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Macrobotanical Remains from Wonderwerk Cave (Excavation 1), Oldowan to Late Pleistocene (2 Ma to 14 ka bp), South Africa

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Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa has a record of occupation spanning some 2 million years, comprising flora, fauna and cultural artifacts and, therefore, potentially, has the most complete macrobotanical record associated with hominin/human activities. The flora is described here for the lower levels: the Oldowan Stratum 12 (ca. 2 Ma) to the Late Pleistocene Stratum 5 (ca. 14 ka). The older material includes calcified roots, leaf litter of small dicotyledonous twigs and seeds, grass and sedge culms. From Stratum 5, there are about 134 pieces of charcoal that have been identified to eight woody species. Assuming the firewood was of local origin, the climate during the latest Pleistocene would have been slightly more mesic than today’s arid to semi-arid climate.
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African Archaeological Review
ISSN 0263-0338
Volume 32
Number 4
Afr Archaeol Rev (2015) 32:813-838
DOI 10.1007/s10437-015-9200-0
Macrobotanical Remains from
Wonderwerk Cave (Excavation 1),
Oldowan to Late Pleistocene (2Ma to 14ka
bp), South Africa
Marion K.Bamford
1 23
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ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Macrobotanical Remains from Wonderwerk Cave
(Excavation 1), Oldowan to Late Pleistocene (2 Ma
to 14 ka BP), South Africa
Marion K. Bamford
1
Published online: 7 November 2015
#Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015
Abstract Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa has a
record of occupation spanning some 2 million years, comprising flora, fauna and
cultural artifacts and, therefore, potentially, has the most complete macrobotanical
record associated with hominin/human activities. The flora is described here for the
lower levels: the Oldowan Stratum 12 (ca. 2 Ma) to the Late Pleistocene Stratum 5 (ca.
14 ka). The older material includes calcified roots, leaf litter of small dicotyledonous
twigs and seeds, grass and sedge culms. From Stratum 5, there are about 134 pieces of
charcoal that have been identified to eight woody species. Assuming the firewood was
of local origin, the climate during the latest Pleistocene would have been slightly more
mesic than todays arid to semi-arid climate.
Résumé La grotte de Wonderwerk, située dans la province du Cap-Nord, en Afrique du
Sud, a une occupation qui sétend sur près de 2 millions dannées, attestée par la flore, la
faune et des artefacts culturels. Les données botaniques associées à des activités
dhomininés et/ou dhumains forment lensemble jusqua le plus complet découvert à ce
jour. La flore décrite ici provient des couches inférieures, du niveau 12 (env. 2 Mio. au
niveau 5 (env. 14 k). Le matériel le plus ancien comprend des détritus de feuilles, des
brindilles et des graines de petites dicotylédones, des racines calcifiées, des tiges dherbes et
de laîches. Dans le niveau 5, les 134 fragments de charbon de bois appartiennent à huit
espèces ligneuses. En assumant que le bois de feu est dorigine locale, le climat de la fin du
Pléistocène serait légèrement plus mésoïque que le climat aride à semi-aride daujourdhui.
Keywords Macrobotanical remains .Sedges .Grasses .Seeds .Charcoal .Fire-sticks
Afr Archaeol Rev (2015) 32:813838
DOI 10.1007/s10437-015-9200-0
Archaeological time period: Oldowan to Acheulean to Late Stone Age
South Africa; Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape Province
*Marion K. Bamford
Marion.bamford@wits.ac.za
1
Evolutionary Studies Institute and School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, P Bag
3, WITS, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa
Author's personal copy
Introduction
Although there are a number of methods based on faunal composition, ecomorphology
and isotopic analyses that are used by researchers to reconstruct the past vegetation, the
most direct method is the analysis of botanical remains. Pollen can be relatively well
preserved, but macrobotanical remains are comparatively rare in Plio-Pleistocene cave
and open-air archaeological sites in southern Africa. Their occurrence is usually very
sporadic. From Sterkfontein, fossil wood occurs only in Member 4 (Bamford 1999)
which has been most recently dated to between 2.58 and 2.16 Ma using
palaeomagnetism (Herries and Shaw 2011). Currently, the other sites in the
Sterkfontein valley have not yielded macrobotanical remains. Leaf impressions occur
in the tufa from Taung (pers. obs.), but they have not been found in situ nor been
published. Younger sites also have a patchy macrobotanical record and are discussed
below. Wonderwerk Cave has almost 2 million years of occupation and a sparse but
potentially longer record of macrobotanical remains than the other southern African
sites, although pollen is rare or not preserved in earlier Stone Age levels (Scott et al.
