Tag Archives: South Africa

Odd Ancient South African Human “Ancestor” Is Young

You’ve heard of Homo naledi, the strange “human ancestor” (really, a cousin) found a while back in South Africa. There were many skeletal remains in a cave, in the kind of shape you’d expect if they had crawled into the cave and died there, not much disturbed. They look enough like other members of our genus, Homo, to be called Homo, but if we assume that increase in brain size is the hallmark of our species, they seem to be an early grade.

Over the last ten years, we have come to appreciate the fact that our genus may have differentiated into multiple species that did not have a large brain after all, and Homo naledi is one of the reasons we think that. And, just as the “Hobbit” of Indonesia (flores) has recently been re-dated to be a bit older than people thought, Homo naledi is now dated to be a bit later than people may have thought.

Schematic of the Rising Star cave system. Picture: Marina Elliott/Wits University
Schematic of the Rising Star cave system. Picture: Marina Elliott/Wits University

For me, this is an “I told you so” moment. First, I understand, as do most of my colleagues (but not all), that a regular change over time in a trait in one lineage does not magically cause a parallel change in another lineage (though the co-evolution of a single trait in a similar direction along parallel lineages is certainly possible.) So, there was no reason to require that all later period hominins be like all other later period hominins in those later-emerging traits. Also, since no one has ever adequately explained what the heck our big brains are for, I don’t subscribe to the presumption that all evolution will always evolve the big brain just because our own big brains insist that they are really cool. So, a late small brained hominin in our genus but existing long after the split with us is actually somewhat expected.

Then, there is my sense of age based on the things I’ve seen in the area’s caves.

Geologist Dr Hannah Hilbert-Wolf studying difficult to reach flowstones in a small side passage in the Dinaledi Chamber. Picture: Wits University
Geologist Dr Hannah Hilbert-Wolf studying difficult to reach flowstones in a small side passage in the Dinaledi Chamber. Picture: Wits University
Some time ago, Lee Berger took me around some of the cave he had poking around in (long before this hominin was discovered) and showed me several animals that had crawled into the caves, probably looking for water during an arid period (this is already a fairly dry area). They had died in place and become mummified. In other caves, I’ve seen similar things, like a troop of baboons that somehow got into a cave with no known entrance and died, as well as bats that died in situ and mummified against the rock they died on.

On another occasion, Ron Clarke, another anthropologist working in the area, showed me the famous “Little Foot” which is a fossil that represents that mummy-to-stone transition, while mostly sitting on the surface of the floor(ish) of a very deep and inaccessible cave. Meanwhile, I’d been working with my friend and colleague Francis Thackeray, and he demonstrated to me how many of the diverse bits and pieces we find of australopithecines are actually probably part of individual skeletons, but discovered and excavated at very different times. These are creatures that got in the cave somehow, and were only somewhat disarticulated after death.

The whole “crawled into the cave” mode of entering the fossil record, and its presumed variant, “fell to one’s death in the cave” is different from the previously presumed process of “leopard kills you, drags you onto a tree branch hanging over a cave entrance and your bones fall into the cave” means of becoming a fossil. It is of course possible, even likely, that both of these processes occurred at various times and places.

Homo naledi, according to Lee Berger, may represent a third way of getting into one of these famous caves. He suggests that the hominins themselves dragged the dead bodies of each other into the caves, as a form of treatment of the dead. That is a spectacularly controversial claim, of course, since with a small brain how can you have a god, and without a god, how can you have ritual or burial? Of course, elephants treat their dead specially sometimes, and their brain is right where it is supposed to be on the famous mouse-to-elephant curve of brain size. And, I’d bet a dozen donuts that even though Homo naledi has a small brain compared to, say, yours or mine, it is probably a good measure above that comparative curve. It was a primate, after all.

left to right: Marina Elliott, Maropeng Ramalepa and Mpume Hlophe. Picture: Wits University/Wayne Crichton
left to right: Marina Elliott, Maropeng Ramalepa and Mpume Hlophe. Picture: Wits University/Wayne Crichton
But I digress in several directions, lets get to the point. The site of Rising Star Cave, South Africa, where Homo naledi was discovered, is now dated. These things are always subject to revision and updating, but for now, it seems like we have a pretty good estimate of the age of this incredible site.

