’t give you a spoiler, but the episode ends with their discovery of one of the most important resources they need to survive, with that discovery realized in a very spectacular way.

I spent a lot of time in the 1980s and early 1990s living with, and studying the foraging patterns of, the Efe Pygmy foragers of the Ituri Forest, Zaire (now Congo). One of the things I discovered and documented is the simple fact that most of the resources they use are not really found by them, as though they had no idea where they might be. They already know where most of the stuff they can eat either will be, or are likely to be.

Bot men and women gather plant resources, but this is more of a woman’s job. In most cases, the more important plant resources are well known fruiting trees or concentrations of trees, or patches of wild yams that are frequently exploited. Women catch fish in streams that they have fished repeatedly before. This involves damming the stream at two points and removing the water from between the dams so the fish are easy to harvest.

Men seasonally hunt honey, and much of the honey is taken from trees they have exploited in the past, and check on a regular basis to see if the bees have settled in that cavity again. They do occasionally cut down a honey tree, but this is fairly rare (it is very hard work).

Even hunting, which one might assume is somewhat random, is done with a great deal of expectation based on knowledge. One type of hunting (not the most revered but among the most predictable) is to take porcupines or other small mammals from cavernous areas beneath rock piles that are found here and there across the landscape. If you find a rock pile and try to get at the animals hiding in it, even with the use of dogs, the animals can easily escape as they have many hidden exists. But if you return to the same rock pile repeatedly, you know where many of these escape routes are and can block them with wood or stone. A repeatedly used rock pile can be exploited with a high degree of confidence in success.

One of the most productive methods of hunting is the ambush. A well known tree that produces a fruit eaten by small ground mammals such as duikers is identified as currently producing the bait. A nearby tree which is climbable is used as a hide, where the Efe man waits for his prey, shooting it from the tree. The Efe almost always camp in locations that were previously used as camps, so at any given location where they are living, any of the men can easily point out the location of excellent ambush sites, rock piles, and nearby potential honey spots, and the women, and some of the men, can easily point out the locations of nearby fruit trees or yam patches.

There is uncertainty as to what resource will pay off, and not every resource is so easily predicted, but most of the wild foods the Efe gather and hunt are exploitable because of this knowledge.

The information is probably shared among people in a group, but remarkably little conversation centers on this topic. You don’t hear Efe talking about the location of this or that resource more than you hear, say, Americans talking about the locations of this or that grocery story. Certainly, such things are part of the normal conversation but do not make up a large percentage of it.

Rule 2: If you are doing it right, the use of a given instance of a resource can increase its future return.

This is probably a more important finding than that related to the first rule, and is rather counterintuitive. If the Efe use a resource, they will quickly use it up. This is one of the main reasons they move frequently from camp to camp over the year. But, the value of that resource, both the likelihood that it will produce something, and the abundance it produces, is enhanced by their very use of it.

I’ve already implied a couple of examples. If you block off a few exit ways on a rock pile, you don’t unblock them when you are done. Those escape routes may remain blocked between uses. If you add to your ambush trees a blind to sit on (usually just a few sticks tied on here and there) or modify the tree to make it easier to climb, these modifications may make the use of that ambush spot easier in the future, allowing you to climb and sit in the tree more quickly, more quietly, and more comfortably. Efe will also remove branches that interfere with their view and their shot.

Often, after an Efe man has finished taking the honey and comb out of a bee nest way up in some tree, he will spend a few more minutes making the cavity the bees had nested in larger. This may increase the amount of honey that can be fit into that cavity the next honey season.

When Efe women harvest yams, they tend to keep the “head” of the yam, attached to the above ground vine, intact, and rebury it. The space where they took the yam out will then be filled, with a little luck, with more yam months later.

As the Efe walk along the trails they habitually use to get around in the forest, they maintain the trails to keep them open and passable. it takes an Efe twice as long to traverse a given distance of forest without a trail as with a trail. This is a huge long term enhancement in the return of foraging.

As the Efe walk along a trail, they often grab up fruits from trees along the way. They eat the fruit as they walk, or stop at a resting place and eat it there. I documented five species of fruit tree where the Efe spit out or otherwise discard the seed of the fruit. This process of dispersal, well known to plant ecologists, enhances the number of those fruit trees along these trails, roughly doubling the abundance of these seasonally consumed fruits.