2015).
Many excavated archaeological sites contain a variety of such material that has been
systematically collected from well-documented and dated contexts, and Wonderwerk
Cave is one such example. Together with the various dating methods, a sequence of
occupations containing fauna, stone tools, other cultural items and macrobotanical
remains, comprising charcoal, calcified leaves and seeds, has been obtained for the
past approximately 2 million years. Most of the macrobotanical remains may be
anthropogenic in origin but nonetheless can tell us about the surrounding vegetation
and climate.
The current study aims to provide the first comprehensive description and discussion
of fossil macrobotanical remains from Wonderwerk Cave from the Oldowan to the
earlier Stone Age levels from Excavation 1. The palaeoenvironmental and anthropo-
genic implications will be discussed.
Locality and Past Research
Wonderwerk Cave is situated in Northern Cape Province of South Africa in the
Kuruman Hills (S27° 5046,E23°3319; about 1680 m above sea level) at the
edge of the Ghaap Plateau (Fig. 1). Today, the topography is relatively flat, and the
climate and vegetation are dry to semi-arid. Average annual rainfall is 420 mm, with
80 % occurring during the summer (Schulze 1984). Frost does occur. The vegetation
biome is savanna but is close to the grassland biome. The vegetation type according to
Mucina and Rutherford (2006) is Kuruman Mountain Bushveld (SVK10) with a wide
variety of grasses and some small trees and shrubs (Table 1). The dominant woody
plants are Rhus spp., Tarchonanthus camphoratus,Acacia spp., Olea europaea ssp.
africana,Grewia flava,Boscia albitrunca and the common grasses are Themeda
triandra,Cymbopogon plurinoides and Aristida spp.
The cave is long, narrow and almost horizontal with one entrance that faces north-
north-west, overlooking the Ghaap Plateau. It is a solution cavity in stratified dolomitic
limestones but is overlain by early Proterozoic to Late Archaean banded ironstones (2
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3 Ga; Kent 1980). The cave is about 140 m long and 1117 m wide with a domed roof,
but the entrance has receded over time, and light penetrating the cave is partially
blocked by a large stalagmite about 20 m in from the entrance. Excavation 1, discussed
here, is immediately behind the stalagmite.
The first researchers to publish on Wonderwerk Cave were Malan and Cooke in
1941.Resultsmany of their preliminary findings on the rock art, stratigraphy and
cultural remains from seven excavation areas, microfauna, macrofauna and pollen
spectrahave been published (e.g., Camp 1948; Avery 1981,2007;Thackerayet al.
1981; van Zinderen-Bakker 1982; Humphreys and Thackeray 1983;Beaumont1990,
2004;BeaumontandVogel2006). Until now, the macrobotanical remains have not
been described. Research has continued since then by various researchers, but a larger
multinational and multidisciplinary team led by Michael Chazan and Liora Kolska
Horwitz was formed in the mid-2000s, using high-resolution mapping and dating
techniques to frame renewed analysis of the material (Chazan et al.2008,2012; Rüther
et al.2009;Matmonet al.2011).
Botanical specimens were collected during excavations from the 12 archaeological
layers in Excavation 1 of Wonderwork Cave by Peter Beaumont and Francis and Anne
Thackeray. There are thousands of pieces of charcoal and some root casts and plant
fragments. To date, only Strata 12 to 5 (oldest to youngest) have been fully analysed.
Holocene Strata 4 to 1 comprise several thousand pieces of charcoal and some
macroplant fragments and are in the process of being identified.
Fig. 1 Map of the locality and other sites mentioned in the text. WW Wonderwerk Cave, MMakapansgat, S
Sterkfontein Valley cave sites, 1Sibudu, 2Border Cave, 3Ndondondwane Iron Age site, 4Rose Cottage, 5
Klasies River Mouth, 6Blombos Cave, 7Peers, 8Diepkloof and Elands Bay Caves, 9Hollow Rock, 10
Mossel Bay and Pinnacle Point, 11 Boomplaas Cave
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Dating of the Cave Strata
A variety of methods have been used to date the strata in Wonderwerk Cave beginning
with the comparative lithic technologies and then radiometric dates. Only the more
recently published dates (Table 2) are discussed here. Lithic technologies are listed in
the table.