The site dates to some time between about 414,000 years ago and 236,000 years ago. That means that the site overlaps with the approximate age of the earliest, probably, modern humans. Here are the details from the abstract of the paper, published this morning:

New ages for flowstone, sediments and fossil bones from the Dinaledi Chamber are presented. We combined optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments with U-Th and palaeomagnetic analyses of flowstones to establish that all sediments containing Homo naledi fossils can be allocated to a single stratigraphic entity (sub-unit 3b), interpreted to be deposited between 236 ka and 414 ka. This result has been confirmed independently by dating three H. naledi teeth with combined U-series and electron spin resonance (US-ESR) dating. Two dating scenarios for the fossils were tested by varying the assumed levels of 222Rn loss in the encasing sediments: a maximum age scenario provides an average age for the two least altered fossil teeth of 253 +82/–70 ka, whilst a minimum age scenario yields an average age of 200 +70/–61 ka. We consider the maximum age scenario to more closely reflect conditions in the cave, and therefore, the true age of the fossils. By combining the US-ESR maximum age estimate obtained from the teeth, with the U-Th age for the oldest flowstone overlying Homo naledi fossils, we have constrained the depositional age of Homo naledi to a period between 236 ka and 335 ka. These age results demonstrate that a morphologically primitive hominin, Homo naledi, survived into the later parts of the Pleistocene in Africa, and indicate a much younger age for the Homo naledi fossils than have previously been hypothesized based on their morphology.

"Neo" skull of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber. Photo credit: Wits University/John Hawks
“Neo” skull of Homo naledi from the Lesedi Chamber. Photo credit: Wits University/John Hawks
In addition to this date, it is reported that there are more fossil remains, from another cave called Lesedi Chamber. Here is the paper for that, which reports “… Further exploration led to the discovery of hominin material, now comprising 131 hominin specimens, within a second chamber, the Lesedi Chamber. The Lesedi Chamber is far separated from the Dinaledi Chamber within the Rising Star cave system, and represents a second depositional context for hominin remains. In each of three collection areas within the Lesedi Chamber, diagnostic skeletal material allows a clear attribution to H. naledi. Both adult and immature material is present. The hominin remains represent at least three individuals based upon duplication of elements, but more individuals are likely present based upon the spatial context. The most significant specimen is the near-complete cranium of a large individual, designated LES1, with an endocranial volume of approximately 610 ml and associated postcranial remains. The Lesedi Chamber skeletal sample extends our knowledge of the morphology and variation of H. naledi, and evidence of H. naledi from both recovery localities shows a consistent pattern of differentiation from other hominin species.”

Since both articles are OpenAccess, you can see them for yourself. Kudos to the authors for publishing in an OpenAccess journal.

And now, back to my original digression. One gets a sense of how landscapes and land forms develop, and while this can be misleading, it is not entirely absurd to postulate rough comparative ages for things you can see based on other things you’ve seen. I had assumed from the way they were described originally that the Rising Star hominins would not be millions of years old. Even though Bigfoot (found by Clarke) was millions of years old and essentially on the surface (of a deeply buried unfilled chamber) I guessed that over a million-year time scale, the Rising Star material would either become diagenetically inviable as fossils or buried in sediment, or both. But over hundreds of thousands of years? That was plausible to me. In fact, I figured the remains to possibly have been even younger, and if a date half the age as suggested was calculated, I would not have been surprised.

The evolution of our thinking about human evolution went through a period when we threw out all of our old conceptions about a gradual ape to human process, replacing that with a linear evolutionary pattern with things happening in what was then a surprising order, with many human traits emerging one at a time long before brains got big. There was some diversity observed then, but the next phase of our thinking involved understanding a dramatic diverstiy of pre Homo (the genus) life forms followed by the essential erasure of variation with the rise of Homo erectus and the like. Over the last decade and a half, we are now realizing that while the later members of our genus probably did cause, or at least, were associated with, a general decrease in that early diversity, later diversity arose anyway, and there were more different kinds of hominids, very different in some cases, late into our history. Word on the street is that we can expect to learn about even more diversity in coming years.


Paul HGM Dirks, Eric M Roberts, Hannah Hilbert-Wolf, Jan D Kramers, John Hawks, Anthony Dosseto, Mathieu Duval, Marina Elliott, Mary Evans, Rainer Grün, John Hellstrom, Andy IR Herries, Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Tebogo V Makhubela, Christa J Placzek, Jessie Robbins, Carl Spandler, Jelle Wiersma, Jon Woodhead, Lee R Berger. 2017. The age of Homo naledi and associated sediments in the Rising Star Cave, South Africa. May 2017. eLife.