And there’s more, I won’t bore you with now. Much of the energy the Efe put into foraging enhances future return, including the development and maintenance of the basic knowledge of where various resources are.

There is some evidence that chimps do something like this as well. Chimps are probably primary dispersers of some of the fuits they exploit, almost certainly enhancing the abundance of that type of tree or plant. Where chimps use nutting stones (this is rare, but there are some groups that do this), they seem to keep track of the where the stones were left, so finding this rare object is much more efficient.

Given that chimps use prior knowledge and enhancement a little, and human foragers are capable of using these two “rules” a lot, I would assume that some of this would have been going on with Homo habilis.

I should mention that the observations I’ve made with the Efe have since been made among other groups of foragers. This seems to be a general pattern among African tropical and subtropical foragers, and possibly beyond. If you don’t already know where something is, you are not likely to find it. And, once a resource is exploited, foragers are often likely to enhance its future value. The emergence of those two features of modern human foraging must have been part of the hominin evolutionary story.

On cannibalism and Jameson

A recent twitter conversation prompted me to dig up some old posts on cannibalism, and maybe a few memories of my time in Central Africa.

The twitter conversation concerned a story in which it is claimed that James Jameson, heir to the Jameson Irish whiskey empire, bought a slave girl (for the price of six handkerchiefs) in order to watch her be eviscerated and eaten by cannibals, and in particular, so that he could make some nice watercolor painting of the event. Apparently this is going around the internet.

If this is true, which as I will argue in a moment is not actually the case, then there are two things we would draw from the story. First, there were, in the late 18th century, villages of cannibals in Africa. Second, Jameson was a total jerk.

There are a few things you need to know before evaluating this story. First, it is true that almost all Americans and Europeans in the 18th and 19th century who had an interest in Africa knew with a high degree of certainty that African were, generally, cannibalistic, even if not all of them were fully fledged cannibals. This presumption, however, is untrue. It is simply something that people believed as part of the prevailing very racist attitude about Africa. This applied to other places as well. It was assumed that the natives around the world were cannibals, and we even see the use of the term “cannibal” being used here and there interchangeably with “native.”

The second thing you need to know is that nineteenth century traveler’s accounts and other documents are notoriously inaccurate, and often designed for a purpose other than to convey the truth, such as self aggrandizement or to disparage rivals, or, of course, to further the racist trope or support colonialism.

The third thing you need to know is that by the time Jameson got to the village in question, the mainly middle to later 19th century practice of slave trading was in full swing in the interior of Central Africa, mainly as part of a larger slave and ivory trade focuses on the Indian Ocean and probably North Africa. So, there were villages of slave traders, some of whom were really shady characters, and the village Jameson visited was almost certainly one of them. This was during the period of colonialism in the Congo when there was a full scale genocide starting out, orchestrated bv the King of Belgium and utilizing such notable players as the famous Henry Morton Stanley. So, if there were gruesome murders and even cannibalism, this would not have been normal for the local cultures.

Here’s the third thing you need to know. Even though it is very hard to find confirmed cases of cannibalism in the historic record for Central Africa, the idea of cannibalism is widespread. But you have to understand this in a cultural context. To help you understand this, I’m going to switch for a moment to the United States.

In the US, we have serial killers. For every actual serial killer, there are probably a dozen stories about serial killers, some based on actual serial killers, some just made up books and movies. We seem to be very interested in serial killers. We teach our children to avoid strangers because some of them might be bad people, and the idea of a stranger being a serial killer (as opposed to, say, a rapist or something) is absolutely part of that concern. So, in the US we fear serial killers, amuse ourselves with stories of serial killers, and even teach our children to avoid them.

So, does this mean that Americans are serial killers? In Africa, there are many many stories of cannibals, many traditional Africans fear cannibalism and think it is fairly common and consider this to be something to avoid and instruct children about. There are probably many more actual serial killers in the US than there are cannibals in Africa. Of course, some of the American serial killers have been cannibals, and that may be the case in Africa too. But the point is, these two things — serial killing and cannibalism — are sort of real but in fact very very rare, and are blown way out of proportion by the cultures in the two regions.