The lower strata have been dated using palaeomagnetic polarity, cosmogenic burial
and optically stimulated luminescence (Chazan et al.2008). In 2011, Matmon and
colleagues further refined the dates using cosmogenic burial dates, magnetostratigraphy
and grain-size distribution analysis (Matmon et al.2011). Their results are reproduced
in Table 2. The dating method and whether minimum or maximum dates are used gives
a range of ages for the lower strata (Table 2), and the merits of the methods are
discussed in those papers. The ranges given by Chazan et al.(2008)havebeenused
here because they are the median ranges. Thus, the following ages for the lower strata
are assumed to be as follows: Stratum 9 is 0.780.99 Ma, Stratum 10 is 0.991.07 Ma,
Stratum 11 is (?)1.1 Ma and Stratum 12 is 1.781.96 Ma.
The middle strata, 68: Beaumont and Vogel (2006) used different layers which
they called major units (MU). MU4 is equivalent to Strata 6 and 7 and was dated
Tab l e 1 Modern vegetation types of the surrounding area. Woody species listed here. Each type includes a
variety of grasses and some herbs
Kalahari Mountain
Bushveld
(Low and Rebelo
1998)
Kimberley Thorn Bushveld
(Low and Rebelo 1998)
Kalahari Plateau Bushveld
(Low and Rebelo 1998)
Kuruman
Mountain
Bushveld SVK10
(Mucina and
Rutherford 2006)
Soil: acid banded
ironstone and
lavas
Soil: deep sands or loamy
sands; underlain by
calcrete
Soils: various calcareous tufas, sands,
acid gravels all underlain by
dolomite
Soils: shallow,
sandy
Tarchonanthus
camphoratus
Acacia tortilis Tarchonanthus camphoratus Rhus lancea
Rhus undulata Acacia erioloba Rhigozum trichotomum Rhus pyroides
Rhus dregeana Acacia karroo Ehretia rigida Rhus tridactyla
Olea europaea
ssp. africana
Boscia albitrunca Grewia flava Rhus ciliata
Acacia mellifera
ssp. detinens
Tarchonanthus
camphoratus
Maytenus heterophylla Diospyros austro-
africana
Acacia mellifera Acacia tortilis Euclea crispa
Grewia flava Boscia albitrunca Olea europaea
Lycium hirsutum Tarchonanthus
camphoratus
Anthospermum
rigidum
Helichrysum
zeyheri
Wahl e n berg ia
nodosa
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Tab l e 2 List of plant macrobotanical remains from Wonderwerk Cave with dates from a number of sources. References for older dates: Thackeray and Lee-Thorp 1992,(A);
Beaumont and Vogel 2006 (B); New dates: C = Chazan et al.2008;D=Matmonet al.2011; E = Lee-Thorp and Ecker, this volume; F = M. Ecker, 23 April 2013, unpublished
spreadsheet based on radiocarbon for OxCal; G = Vogel et al., 1986
Archaeological
Stratum
Litho
Stratigraphic
Unit (A)
Older dates (approx. age years BP )from
Thackeray & Lee-Thorp 1992 (A);
Beaumont & Vogel 2006 (B).
Vo g e l et al.1986 (G)
New dates Chazan
et al.2008 (C);
Matmon et al.2011
(D); Lee-Thorp &
Ecker 2015, this issue
(E); Ecker, unpublished
spreadsheet 23April
2013 (F);
Archaeological
Technology
Botanical material/charcoal taxa
(number of pieces in brackets)
1 Last 100 years (E) Modern
2a
2b
50
1200
Last 100 years (E)
1902700 (2b-3a) (E)
Late Stone Age 3 sublayers: 5 boxes of charcoal
3a
3b
1890
3990
20604800 (E) Late Stone Age 5 sublayers: > 5000 pieces of charcoal
4a
4b
4c
4d
4890
5180
7430
10 200
43005890 (E)
55006500 (E)
59609800 (E)
860012,200 (E)
Late Stone Age 10 sublayers and spits: >5000 pieces of
charcoal (only a few analysed to
date and there are different taxa from
Stratum 5)
5 12 400 (G) <12,500 (E)
14,98913,952 (F)
Late Stone Age Total of 134 pieces of charcoal: Berchemia
discolor (29), Commiphora
sp. (1), Dombeya rotundifolia (7), Halleria
lucida (2), Ehretia sp (3), Olinia cymosa
(10), Ozoroa paniculosa (40), Rhus lancea
(8), unidentified (35)
6 >349 kyr (MU4; B) Acheulean No plant material
7 >349 kyr (MU4; B) Acheulean 3 seeds: cf. Berchemia and Fabaceae (bean)
8 1 Brunhes N ca. 600 kyr (MU5; B) Acheulean Calcified litter of grass and sedge culms,
dicot leaf fragments; 1 seed
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Tab l e 2 (continued)
Archaeological
Stratum
Litho
Stratigraphic
Unit (A)
Older dates (approx. age years BP )from
Thackeray & Lee-Thorp 1992 (A);
Beaumont & Vogel 2006 (B).