Related books:

Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story

Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind: Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai & Environs World Heritage Site

From Apes to Angels: Essays in Anthropology in Honor of Phillip V. Tobias

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.”

Seriously?

“The ghost drove them out. Oh, by the way, avoid the bedroom that is an extension of the hallway.”

“Why?”

“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.


Footnotes

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.

Nelson Mandela Has Gone Home

Imagine going back in time to visit Nelson Mandela in prison and telling him this: “You will live through this and be free, you’ll lead your country and set an unattainable example of leadership, you’ll retire as president and die at a very old age. The violence associated with the end of Apartheid will be so little it will be mostly forgotten. There will be truth. And reconciliation.” That would have been a remarkable, impossible prediction at the time, because he was clearly destine to die in prison, and there was little possibility of reconciliation and there was every chance of bloodshed. Then you could add something equally unlikely: “There is a young African American man at a protest rally in the United States right now, agitating against apartheid. Long after your release from prison and your presidency, he will become the President of the United States and he will, in eulogizing you on your death, mention that his first political act was to protest racial injustice in your land.”

I can not say anything about Nelson Mandela that others with more knowledge and experience are saying now around the world. I’m hearing some remarkable voices saying some remarkable things. Go listen if you haven’t already. But I do remember a few things that I’d like to write down.

I remember, when Mandela was in prison and Apartheid was still the rule of the land in South Africa, but not knowing much about it, the protests in Harvard Yard and the mock shantytown that stayed up for months to agitate for divestment. I wonder if young President Obama was ever in that shantytown or if he organized or attended any of those rallies. Presumably so.

I remember watching transfixed, along with something like a billion other people, when Mandela made the final leg of his “long walk to freedom” on his release from prison. I remember being in Bloomington, Indiana, at a conference of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, attended by numerous South Africans who had already sent in their absentee ballots, for the first election.

I remember turning down opportunities to work in South Africa, honoring the boycott, but later of course I did work in the New South Africa (and yes, that’s what they call it there) and I spent considerable time in the country across numerous visits. Some of my best memories are in South Africa, and it is where I met Lynne, one of my best friends ever. I remember being there during one of the elections and seeing two of my Afrikaner colleagues in tears because Mandela was president. They were tears of joy, mind you. These men, as boys, had been shuttled to school and back in an armored bus as part of an armed convoy, in the Northern Province, now Limpopo, under threat of the ANC bush army, which at the time was in part led by Mandela himself before he was imprisoned. At another time they showed me the place where they waited for the armored bus, on the edge of a farm by a highway.

I also remember visiting, not too far from there, an Apartheid fence. This was a five meter high double chain link fence topped with razor wire, designed as part of the first line of defense against invading armies that were expected in those days, armies from the front line states that would take over South Africa and throw out the Apartheid white minority government. The fence ran only a few hundred meters and stopped abruptly on both ends, which would have allowed the invading armies to simply walk around it. This was because the permission of the landowner was needed to put in the fence, and only one land owner overlooking that part of the Limpopo River was interested in having it. If you think that is strange, you just don’t know South Africa. It’s still strange, but at the same time, perfectly normal.

Travelling back south the same week, I learned that the bus stop was on a long straight section of highway designated by the South African military as a landing strip. There were apparently many of these, which would be used to move the army to the border at the time of the impending invasion. We all remember the assumption that Apartheid would likely end in a bloodbath, internally or by invasion or both.

But Mandela did not let any of that happen. The smartest thing the white minority did was to give the country, essentially, to Mandela. Truth and reconciliation ensued.

I also remember, in detail, every single one of the racist stories I was told by numerous disenfranchised whites, whom I would run into now and then around the country while doing my work. I remember the details so well because even though every one of those stories was about someone the person telling it knew, and set in a specific time and space like it had really happened, there were really only a handful of different stories but every story was repeated again and again by different people in far flung regions. When I encountered South African white racism in the wild I found it to be a joke, not a very funny one, a parody of itself, a badly strung together set of urban myths, self aggrandizing and used up. But most of the minority citizens I knew and became friends with in South Africa are as sad today that Mandela has died as anyone else.

As President Obama said today, there will never be another person like Nelson Mandela.

Update Your Southern African Bird Guide Collection

When traveling and working in South Africa, I’ve always used Newman’s guide to the birds of Southern Africa, and more recently, I found the Sasol guide to be helpful as well. (I discuss both briefly here.) Now, I’ve got on my desk a copy of Princeton’s Birds of Southern Africa: Fourth Edition by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton and Peter Ryan. You will know Sinclair from his South of the Saraha bird guide.