Now, the fourth thing you need to know is this. The Jameson story is known from two places. One is an account written by someone who probably wanted to damage Jameson (they had a thing), later promoted by a major rival (HM Stanley himself). The other comes from Jameson’s documents assembled and conveyed by his widow after his death.

In the first story, the one written by the Jameson haters, Jameson asks to have a demonstration of cannibalism and offers six handkerchiefs, which sounds like a cheap price but that’s only because you don’t know the value of cloth in late 19th century Central Africa (they would have actually been fairly valuable) to buy a young girl, a slave, so she could be eviscerated, butchered, and eaten while he painted the process.

In the second version of the story, from Jameson (indirectly), something like this did happen, but he did not knowingly pay for a slave (but there were handkerchiefs involved), a girl was killed and butchered (but there is no clear evidence she was eaten, I believe). It was not done at his request, he was aghast and horrified, and also, it all happened very quickly and given the situation he was powerless to stop it.

More recent write-ups of this event seem to make the assumption that the more gruesome version of the story is real, and in those write-ups we see lame excuses for things like there has never been any evidence that any paintings were every produced or existed in any form.

I know a guy who told me he was with the Zaire police when they were called to a village run by a cannibalistic chief. They found body parts everywhere and arrested the chief. He also told me that this people come from a location to the northeast of where he lived and were scattered to the four winds by a nuclear explosion. And he told me a lot of other things.

When I was living near the Rwenzori, this happened. There were rebels up on the mountain at that time. They had been there for years. (Now, they are the government, but that is another story). One day the army went up there to harass them, as they did now and then. A villager, it is said, told the army where to find the rebels. Eventually the army left, and the rebels captured the villagers and …

… well, that part of the story almost certainly happened but the rest is in question ….

… and then killed him and ate him in front of the other villagers, to teach them a lesson. The problem is, isn’t any really good evidence that they killed anybody and even less evidence that anybody ate anybody. But throughout the region, people’s fear of the rebels grew. The cannibalism story works.

I could tell you many more stories like this. I, myself, am a cannibal according to some. (But, honest, I’m not.) People have searched for confirmed cases of cannibalism and found very few. The Jameson story is unbelievable for a number of reasons, but partly plausible given the context of a village of bad guy slave traders. But to assume that it was routine to have “cannibal villages” is incorrect.

Cannibal is real. We see it here and there in the archaeology. But usually it involves eating your ancestors, maybe their ground up bones processed in a respectfully funerary rite. Most cases of “normal” (culturally accepted) cannibalism is probably of those who died on their own or were killed as part of warfare. Other cases are symbolic (like the Christian ritual of eating Jesus Christ and drinking his blood). And, as in discussed in one of the items linked to below, sometimes eating other people is done as a separate event form their death, like when human blood is consumed from an injured person. For medicinal purposes, of course.

As noted, I’ve written about cannibalism and expanded on these themes in a few places. In You come from Cannibals I talk about cannibalism in Classic and European history. In Among Cannibals I talk about the Rwenzori incident in more detail, and talk about cannibalism in other contexts. In Cannibal, Native, Indigenous, I have a little fun with Google N-Gram Viewer.

Enjoy. If that’s what you want to call it!

Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.

The Ghost of the McGregor Museum: A True Story

A City of Death and Misery

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.

i-8b549aa0c3bdf382d426bdc6b300d85d-Defending_Kimberley_DioramaThe 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.”

The Big Hole
The Big Hole

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.

BreakerMorantMOvieHave 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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 12.40.25 PMThe 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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 12.42.38 PMI 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.

The End.

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.

Ebola and "the French Disease"

Jim Moore and I were both students in the PhD Program in Anthropology at Harvard a few years ago. He graduated about the time I entered the program. To give a rough historical touchstone, I remember the day he needed to get his thesis off to the Registrar, and there was a delay because it was taking longer than expected to deburst the pages fresh out of the printer. Anyway, Jim is Professor of Anthropology at UC San Diego, and has done a great deal of work with Old World Primates, the evolution of social systems, and related topics. A while back Jim wrote an important piece for American Scientist which was a summary of his intensive research on the complex origin of HIV in Africa. Jim and I got to talking the other day about that topic in relation to the current West African Ebola outbreak (though this really relates to Ebola across the region in West and Central Africa). I invited Jim to write a guest blog post on the topic, he did, and that post is below. The graphic above accompanies the post and is used with permission from Jim’s earlier American Scientist article.