Vo g e l et al.1986 (G)
New dates Chazan
et al.2008 (C);
Matmon et al.2011
(D); Lee-Thorp &
Ecker 2015, this issue
(E); Ecker, unpublished
spreadsheet 23April
2013 (F);
Archaeological
Technology
Botanical material/charcoal taxa
(number of pieces in brackets)
92,3Minimumages(B)
0.7760.99 Ma
Maximum Ages
(D)
0.7761.78 Ma
00.78 (C)
0.780.99
(C)
Acheulean No plant material
10 4 0.991.07 Ma 1.781.96 Ma 0.991.07 (C) Acheulean Calcified litter of grass and sedge culms,
dicot leaf fragments
11 5,6,7,8 1.071.78 Ma 1.962.11 Ma ?1.1 Ma Acheulean 18 calcified root casts - unidentifiable
12 9 1.781.96 Ma 2.112.15 Ma 1.781.96 (C)
22.6 Ma (C
cosmo)
Oldowan 1 piece charcoalunidentifiable
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using Uranium series, providing an age of >349 Ma. Based on palaeomagnetics,
Stratum 8 (MU5) falls in the Brunhes normal polarity and is around 500 Ma
(Beaumont and Vogel 2006).
The Holocene strata 15 in Excavation 1 were isotopically dated by John Vogel
using charcoal remains (Thackeray 1983). Later, equid teeth were dated from the
Holocene layers and produced slightly different ages (Thackeray and Lee-Thorp
1992), and these ages are given in Table 2together with more recent results based on
ostrich eggshell (Lee-Thorp and Ecker 2015, this issue). All the 14C dates carried out at
the site to date, published and unpublished, are now included in the dating model of
Lee-Thorp and Ecker (2015). A corpus of 21 radiocarbon dates for the Holocene layers
in Excavation 1 are also summarized in Scott et al. (2015).
Methods
Charcoal fragments and macrobotanical remains were collected from all excavated
squares in Excavation 1 together with other artifacts and faunal material by stratum.
Archaeological strata begin with Stratum 1 at the top of the sequence and were
divided based on artifact typology and stratigraphy by Peter Beaumont and the
Thackerays. The Holocene strata (Strata 14d) of Excavation 1 were excavated by
Peter Beaumont beginning in 1978 and Anne and Francis Thackeray during 1979
(Thackeray 1983; Beaumont 1990). All sediments were dry-sieved and separated
from other finds in the MacGregor Museum (Thackeray 1983, p. 40). In contrast,
the lithostratigraphic layers (Chazan et al.2008; only for the Pleistocene strata 12 to
9) follow sedimentary differences but have been correlated with Beaumontsar-
chaeological strata. The archaeological strata have been dated by different methods
with varying results (see Table 2). Since the charcoal samples have been packaged
according to archaeological strata, square number and depth within the square
(noted in centimeters or as spits), that notation will be used primarily in this work.
All of the macrobotanical materials from strata 12 to 5 have been studied,
including every charcoal fragment in Stratum 5. Strata 4 to 2 contain
macrobotanical material and thousands of pieces of charcoal, but these will be
studied and published later. To date, the new excavations by Chazan and colleagues
have not yielded macrobotanical material.
