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Recreating our ancestral past

- Gillian Anstey

Wits – in the champion’s league of archaeology – hosted the first African Conference on Experimental Archaeology.

Bill Schindler gave a demonstration of experimental archaeology when he screened an episode of National Geographic’s The Great Human Race at the Wits Club as part of the first African Conference on Experimental Archaeology (ACE).

About 60 delegates from around the world watched as Schindler, dressed in skins, darted a boar in the Caucasus Mountains with an atlatl and ate its fat to keep warm – what he described as ‘’an attempt to recreate our ancestral past’’, namely the Ice Age 40 000 years ago.

Schindler co-starred in the TV series with survival expert Cat Bigney but he is the public face of experimental archaeology in more ways than one. Associate Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at Washington College in Maryland in the US, he is  also chairman of EXARC, an organisation representing about  300 members from 40 countries who are involved in archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology or interpretation (such as museum education).

EXARC organised ACE together with Dr Silje Evjenth Bentsen, a Claude Leon Foundation Fellow at Wits.

Schindler says the response from other academics to the TV series has been very positive “because it reached people”. Although one ACE delegate questioned the choice to feature Bigney in a dress, albeit it of skin; another delegate, Sarah Paris, a PhD student from Cambridge University, said she welcomed such popularising of experimental archaeology.

In his keynote address, Professor Innocent Pikirayi of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria, defined experimental archaeology as “attempts to generate and test hypotheses, usually by replicating or approximating the feasibility of ancient cultures performing various tasks’’.

His own on-going experiments are about documenting water resources at the architectural site of Great Zimbabwe, to work out how it might have shaped the function of the medieval city.  The research involves women carrying water uphill in traditional clay pots but has been affected by unexpected heavy rains which has hindered access.

Pikirayi said that experimenting with prehistoric buildings (architecture) is common at sites such as Stonehenge in the UK but almost unheard of in Africa.

Dr Molapo Qhobela, CEO of the National Research Foundation, spoke of the importance of experimental archaeology in SA today. “Can there be any other place, or any other time in our human history where testing the validity of assumptions about ancient humanity can be more important?

‘’It is widely accepted that there can be no single past that is knowable and acceptable to all. Taking snapshots of the past through different lenses can give many different interpretations. When these snapshots are taken out of their original contexts and put into glass museum cases by experts with a particular world view, for instance, audiences are intentionally or unintentionally lead down a particular path of interpretation.’’

The other keynote speaker, Lyn Wadley, an A-rated scientist and Honorary Professor of Archaeology at Wits, spoke of the pigeon feast she experienced with two of her post-doctoral fellows, Dr Aurore Val and Dr Paloma de la Peňa.

They had found a disproportionate number of pigeons and dove bones, particularly in the early layers of the archaeological site of Sibudu Cave, 40km north of Durban.  Val had conducted an experiment to determine: were the bones present because the birds had roosted and died there, or did they exist for anthropogenic reasons, that is, had people eaten them?

She accessed 16 pigeons which they gutted. Keeping the feathers on some of the birds, they wrapped those in strelitzia leaves and roasted among coals. The others were grilled. All were eaten with their fingers to emulate how they might have been eaten.

“We didn’t really enjoy the ones with the feathers very much,’’ said Wadley to much amusement from the delegates, “and so we compromised a bit”, she said, pointing to a picture of Val adding olive oil and rosemary to those being grilled.

“Yes, we ate all 16 of them,’’ she said. It took two days. They tasted “really disgusting’’ exclaimed Val, but they proved from perforations left on the soft bones from tearing them apart, and from tooth marks, that people living at Sibudu during the Middle Stone Age had eaten the birds. The experiment was published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2016, with Val as the first author.

Co-organiser Bentsen said she had initiated ACE because people at international conferences often spoke of the need for it. Senior lecturer Dr Christine Sievers, pointed out that archaeology at Wits ranked 38th in the world in the 2018 QS university subject rankings. ‘’It’s a hub,’’ said Bentsen. “You really feel like you are working in the champion’s league when you work at Wits.’’

ACE was sponsored by the French Institute of SA (IFAS-Recherche); the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST); BRUKER; the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences at Wits;  with support from the NRF-SARChi Chair of Modern Origins, Professor Christopher Henshilwood.