Ebola and “the French Disease”

Jim Moore

The origin of AIDS

By comparing the degree of variation among samples of HIV 1 group M (the virus responsible for the pandemic), we can estimate how long it has been since the original variant existed; that gives us a time for the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) of between 1908 and 1920 (depending on which recent analysis you like). For group O (which has not spread far), the TMRCA is a few years later, about 1920 to 1926. Put in the error estimates for these dates, and the range is about 1903 to 1948. Group N, with fewer than 20 patients known, is thought to have originated between 1948 – 1977 and the range for group P (2 patients) spans more than a century.

By comparing HIV 1 with different strains of SIVcpz and SIVgor (simian immunodeficiency virus of chimpanzees and gorillas), we find the closest match for group M comes from chimpanzee groups in SE Cameroon, just over the border from RP Congo (“Congo Brazzaville” to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], ex-Zaire, ex-Belgian Congo). Group O appears to be derived from SIVgor, most likely someplace in southwest Cameroon. That discovery involved collecting thousands of samples of ape feces from all over Africa and screening them for SIV, a prodigious project overseen by Beatrice Hahn. And a recent paper in Science makes a good case that for HIV 1 group M, after initially becoming established in someone in northern RP Congo/SE Cameroon, the virus traveled down the Sangha River to Kinshasa (personally, I don’t think they can meaningfully separate Kinshasa and Brazzaville at this stage) around 1920, where it was maintained at a low prevalence until about 1960 when the pandemic began.

Do the same exercises for HIV 2, and the two epidemic groups (A & B) most likely originated around 1940 – 1945 (1924 to 1959) from SIVsm (sooty mangabey) someplace in or near Ivory Coast. Like HIV1 group M, the virus seems to have travelled from its point of origin (sooty mangabeys in the Tai Forest, Ivory Coast, have the closest SIV matches to both groups) to where they caught on and eventually became pandemic (Guinea-Bissau, where the war of independence seems to have facilitated the process).

Now here’s the thing: people in both areas have eaten primates, and so been exposed to SIVs, for millennia. And as a sexually transmitted disease, well, sex has been going on for even longer. Massively increased promiscuity in the context of commercial sex workers in rapidly urbanizing and poor populations? That’s more a twentieth century thing, starting early in the century but really taking off after World War Two and ongoing today. Furthermore, in around 1960 disposable plastic syringes became widely available and, in poor areas, were often reused and/or easily available to traditional healers and charlatans, making unsterile injections more common. And of course travel by trains, cars, and planes has increased through the 20th century (with an important caveat that in parts of Africa such as the DRC, many railroads and roads weren’t maintained after independence and fell apart post–1960s).

So exposure to SIV has been going on for millennia, and “the usual suspects” in terms of STD risk factors became important early in the 20th century but increased dramatically (and have remained high) since the late 1950s, and despite that the only strains of HIV that have “caught on” all date from around 1920 – 1945. What is missing?

The French Connection

Those places, those times: French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa. There are SIV-carrying primates in many parts of Africa, under various colonial powers at various times, but all four zoonotic HIV strains happened under the French. Bad luck?

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.13.54 AMIt is impossible to be sure, but I have argued that for HIV 1 the catalyst was the combination of two things. First comes the unbelievably brutal treatment of Africans in both French Equatorial Africa (FEA) and the Belgian Congo, resulting (among other things) in labor camps where men were overworked, malnourished, and provided with women as a matter of policy to keep the workers – well, “happy” is probably not the best word, but you get the idea. The second element was the effort to cure smallpox and sleeping sickness through aggressive diagnosis/treatment/inoculation campaigns using traveling “mobile clinics” that had inadequate equipment for the scale of the job they were doing. For example, one sleeping sickness expedition in 1916 into what is now Central African Republic diagnosed/treated more than 89,000 people with just 6 syringes (the number of needles isn’t recorded). Over more than a decade, these mobile clinics, pioneered by Dr. Eugene Jamot, reached – and injected – millions of people. The importance of sterile equipment was well understood, but the logistics (I speculate) would have been prohibitive. The campaigns represent a major humanitarian effort that saved many lives, but the combination of widespread use of unsterile needles and stress-induced immunosuppression could not have been better designed for adapting a virus to new hosts.