The charcoal fragments were studied under a binocular microscope (Olympus
SZX16, magnification ×7112, and fractured to reveal fresh surfaces of the three
planes required for anatomical features (transverse, radial longitudinal and tangen-
tial longitudinal). Under higher magnification (×200500; Zeiss Axiolab-A1 bright
phase/dark phase reflected light microscope), the wood anatomy was studied and
photographed with a digital camera (Olympus DP72 with Stream Essentials soft-
ware). Important diagnostic features such as ray cell type, inter-vessel and vessel-
ray pits were visible under the light microscope, so it was not necessary to use
scanning electron microscopy. Woods shrink between 8 and 20 %, depending on the
wood type, moisture content and temperature of the fire, so precise measurements
of the cells are less useful for identification. Charcoal was identified using the
features of the tissues (vessels, parenchyma and rays) and cells (size, pitting and
inclusions) and compared with modern comparative charcoal collections housed in
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the Archaeology Department and the Bernard Price Institute (now Evolutionary
Studies Institute), both at the University of the Witwatersrand. These collections are
incomplete for the South African flora, so the computer identification programme
for modern woods, InsideWood, was also used. Terminology follows that of the
IAWA Committee (1989).
The fractured pieces of archaeological charcoal were placed in individual small
ziplock bags, so they can be retrieved and re-examined. While examining the
charcoal pieces from each stratum, the first one randomly selected was labeled
BA^with the grid square number, for example from Stratum 5: WW-5 Q24 A. The
next new type in the same packet was labeled B……B^,etc. Further examples of
type A from the same stratum, square and height were bagged together in a separate
ziplock and labeled. The material will be returned to the McGregor Museum,
Kimberley once analyses and publications have been completed (Museum Cata-
logue #: Wonderwerk Cave 6508).
Macrobotanical remains identified comprise fragments of leaves, culm fragments
of grasses, sedges and twigs, but these were too small for taxonomic identification.
For example, in order to identify a leaf, the leaf size, shape, margins and venation
are required. Monocot culms require pith and vascular bundle types and distribution
for identification. In contrast, the charcoal was well preserved, large enough to see
the distribution of tissues, and so was identifiable in most cases.
Results
The lowest level, Stratum 12, is dated at 1.781.96 Ma (Chazan et al.2008,butsee
Tab le 2and section on dating above) and has been described in more detail by
Chazan et al.(2012). Stratum 12 Square Q33, depth below 50 cm, produced 41
pieces of hard, blackish material, but none of these is charcoal, so there are no
botanical remains from this square. Stratum 12, Square Q33 from 40 to 45 cm depth
has 20 pieces of the same type of material. Only one of these 20 pieces is charcoal,
but it is too poorly preserved to identify.
The overlying Stratum 11 contained 18 root casts with no internal structure
(Fig. 2a). Those from the lower level (Square R28, depth 2530 cm; 7 pieces)
have, on average, slightly larger root casts than in the upper level, maximum size of
11× 70 mm (diameter × length) and minimum size of 4 × 15 mm. Those from the
upper level (square R 29, depth 1520 cm; 11 pieces) have a maximum size of 2.5×
23 mm and minimum size of 1×5 mm. Beaumont (1990, p. 28) notes the presence
of a single calcified seed. This has not been found.
From Strata 10 and 10a, there are several blocks of reddish sediment enclosing
numerous pieces of calcified plant fragments in a haphazard arrangement (Fig. 2b),
butalllessthan2mmindiameterand5mminlength.Itwaspossibletodetacha
few intact pieces from the matrix, and these were described by Berna et al.(2012)
and are summarized here. Small portions of the blocks were disaggregated in water
and teased apart; however, the calcified fragments were predominantly much
smaller and poorly preserved than the more robust pieces that were easily removed
from the weathered surface. The larger calcified fragments comprise dicotyledon-
ous (dicot) and monocotyledonous (monocot) leaf fragments, pieces of narrow
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diameter dicot stems (Fig. 2c), grass and sedge culms (Figs. 2d,e). The sedge culms
have a diameter of 0.7 mm with a very thin epidermis surrounding an
Fig. 2 Photographs of the macrobotanical remains from Excavation 1 of Wonderwerk Cave, Strata 11 to 7. a
Calcified root casts from Stratum 11. bCalcified plant litter embedded in a sandy matrix of Stratum 10. c
Cross-section of fragment of a dicot stem from the calcified plant litter of Stratum 10. Note the line of vessels
(small holes) radiating from the centre. dCross-section of a hollow grass culm from the calcified plant litter of
Stratum 10. eCross-section of a sedge culm from the calcified plant litter of Stratum 10. Note the spongy
