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New archaeological project will expand our understanding of human evolution in the Magaliesberg

Archaeologists from the University of Johannesburg, Dr Matthew Caruana, Dr Matt Lotter and Principal Investigator Professor Marlize Lombard, have initiated a comprehensive study of the Magaliesberg Stone Age landscape. In a series of integrated research projects they will test whether the unique Magaliesberg geomorphology, geology and hydrology provided a refuge for human ancestors and other mammals to evolve into their modern forms. 

The project, called Hu-MAP (short for Humans of the Magaliesberg Archaeological Project) will broaden the scope of evolutionary research from the current narrow focus on the caves in the Cradle of Humankind onto the wider landscape of the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve as a whole. Hu-MAP will use the most recent technology such as Lidar remote sensing, drone survey imaging, 3D scanning and photogrammetry to map the Biosphere Reserve and study the ancient landscape of our ancestors.

The new initiative will add further scientific substance to one of the most important motivations for the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve and is relevant to the holistic theme running through publications such as The Magaliesberg(Protea Books, 2014) and Cradle of Life (Struik Nature, Penguin Random House, 2019). 

Stone Tools from WonderboomThe first of what will hopefully be many research papers coming out of the Hu-MAP project is a re-analysis of the Early Stone Age site at Wonderboom. The site, not far from where the Apies River cuts through the Magaliesberg in northern Pretoria, was first excavated in 1956 by the pioneer archaeologist Revil Mason. It is an exceptionally rich deposit of Acheulean stone tools possibly between 500 and 800 thousand years old. Modern dating techniques will be applied to the site in future.

The authors of the Hu-MAP project were able to interview Revil Mason shortly before his death last year and their study confirmed several of the conclusions he had made more than 70 years ago. However, the new research suggests that the tools were not made and deposited as originally thought by Mason “on the spot”; scars in the quartzite outcrops above the assemblage indicate that they were probably manufactured higher on the slopes and have since washed downslope where they have accumulated over time. The re-analysis also identified a wider variety of specialised implements than the hand axes and cleavers Mason had found and revealed more detailed information on tool-making technology, such as re-forming cutting edges for scraping and other functions. This demonstrates a greater degree of task variation and specialisation than previously realised, and this will be the focus of further research.

Altogether the new research gives greater insight into the daily activity of our pre-human ancestors and how the Magaliesberg landscape influenced our evolution.

The Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve and the Cradle of Humankind.

Stone Tools from Wonderboom

The first of what will hopefully be many research papers coming out of the Hu-MAP project is a re-analysis of the Early Stone Age site at Wonderboom. The site, not far from where the Apies River cuts through the Magaliesberg in northern Pretoria, was first excavated in 1956 by the pioneer archaeologist Revil Mason. It is an exceptionally rich deposit of Acheulean stone tools possibly between 500 and 800 thousand years old. Modern dating techniques will be applied to the site in future.

The authors of the Hu-MAP project were able to interview Revil Mason shortly before his death last year and their study confirmed several of the conclusions he had made more than 70 years ago. However, the new research suggests that the tools were not made and deposited as originally thought by Mason “on the spot”; scars in the quartzite outcrops above the assemblage indicate that they were probably manufactured higher on the slopes and have since washed downslope where they have accumulated over time. The re-analysis also identified a wider variety of specialised implements than the hand axes and cleavers Mason had found and revealed more detailed information on tool-making technology, such as re-forming cutting edges for scraping and other functions. This demonstrates a greater degree of task variation and specialisation than previously realised, and this will be the focus of further research.

Altogether the new research gives greater insight into the daily activity of our pre-human ancestors and how the Magaliesberg landscape influenced our evolution.

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