I do not know the relevant history of French West Africa (FWA) so am cautious about saying the same thing happened there with HIV 2. However, it is worth noting that in 1931 Jamot was held responsible for the accidental blinding of hundreds of people being treated by one of his subordinates (sleeping sickness was treated with an arsenic derivative, and the subordinate apparently tried out a higher dosage, with disastrous results). With a cloud over his reputation, Jamot shifted from FEA to – Ouagadougou, in FWA. There he took charge of the sleeping sickness campaign, again with mobile clinics and again treating thousands of people under difficult conditions over several years before his health deteriorated.

About 20 years between the origins of HIV 1 in FEA and HIV 2 in FWA, and about 15 years between the onset of Jamot’s work in FEA and his move to FWA. Very circumstantial, but it gives one pause.

Why belabor the French?

Eugene Jamot was a genuine hero, and while colonial support for the mobile clinics wasn’t all humanitarian (there were concerns about the loss of [forced] labor if too many died), I am sure the people involved were doing their best to help other people in need. It might seem mean-spirited to point the finger of AIDS at them.

Well, here is one reason. A recent article in Science by Faria et al. examined the history of HIV 1 group M, concluding that the virus arrived in Kinshasa in about 1920 where it barely kept up with population growth until about 1960, when it began rapidly spreading in the pandemic we see today. It is valuable and interesting work. The actual origin of the virus is not their focus, but they summarize it thusly:

After localized transmission, presumably resulting from the hunting of primates, the virus probably traveled via ferry along the Sangha River system to Kinshasa. During the period of German colonization of Cameroon (1884 – 1916), fluvial connections between southern Cameroon and Kinshasa were frequent due to the exploitation of rubber and ivory. (page 58)

German colonization? Well, yes; the Germans were in Cameroon up until 1916 (when French/Belgian forces that had traveled up the Sangha in 1914 finally drove them out; Jamot was a medical officer with the expeditionary force). But traffic on the Sangha River didn’t end in 1916, and most of it was between Brazzaville/Kinshasa and the French towns of Ouesso, Nola, and Carnot anyhow. Why specify the “period of German colonization”?? I do not KNOW, but I note that (1) there is no other mention of any colonial power in the Faria et al. article, and (2) of the 14 authors, 6 are affiliated with institutions in Belgium or France (the rest, UK and USA). It looks to me like there may have been a bit of whitewashing going on there, and using a scientific article to blow historical smoke in our eyes gets my dander up.

AIDS and Ebola

Here is a better reason for acknowledging the likelihood that AIDS got its start as an unanticipated consequence of underfunded, understaffed humanitarian efforts to deal with infectious diseases in equatorial/west Africa: history can repeat itself. To ignore ebola in West Africa is not an option, and half-measures have whole risks.

Further reading

The puzzling origins of AIDS (2004). Jim Moore. American Scientist 92: 540–547. pdf

The early spread and epidemic ignition of HIV–1 in human populations (2014).
Nuno R. Faria, Andrew Rambaut, Marc A. Suchard, Guy Baele, Trevor Bedford, Melissa J.Ward, Andrew J. Tatem, João D. Sousa, Nimalan Arinaminpathy, Jacques Pépin, David Posada, Martine Peeters, Oliver G. Pybus, and Philippe Lemey. Science 346: 56 – 61.

Some other material of mine on HIV origins

Further note: Readers of this blog will avoid confusion by noting that this Jim Moore is not the Aquatic Ape Jim Moore. Same name, different guy.

UN Security Council Resolution on Ebola

Just a quick note. The UN Security Council has ad its first ever emergency meeting over a health issue, specifically the current West African Ebola outbreak. From a summary in Science, the Council …

… unanimously passed a resolution that declared the spread of the virus a “threat to international peace and security” and called on the world to send more health care workers and supplies to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, and not to isolate those countries.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who chaired today’s meeting, noted that the resolution had 130 co-sponsors, more than any previous one in the history of the Security Council.

Has #Ebola Death Toll Surpassed Malaria in West Africa?

