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The Institute of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at the University of Tübingen has been conducting archaeological investigations in the Geelbek Dunes since January of 1998. The Geelbek dune field lies approximately 90 km north of Cape Town, only several kilometers from the Atlantic coast. Stone artifacts and animal bones can be found on many of the large surfaces between the hills of mobile sand. Funded with a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Science Foundation), the project intends to achieve the following goals:
- the discovery, recovery and analysis of the Stone Age remains with special attention paid to the spatial distribution of finds,
- the investigation of the local geology (including absolute dating methods) and its connection to the archaeological finds,
- and the recovery of data useful in the reconstruction of the Pleistocene and Holocene palaeoecology.
According to the latest research, Southern Africa represents one of the cradles of anatomically modern Homo sapiens, a species which subsequently left Africa and settled the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. Thus, according to many researchers, this hominin species is the ancestor of all humans living today. Archaeological sites in Southern Africa therefore provide important information about the emergence of modern humans. Finds such as the fossilized human footprints in Langebaan, the MSA engraved ochre, shell beads and bone tools in Blombos Cave, the open-air hominin and archaeological locality of Elandsfontein, and the Middle Pleistocene hominin remains of Hoedjiespunt have placed South African archaeology at the forefront of the field. The Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at the University of Tübingen has completed its research in the Geelbek Dunes. The discoveries here augment the already important discoveries made elsewhere in Western Cape Province and South Africa, areas which represent an important chapter in human prehistory.
Understanding the stratigraphic sequence of geological units in the dunes turned out to be the best way to determine the relative age of an archaeological assemblage exposed at the surface. The exposed aeolian sediments and the underlying geological strata each represent distinct layers of windblown sand that have undergone different soil formation processes. Three different layers of sand represent ancient dunes (AD) that accreted during dry periods and then underwent soil development during moister, warmer periods. Some of the layers of windblown sand were subsequently cemented underground due to water percolation and perching. These form at least five calcrete banks, often composed of primary and secondary accumulations. Due to deflation by wind, these sand and calcrete horizons are exposed differentially in each locality at Geelbek. These geological horizons provide the basis for understanding the climatic changes that affected the region during the late Middle and Late Pleistocene. Furthermore, it follows that the cultural remains found upon the surface of a specific geological unit must be younger than the date of that unit’s deposition.
To study the spatial distribution of the various find materials, we applied a system that quickly records each find with millimeter accuracy in three dimensions (x, y, z). We linked the geographical data to a detailed description of each find and then plotted this information on a map. Using the Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) program written by Harold Dibble and Shannon McPherron together with a Leica Total Station, the field team measured each find larger than 2 cm, logging more than 30,000 datasets on a Husky 16 field computer.
For each find, the field computer recorded locality name, find number, coordinates, area, scatter, find description, date, time, collector, geological context and reflector height. Using this efficient method, we plotted a record of 679 finds in the locality named Shelly on March 30, 2000. The deployment of this equipment enabled us to efficiently collect large numbers of finds from vast surfaces, totaling about 120,000 m2 in area. After transferring the field data to a Microsoft Access database, we linked the datasets with Golden Software’s Surfer and ESRI’s ArcMap to plot the finds. Finds in the field were divided into nine main categories based on the different types of materials collected:
- Lithic artifact–chipped, ground stone tool or manuport
- Faunal remain–mammal, micromammal, bird, fish, reptile or amphibian
- Bone tool–worked faunal remain
- Ostrich eggshell–unmodified or modified
- Shellfish–gastropod, mollusk or crustacean
- Ornament–ostrich eggshell or marine shell
- Modern find (post-contact)–glazed or unglazed ceramic, metal or glass
- Bucket–collected finds excavated from either 1 m2 or 0.25 m2.
The predominantly MSA and LSA sites found at Geelbek indicate brief periods of occupation and highlight specific activities that occurred at different points on the landscape. Geelbek is situated where people could exploit the diversity of the near-coastal environment, hunting and trapping terrestrial animals, as well as gathering coastal resources. Lithic raw materials came from up to 25 km away. A wide variety of activities occurred, for example, people knapped stone artifacts, retooled for hunting, ground ochre and plant material, roasted whale meat, rendered blubber, manufactured ostrich eggshell beads and shell ornaments, collected and ate shellfish, and buried their dead. The signatures of these activities are all preserved at Geelbek and show that traces of human activities during the MSA and LSA are by no means restricted to the caves, rockshelters and shell middens that have long been the focus of archaeological research.
This kind of large-scale research represents one of a handful of examples of detailed studies of open-air localities in southern Africa. The data demonstrate how people made use of the landscape as a single entity and were flexible in their ability to exploit all available resources. These snapshots in time help us understand aspects of human behavior that cannot be extracted from denser horizons of occupation. We hope that with this endeavor into large-scale landscape archaeology, we have demonstrated the utility and potential of this approach.