Sift­ing through S. Africa’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal riches

A for­mer U.S. fac­tory man­ager digs into the past — to the early days of ho­minids.

Los Angeles Times - - The World - Robyn Dixon re­port­ing from Swartkrans, South Africa robyn.dixon@latimes.com

When Mor­ris Sut­ton picks a chipped, or­di­nary-look­ing rock from the soil, he’s the first to touch the stone tool since an an­ces­tor of man used it nearly 2 mil­lion years ago.

In his dim, cool cav­ern at the bot­tom of a 30-foot lad­der, he feels the won­der of it, breath­ing in the loamy smell, peer­ing through a win­dow deep into time.

Sut­ton, 47, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, was a Mem­phis, Tenn., fac­tory man­ager who grew tired of the flat hori­zon of com­merce and man­u­fac­tur­ing and of lay­ing off fel­low em­ploy­ees.

So he quit to pur­sue his hobby: hunt­ing for fos­sils and Stone Age tools. He went back to col­lege to study ar­chae­ol­ogy and later moved to South Africa, where he is a post­doc­toral re­searcher with the In­sti­tute for Hu­man Evo­lu­tion at Wit­wa­ter­srand Uni­ver­sity.

South Africa is a mecca for ar­chae­ol­o­gists from around the world; its fos­sils cover an un­bro­ken sweep of pre­his­toric time, from the first smudge of life through the di­nosaur era to early ho­minids and be­yond. Some of the world’s most sig­nif­i­cant fos­sils were dis­cov­ered here: the Taung child, Lit­tle Foot and, in April, a young male ho­minid, be­lieved to be a new species, Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­iba, whose re­mains ap­pear to be nearly 2 mil­lion years old.

“You can look at the lat­est forms of life and the first ev­i­dence of life and all the way through the di­nosaurs, all the way through the first emer­gence of ho­minids and our an­ces­tors, right through to to­day. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can find that,” says An­drea Lee­nen, head of the Pa­le­on­to­log­i­cal Sci­en­tific Trust, a South Africa not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that spon­sors pa­le­on­to­log­i­cal re­search.

At Wit­wa­ter­srand Uni­ver­sity, the fos­sil trea­sures in­clude sev­eral eggs of a small di­nosaur species, pre­served just as they were hatch­ing. Thou­sands more items sit on shelves and in boxes, not yet chipped out of their rock cas­ings. It will take decades to process them.

Fos­sil hunters are fa­mous for their egos, jostling for me­dia at­ten­tion and re­search funds and hold­ing sniffy de­bates about whose find is the old­est or the clos­est an­ces­tor of man.

The soft-spo­ken Sut­ton doesn’t fit the stereo­type of an In­di­ana Jones-style wun­derkind, des­per­ate to un­earth the old­est hu­man an­ces­tor. He cal­i­brates his as­ser­tions cau­tiously as he clam­bers over a rough, dry land­scape pocked with caves.

He’s ex­ca­vat­ing at Swartkrans in the Sterk­fontein Val­ley, pulling out spec­i­mens more than a mil­lion years old. He’s the kind of man who gets ex­cited about an al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble lay­er­ing of dif­fer­ent-col­ored soils — de­posits from dif­fer­ent mil­len­ni­ums, win­dows into dif­fer­ent times.

Yet he could dig here for years with­out find­ing that once-in-a-life­time break­through — a missing link, a new species, ev­i­dence of early cook­ing. The hole might yield noth­ing new.

“Well,” he pauses hes­i­tantly. “You don’t have to dis­cover any­thing new. You can look at things from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, bring a new per­spec­tive.”

It’s now pos­si­ble, for ex­am­ple, to an­a­lyze the microscopic residue of meat or plants left on stone tools nearly 2 mil­lion years old and learn what the tools were used for.

More than a third of the world’s ho­minid fos­sils were found in one small area at Sterk­fontein. The stone tools here are from the era when hu­mankind’s pre­de­ces­sors and re­lated pri­mates were evolv­ing, a mil­lion years ago and more.

Homo er­gaster is one such pre­de­ces­sor, whereas Aus­tralopethi­cus ro­bus­tus was a chunky, large-jawed branch on the same fam­ily tree that died out.

“This is a very im­por­tant phase in hu­mankind’s evo­lu­tion. It’s like our ado­les­cence,” Sut­ton says.

In past decades, sci­en­tists at Swartkrans turned up ev­i­dence of some of the ear­li­est con­trolled use of fire, as much as 1.5 mil­lion years ago. They found ev­i­dence that ro­bus­tus co­ex­isted with early hu­mans. Sci­en­tists can only guess why they died out while the oth­ers con­tin­ued to evolve.

Sut­ton ges­tures with quiet pride at an ex­ca­vated area not much big­ger than a dou­ble bed: That’s five years’ dig­ging there. He and his South African as­sis­tant, An­drew Phaswana, 35, scrape away the soil layer by layer, un­earthing as many rid­dles as an­swers.

Phaswana sits in the sun­shine, us­ing tweez­ers to sort through a chunky pile that looks like break­fast ce­real. It’s run-of-the-mill stuff: thou­sands of bones and teeth of tiny mouse-like ro­dents and chips of stone that went fly­ing as the an­cients fash­ioned their tools. He clas­si­fies them and bags them up.

Like Sut­ton, Phaswana once had an un­sat­is­fy­ing job, as a gas sta­tion at­ten­dant. He loves the thrill of find­ing huge, flat ro­bus­tus mo­lars, prob­a­bly used for grind­ing fi­brous veg­e­ta­tion such as roots.

“I like this job be­cause I learn more ev­ery day. I learn where I come from and how the old peo­ple were be­hav­ing and how they were eat­ing and how they used fire,” Phaswana said. In the study of mankind’s an­ces­tors and re­lated species, blind al­leys, con­tested the­o­ries and re­vi­sions are the norm. So Sut­ton is cau­tious about jump­ing to con­clu­sions.

The fos­sils of burned bones found at Swartkrans don’t prove that man’s an­ces­tors cooked their meat. Sut­ton would want clearer ev­i­dence, like bones that had been butchered as well as burned.

He’s also on the look­out for proof that ro­bus­tus used stone tools. The ear­li­est stone tools pre­date the ear­li­est Homo species by sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand years.

“It could be that we haven’t found the ear­li­est Ho­moyet. Or it could be that ro­bus­tus were us­ing tools,” he says.

Swartkrans con­tains at least three Stone Age-era de­posits. Sut­ton needs fund­ing to ex­ca­vate the two older ar­eas, which have both yielded ho­minid fos­sils.

“As an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, there’s a huge at­trac­tion that you are pick­ing up some­thing like a stone tool that maybe some ho­minid dropped a mil­lion years ago.”

Robyn Dixon

TREA­SURE HUNT: Mor­ris Sut­ton was bored with man­ag­ing a fac­tory in Ten­nessee, so he fol­lowed his pas­sion and be­came an ar­chae­ol­o­gist. He now works in the rich fos­sil beds in South Africa’s Sterk­fontein Val­ley.

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