In the earlier days of the West African Ebola outbreak, it was not uncommon to hear people note that we should not panic about Ebola because, after all, far more people are killed from Malaria than Ebola. This is of course an irrelevant argument. That is like telling a person who has lost their family in a tragic airplane accident that it isn’t so bad because, after all, far more people die in car crashes than aircraft crashes. For example, on August 5th, James Bell write in the Guardian, in a piece called Concerned about Ebola? You’re worrying about the wrong disease:

Since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people have died from malaria, while tuberculosis has likely claimed over 600,000 lives. Ebola might have our attention, but it’s not even close to being the biggest problem in Africa right now. Even Lassa fever, which shares many of the terrifying symptoms of Ebola (including bleeding from the eyelids), kills many more than Ebola – and frequently finds its way to the US.

I’m not picking on James Bell here. A lot of people said things like this, and the facts are true, though as I said, there is almost always (actually, in exactly N-1 scenarios within a given domain of scenarios) an argument that goes like this, and it really isn’t particularly relevant unless one is tasked with dividing up a fixed set of resources that will be used for a fixed set of problems. Resources rarely come that way and problems are rarely solved that way. As I pointed out earlier, consider the thought experiment where you have $10,000,000 that you want to give to either developing an Ebola vaccine, or a Malaria vaccine. Since billions have been spent on developing a Malaria vaccine and there still isn’t one, your donation would be a drop in the bucket. Retrospectively, it would be equivalent to something like the combined costs of couriers and mail by researchers working on a Malaria vaccine over the last few decades. Or the cost of coffee and donuts in the break room. Or conference travel fees. Or something like that. The point is, a bunch of millions of dollars might actually produce an Ebola vaccine given the starting point we have now, or at least, move us a good deal in that direction.

But now, we can ask if Ebola in the countries that are heavily affected right now is still “minor” compared to Malaria.

This is a matter of numbers and the numbers are hard to come by. James Bell notes that between February and July, inclusively, there had been over 300,000 malaria deaths, I assume world wide. So the comparison is not really relevant; we should be looking at what is happening specifically in, for instance, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone (or the three combined perhaps). Comparing world wide figures to a regional outbreak is a bit like reducing the Malaria death rate by shifting from numbers from countries that have endemic Malaria to include the global population.

It is hard to know how many people die of malaria every year, and the quality of the data varies considerably from country to country. A fairly recent study (here’s a discussion of it) suggests that an older estimate of 600,000 deaths per year should be doubles to 1,200,000 deaths per years. Having worked and lived in a region with some of the worst malaria (measured numerous ways) for several years, I can easily accept a doubling of numbers. If we assume that 1.2 million is right, by the way, Bell’s number of 300,000 is actually conservative.

Using data from that malaria study and WHO’s Ebola data, we can make some comparisons. I’m including all the information so you can check my work.

Here we have data from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The population number and malaria deaths per year are both from the aforementioned study and pertain to 2012. Then I divided malaria deaths per year by 12 to get a monthly value. I’m more comfortable working in months than years because an Ebola outbreak is normally short lived, and the number of deaths changes dramatically from month to month.

Following this we have the total number of Ebola deaths per country (summed in the right hand column as are the above mentioned data) and the approximate number of months of the outbreak. Then, the total deaths divided by the number of months. This constitutes a low-ball estimate of deaths per month from Ebola for the given expanding outbreak. Here we can see that in the comparison between Malaria and Ebola, it is not clear that one is a greater threat than the other (142:92, 49:67, 145:144).

Then we have the August-only monthly number of deaths. Here we dee that Ebola is huge compared to Malaria. So, back when people were saying “Malaria is worse,” in late July and early August, Ebola was starting to prove them wrong.

The last two numbers are calculated for all three countries combined. Here we are going out on a limb, and it is better statistically to crawl out on a thicker limb than a thinner limb. I made some estimates here, and those numbers conform to what is being talked about by WHO and others. If Ebola continues to spread at its current rate the daily number of new cases could be between 150 and 300 by the beginning of January. I state these as low vs high estimates, but actually, they are both conservative. Multiplying this by 30 days in a month, and dividing by 2 to approximate the ca 50% mortality rate, we have conservative numbers for Ebola that leave Malaria in the dust. Even if the doubling of estimated Malaria death rates should be doubled again, Ebola will be a bigger factor than Malaria.

