Archaeological Sites

Taung

The type locality of Australopithecus africanus is one of numerous sites described during the last eighty years from the vicinity of the small mining village of Norlim (previously Buxton) in the Taung District, North West Province.

Taung is situated on the Ghaap Escarpment, a Precambrian cuesta here mantled by a sequence of four stream-laid accumulations of lime tufa, known (from oldest to youngest) as the Thabaseek, Norlim, Oxland and Blue Pool Tufas. While it was presumed that maximum tufa formation had taken place under wetter than present conditions, recent radiocarbon dating of young tufas at Gorrokop, suggests that tufa growth phases were very largely confined to the transition from arid glacials to more humid interglacials.

The first (type) specimen of Australopithecus africanus was recovered from one of a succession of carapace caves within the Thabaseek Tufa. Described by Dart in 1925, it was found by quarryman M. de Bruyn during mining operations and came from a reddish clayey flowstone underlying sterile semi-cemented red sand in a cavity c. 15 metres below the modern surface. Once believed to have been the oldest representative of the species, subsequent dating based on cercopithecoid biostratigraphic data (using a faunal sample from Hrdlicka's deposits from the same gallery system in the Thabaseek Tufa) indicated an age of some 2,3 million years for the Taung hominid. Recent excavations by J.K. McKee, under direction of P.V. Tobias, have amplified the faunal and geological evidence. Newly exposed fossil deposits deeper within the cave-riddled Thabaseek Tufa suggest the Taung hominid probably predates the Hrdlicka deposits - with the Hrdlicka fauna falling within a time range close to that of Sterkfontein Member 4, circa 2,4 to 2,6 million years, the hominid deposit being somewhat older, probably between 2,6 and 2,8 million years old.

Witkrans Cave, a collapsed cave site located on the upper slopes of a steep tufa cliff, about 5 km south of the A. africanus cairn, was excavated by Peabody in 1947-8. A small lithic assemblage (Middle Pietersburg), and the remains of some 20 animal species and human teeth, were recovered. Travertine-based radiocarbon readings of 33150 2500 BP (UCLA-766) and 35500 730 BP (Pta-2890) have been supplemented by a technically reliable Th/U result of about 89 000 years BP.

Equus Cave, some 600 m from the A. africanus type-site, partially destroyed by mining, was excavated in 1978-82 by Beaumont (McGregor Museum) and Shackley. Four poorly defined natural units (1a, 1b, 2a, 2b), have dates spanning 2390 BP for 1a to beyond 20 000 years BP for 2b. The site (particularly Stratum 2b) yielded massive faunal samples (a total of over 30 000 identifiable fragments) representing 48 mammalian species, including Homo sapiens (all units), and the extinct taxa Equus capensis; Megalotragus priscus and Antidorcus bondi from below Stratum 1a. The cave was used by brown hyaenas (as maternity den?) and latterly by porcupines who left typically gnawed bones on the surface of Stratum 1a. Pollens from hyaena coprolites indicate that Stratum 1a vegetation corresponds with that of today, whereas spectra from lower levels indicate progressively more open vegetation (fewer trees relative to grass and composites), with an inferred temperature of c. 4o C lower than today for Stratum 2b. Palaeoenvironmental evidence is augmented by stable carbon isotope studies on tooth enamel carbonate of grazers from the site, and by isotopic analysis of fossil ostrich eggshell. The latter study shows cooler, drier conditions shifting to warmer and wetter (about modern values) by about 4000 years ago. The 13C/12C analysis indicates changes in relative proportion of C3 and C4 grasses in the latter stages of the Pleistocene - with the area experiencing at least two periods of enhanced winter rainfall within a predominantly summer rainfall regime - and domination by C4 grasses in Holocene times.

Little Witkrans Shelter, a small overhang at the base of a low tufa cliff a few hundred metres away from Witkrans Cave, was excavated by Peabody in the late 1940s and by Beaumont in 1978. Data obtained from the latter dig showed that the 0,8 metre deep deposit there spans the past 9000 years, with the lower stone artefact samples containing segments down to a level dated to about 8500 years BP.

Powerhouse Cave, situated above the bed of the Thabaseek River, was investigated by Peabody in the late 1940s and by Humphreys in the mid 1970s. It contains a hornfels-dominated Wilton lithic (stone artefact) assemblage reflecting sporadic use of the site during some 1400 years prior to about 2250 BP. Ochre was abundant in the deposit, and non-lithic items included bone points, a bone pendant and part of a polished bone bead.

Tobias Cave refers to the remnants of a site exposed during mining operations in 1952, and rescued by P.V. Tobias. Much deposit had spilled down-slope, from which human and faunal remains - including a "manifestly Bush" skull - had been recovered, along with LSA material. Of interest was the association of human cranial material apparently of Bush type with artefacts and bone points similar to those found at Powerhouse Cave.

Ochre Cave, a small site near Powerhouse Cave, was clearly a local ochre source, also containing finger paintings - short vertical stripes in yellow, orange and reddish-brown, as well as a grid-pattern in orange ochre.

Finally, Norlim 5 is a stone walled settlement on the hillcrest to the south of, and overlooking, the Blue Pool at Buxton. Radiocarbon datings for this and similar sites span the period AD 1460 and 1690, Norlim 5 being the oldest in the series. Associated with low rubble-core walling is an amorphous Ceramic LSA assemblage mainly comprising irregular flakes, with occasional informal scrapers, and thick, coarse pottery. Faunal remains include probable quagga, blue wildebeest and possible domesticated cattle, in addition to several indeterminate small to large bovid remains. Bovine and caprine fragments from the surface spit of Equus Cave, downslope, may also relate to Norlim 5.

References

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