central tissue. fExternal view of a dicot stem from the calcified plant litter showing the outer bark with
longitudinal striations or fissures. gCalcified plant litter from Stratum 8 embedded in a sandy matrix. hLoose
calcified plant litter from Stratum 8. iCross-section of a dicot stem from the loose plant litter of Stratum 8. j
External view of the dicot stem in Fig 3l. Showing the lens-shaped lenticels (arrow). kSeed from Stratum 8
with interior locules. lnSeed from Stratum 7: lboth halves together and view of micropyle; minner view of
the two halves; nexterior view of the two halves. opSeed of modern wild date palm Phoenix reclinata for
comparison with previous seed: oview of micropyle; pview of outer part. rSeed from Stratum 7 with rough
exterior (Photos by author)
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aerenchymatous cortex. The cells comprising the vascular bundles were not pre-
served, but the culm can be compared to those of the sedge Eleocharis spp. There
are two grass culms; the larger piece has a weathered exterior revealing the hollows
produced by peripheral vascular bundles (3 mm long; diameter <1 mm). The other
piece is 3 mm long and 0.5 mm in diameter; the solid outer layer surrounds a central
canal or hollow. The dicot stem fragments are 0.5 and 0.7 mm in diameter, and
solitary vessels, fibres and parenchyma are visible. Rough outer bark-like appear-
ance is typical of the dicot stems (Fig. 2f). There is insufficient detail preserved for
further identification. Furthermore, as there is no literature for South African grass
and sedge culm anatomy, and the making of a modern reference collection would
require the collection of hundreds of species, this line of investigation would take
many years to complete.
There is no macro-botanical material from Stratum 9.
From Stratum 8, near the top of the Earlier Stone Age levels, there is more calcified
plant litter. It is very similar to that from Stratum 10 described previously with the same
size range, random arrangement and density (Fig. 2g). Over 150 loose fragments were
collected from Stratum 8d (Fig. 2h). These were called Bcalcified grasses^on the
packet label, but under the microscope, there are very few grasses recognized by their
smooth cylindrical culms. Most of the fragments are small dicot (herbs, petioles and
stem bases) twigs that can be recognized by the knots, branching and rough outer
texture (Fig. 2i, j). Internal anatomy is very poorly preserved, but there are also some
sedge fragments with spongy or aerenchymatous centres. A small portion of the
calcified block was disaggregated in water, and the internal fragments were as small
and as poorly preserved as those disaggregated from Stratum 10. Relative density of
material was the same for both strata.
A single seed has been recovered from this stratum (Square Q 34). It is broken,
revealing three of probably five oval seed cavities inside the testa, but it is not
possible to tell how many seeds would have been in each cavity or where they were
attached (Fig. 2k). The whole testa would have been about 67mmindiameterand
rounded. There are no surface features or other internal features so the seed cannot
be identified.
There are three seeds from Stratum 7. The first is an elongated seed that has been
split in half (Fig. 2ln). It is 15 mm long, 7 mm wide and 4 mm thick, has almost
parallel sides and the micropyle is visibleinside.Theoutersurfaceissmoothwith
very faint striations at right angles to the length of the seed. It resembles seeds of
Phoenix reclinata (Arecaceae; Fig. 2o,p) but is slightly longer. The longitudinal
split is characteristic of both the archaeological and modern seed. The seed is much
shorter than those of Phoenix dactylifera, so it has been identified as P. reclinata.
The second seed resembles a bean (Fabaceae) but has no distinguishing features to
permit further identification. The third seed is oval in outline, flattened and has a
rough texture (12× 8 × 3 mm; Fig. 2r), with no distinguishing marks. These seeds are
very hard and so are probably calcified or silicified.
There is no botanical material from Stratum 6 in Excavation 1.
Stratum 5 has been divided into two substrata, a and b. Although the lithologies
are the same (small sub-angular to sub-rounded pebbles with a high chert compo-
nent; Humphries and Thackeray 1983; Beaumont and Morris 1990), the matrix is a
fine beige sand with the degree of compaction being used to differentiate this
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stratum into a and b. The sandy matrix is compact in 5a and soft in 5b. All the pieces
of charcoal, except one, come from BStratum 5.^Accordingtothelabellingonthe
charcoal packets, the single piece comes from BStratum 5A,^and it is not possible
to tell which is 5A and 5B. The single piece of charcoal is the same genus as
samples from Stratum 4 so perhaps it is from Stratum 5A with more compact sand,
and the rest of the pieces are from the lower, soft sand of stratum 5B. With this
uncertainty and the very skewed sample number, Stratum 5 is treated here as one
layer as far as the charcoal is concerned.