All three books cover about the same species, as far as I can tell (just under 1,000) and have a similar range of illustration and information. They all have overview graphics that help narrow down the species, and other helpful information.

There are things I like about the new Sinclair book that you might appreciate as well. First, the range maps are more detailed and updated, and probably the most accurate of any in a current field guide. Sasol has helpful inflight graphics arranged to group several similar species together, but Sinclair has the in flight images in the same place as the other images of each species. That might make Sasol better for the novice who needs to narrow down “hawk thingie” to a more fine detail, while Sinclair would be more useful to the pro. (Sorry, I’m not making the comparison to Newman right now because I can’t lay my hands on my volume right now. Might have left it at Lynne’s house. In Pretoria.)

Obviously, you need more than one field guide, especially if you are traveling with more than one person. (Always bring different guides, not copies of the same, where possible!) and at the moment I’d suggest the new Birds of Southern Africa: Fourth Edition because it is the most up to date, along with the Sasol.

From Ladysmith to London: A Harrowing Escape

In late November, 1899, a British military unit which included an embedded reporter was ambushed by an Afrikaner unit in what is now Natal Province, South Africa. This was during the Anglo-Boer war, which was to be the largest military adventure to date in the history of the United Kingdom. The British had been traveling in an armored battle train, a kind of tank-train hybrid that was being used in that war mostly with poor results. The train was partly derailed, and the British were under fire, their only hope to make a break for it, or to hunker down and wait for reinforcements which may or may not come. Suddenly and without warning one of the British soldiers threw up a white flag and surrendered. This moment of initiative caused confusion among both the Boer and British which in turn resulted in several Boer and British soldiers exposing themselves to each other’s direct fire. It is one thing to volley bullets back and forth and occasionally hit someone, but standing uncovered several feet apart and heavily armed, the soldiers on both sides collectively decided that taking what was now realized by some to have been a false signal as a valid appeal to surrender was a better choice than a massacre. The British Soldiers and the reporter were all taken prisoner. Over the subsequent month, the reporter was (against the standing rules of the time) mixed in with the soldiers, and they were processed and incarcerated in a facility in Pretoria.

On December 22, the reporter effected an escape which is one of the more remarkable stories I’ve ever read. It forms a chapter in his later writing, which I’ve cut down considerably for you to get the gist of the story. Below I’ll provide a link to the complete manuscript. Continue reading From Ladysmith to London: A Harrowing Escape

Wild angry baboons on the high cliff

We three had somehow wound our way down into the canyon without experiencing any really steep slopes, but having walked for several miles in the sandy dry riverbed, Trusted Companion, Young One, and I were now looking rather hopelessly at unsafe-to-climb cliffs on both sides, covered with imposing vegetation of the kind that sports a thorn every few inches. The sun was low enough that the canyon floor was in a dark shadow, and the air was beginning to chill down. We were far enough from the vehicle, lost enough, and sufficiently plan-free that it would be perfectly reasonable to worry that we might not make it across the remote African Savanna before the leopards and hyenas came out to hunt. It was even possible that we’d have to spend the night huddled in some spot we could convince ourselves was protected from the elements and the wild animals. All this dark and scary truth had dawned on me over the last hour as we continued heading up a seemingly endless side canyon in search of a place to climb out of this river valley known among international extreme outdoors people as one of the most treacherous in the world, and known among the more traditional local folk for its dragon-like 50-meter long human-eating snake that was supposedly mythical.
Continue reading Wild angry baboons on the high cliff

Africa. Some time in the early 1990s.

… Continued …

I started out walking a good six feet behind her, to avoid the sand she was kicking up and the occasional thorn-lined branch that might swing back in the wake of anyone walking through the African Bush. We were traversing open country in the Kalahari, in an area sealed off from people owing to the presence of unfriendly lions and other dangers. We were doing this in part because we both felt like we had been locked up for days and needed some freedom; We needed freedom from confinement, freedom from the people we were with, freedom from patronizing park employees, freedom of movement, freedom from the sound and smell of a diesel engine in a “safari vehicle,” and a taste of the freedom, which I can’t describe, you get when you walk through the wild bush in Africa knowing that you are being slightly annoying to the unfriendly lions and have the chance of almost anything happening and no way to stop it. Over every dune was a question, in every cluster of brush and camel-thorn tree was a mystery, in every patch of long grass a cobra or a rodent or a game bird or, at least, some kind of interesting spider or something.
Continue reading Africa. Some time in the early 1990s.