Liberia Guinea Sierra Leone Total
Population 3,954,977 10,068,721 5,696,471 19,720,169
Malaria Deaths Per Year 1706 586 1734 4,026
Malaria Deaths Per Month 142 49 145 336
Ebola Deaths Total 508 400 461 1,369
Months of outbreak 6 6 3
Monthly average Ebola deaths 92 67 144 303
August Ebola Deaths 644 148 224 1,016
Estimated Janurary Ebola Deaths (low) 4,500
Estimated Janurary Ebola Deaths (high) 9,000

So that is why we should stop saying that Ebola is not Malaria, so relax about Ebola.

More on Ebola:

Update on West Africa's #Ebola Outbreak: Getting worse

The news is bleak. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the reported numbers. At one time it was said that on a nice Saturday in the summer, four out of five cars driving around in downtown Boston were looking for a parking place. This is somewhat like the situation in Liberia and possibly other affected areas. There may be as many Ebola victims driving around in taxis looking for a clinic as there are in clinics. Or maybe a fewer. Or, maybe more. Maybe a lot more.

But, we have to work with the data we have. There are two charts based on the information provided by WHO for up through September 6th. I’ve projected each data set out 90 days. Since there is no abatement in frequency of new cases, and in fact the number continues to increase on average, and since WHO is claiming that the situation in the worst hit areas is pretty much out of control, a 90 day projection seems reasonable. In other words, there is no reason to think that the relative rate of new infections is going to change because of any outside intervention or internal change in the situation.

The first chart shows the number of new cases. This varies a great deal from report to report. Some of that variation over time is probably real, reflecting the internal complexities of disease spread. But I suspect it is mostly administrative. If a bunch of cases don’t get into one report, the get into the next report. This explains a nearly perfect alternation between increase and decrease between successive reports.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 1.03.44 PM
The second chart shows the number of cases over time, accumulated. This Projected outwards, we can guess that by around the beginning of 2015, there will have been over 10,000 people who have been infected by Ebola in West Africa (including Nigeria and Senegal as well as the main area of the outbreak), and over 5,000 deaths. Since I know you are curious, if this is projected out over a year or so, the number of infected people goes to between 60,000 and 70,000. I have no idea if this is realistic.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 1.02.24 PM

The situation is bad and getting worse.

#Ebola in West Africa: Update

WHO has put out very few updates in the last several days. The most current update is August 28th, and it pertains to information from August 26th and before. Based on that update, the total number of cases (confirmed, suspected, etc.) is ow 3069 with 1552 deaths. The number of new cases per day may be increasing, may be decreasing; hard to say at this point. Here’s the new cases per day since the second week of July:

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 11.08.33 AM

Senegal now has one case, a person who traveled there from Guinea. He had contact with a lot of people including health workers and family before it was figured he may have Ebola. There is no word from the Congo since I last wrote about it, at least from WHO.

I’m sure Murphy’s Law will apply and WHO will issue new information soon after this post goes up, so expect an update very soon.

DR Congo #Ebola Outbreak

We can now be pretty sure that the Ebola outbreak in the DR Congo is not an extension of the West African outbreak. The index case seems to have gotten the disease from a mammal she butchered, and the numerous other cases seem to stem from contact with her primary as health care workers and family members. I don’t think we have enough information yet to assess this outbreak vis-a-vis the genetics of the Ebola itself.

From WHO:

On 26 August 2014, the Ministry of Health, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of an outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in Equateur Province.

The index case was a pregnant woman from Ikanamongo Village who butchered a bush animal that had been killed and given to her by her husband. She became ill with symptoms of EVD and reported to a private clinic in Isaka Village. On 11 August 2014, she died of a then-unidentified haemorrhagic fever. Local customs and rituals associated with death meant that several health-care workers were exposed and presented with similar symptoms in the following week.

Between 28 July and 18 August 2014, a total of 24 suspected cases of haemorrhagic fever, including 13 deaths, have been identified. Human-to-human transmission has been established and includes the health-care personnel who were exposed to the deceased pregnant woman during surgery (one doctor and two nurses) in addition to the hygienist and a ward boy, all of whom developed symptoms and died. Other deaths have been recorded among the relatives who attended the index case, individuals who were in contact with the clinic staff, and those who handled the bodies of the deceased during funerals. The other 11 cases are currently being treated in isolation centres.