For The People

Prehistoric teeth reveal surprising details about ancient Africa’s climate

There has been a long misconception that the interior of South Africa was dry and arid nearly 2-million years ago. However, a recent study conducted by International scientist Michaela Ecker proves otherwise. A team of Local and International scientists led by Michaela Ecker – a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Toronto’s Anthropology Department, conducted a study at the Wonderwerk Cave in the Kuruman Hills. The study yielded the surprising revelation that early humans in prehistoric Northern Cape did not exist and adapt to a dry grassland climate as we once thought, but instead thrived in an environment of lush wetlands.

The Wonderwerk Cave has been a mecca for the archaeological studies into early human evolution – so it comes as no surprise that the cave would be at the forefront of human evolution studies once more. Archaeologists have long admired the Wonderwerk Cave due to its unparalleled ability to preserve organic material such as bones and pollen. The interior of southern Africa has no sites with long, well-dated sequences but the Wonderwerk Cave is acclaimed in the archaeology sphere for its detailed records of preservation which dates back as far as 2 million years.

“The palaeoecological context of the Oldowan – Acheulean in southern Africa” is a published paper that forms part of Michaela Ecker’s PhD thesis. The paper was aimed at reconstructing the climate and environment at Wonderwerk Cave in the past using stable isotope analyses on animal teeth and ostrich eggshell. For the layman, an isotope is a chemical element that exists in nature. In the study conducted by Ecker, the analysis involved observing oxygen isotopes which are influenced by rainfall amount, season, distance to the ocean and evaporation among others. These isotopes enter an animals body through food and drink and the signal is preserved forever in the enamel of the animal’s teeth. By obtaining and observing samples of the teeth, Ecker and her team were able to deduce that the climate in prehistoric Northern Cape was not as arid as we once thought.

“The influence of climatic and environmental change on human evolution is largely understood from East African research” said Ecker. “Our research constructed the first extensive paleoenvironmental sequence for the interior of southern Africa using a combination of methods for environmental reconstruction at Wonderwerk Cave.” The East African research conducted in the past revealed a vast aridity and the spread of grasslands, whereas Ecker’s research proves that southern Africa was considerably wetter and was home to a plant ecosystem unlike any other on the African plains. “Our work at Wonderwerk Cave demonstrates how humankind existed in multiple environmental contexts in the past – contexts which are substantially different from the environments of today” said Ecker. “Understanding the environment humans evolved in is key to improving our knowledge of our species and its development” Ecker stated.

The study marked a major step forward for the archaeological community, African and human history, and the Northern Cape province which served the nation as a vehicle for yet another advancement in human knowledge.

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