Stratum 5 has 134 charcoal fragments from many of the grid squares. Most pieces
are less than 7×7×7 mm; a few are up to roughly 20 mm cubes but often the wood is
distorted. Approximately, one quarter of the pieces is twisted, weathered or too
small to fracture and reveal the three planes needed for identification. These have
been recorded as Bunidentified.^The anatomical features and identifications of the
charcoal are given in Table 3and abundances in each grid square in Table 4below.
Diversity of Charcoal Taxa from Stratum 5
All 134 pieces of charcoal from Stratum 5 were studied and eight different species were
identified (descriptions in Table 3). There were two species in the Anacardiaceae,
Ozoroa paniculosa (Sond.) R. Fern. & A. Fern. (Figure. 3ac) with a total of 40 pieces,
and Searsia (Rhus) lancea (L.f.) F.A. Barkley (Fig. 3d, e) represented by eight pieces.
There were also three pieces of Ehretia sp. of the Boraginaceae (Fig. 3gi). A single
piece of Commiphora sp. (Burseraceae; Fig. 4ac;fromStratumB5A^)andseven
pieces of Dombeya rotundifolia (Hochst.) Planch. Malvaceae (Sterculioideae)
(Fig. 4df) were recognized. The wood Olinia ventosa (L.).Cufod.ofthe
Oliniaceae was represented by 10 pieces (Fig. 4gi).Therewere29piecesof
Berchemia discolor (Klotzsch) Hemsl (Rhamnaceae; Fig. 5a, b) and only one piece
of Halleria lucida L. (Scrophulariaceae; Fig. 5df).
The apparent abundance of the pieces of charcoal of each taxon must be treated
with reservation because charcoal is fragmentary and could likely represent fewer
real pieces especially if there are many of the same species close together. Fresh
wood can be fragmented for kindling, and later, the charcoal can be fragmented
when combusted by the occupants of the cave and by the collectors of the archae-
ological charcoal. Occurrence of the same species in different grid squares may
represent real abundance. The diversity of taxa, however, is a more reliable mea-
sure, but there could be unrecognized taxa in the Bunidentifiable^group, so the
diversity shown here is taken as a minimum diversity. Another factor controlling the
floral diversity is that the selection of woods to burn is determined by wood
availability, distance from site, and purpose, i.e.,kindling, cooking, heating, con-
struction, etc. (Marston 2009), so the archaeological charcoal assemblage does not
represent the whole woody flora.
Distribution of Charcoal within Stratum 5
The most common charcoal is O. paniculosa with 40 pieces occurring in six of the
19 grid squares excavated (Table 3). Most pieces occurred in Square M 29 (05cm
depth). This square also had the most pieces of charcoal and highest diversity (total
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Tab l e 3 Description of wood anatomical features of the charcoals from Layer 5, Excavation 1 of Wonderwerk Cave
Family Genus, species Porosity Vessel members Parenchyma
Distribution Clusters Length (μm) Diameter (μm) #/mm
2
V-V pits V-R pits Paratracheal Apotracheal
Anacardiaceae Ozoroa paniculosa Diffuse 13(4) rm Rare 200500 ca. 50 >40 alt; min elong Scanty/vasi Diffuse
Anacardiaceae Searsia lancea Diffuse 13 rm Rare 100 80 ca. 40 alt; ,min, v small elong Scanty
Boraginaceae Ehretia sp. Diffuse 13 rm Rare 200 80 ca. 40 alt; small alt; small alifconfl Almost banded
Burseraceae Commiphora sp. Diffuse 12 rm Absent 100 20 ca. 20 alt; small scalariform Rare/absent
Malvaceae Dombeya rotundifolia Diffuse 13 rm Absent 100150 80100 ca. 30 alt; med opp, bigger Scanty
Oliniaceae Olinia ventosa Diffuse 13(4)rm Common 200 4050 >40 alt; small alt; small Scanty/vasi Bands 12
Rhamnaceae Berchemia discolor Diff; semi 14rm Rare <100 2040 >80 alt; small alt; small vasi/alif
Scrophularia-
ceae
Halleria lucida Diffuse 1(23) Absent 200300 ca. 80 <30 alt; min ? Rare/absent
Family Genus, species Rays Fibres Crystals Other Reference material
Width Height (μm) Body cells Marginal cells
Anacardiaceae Ozoroa paniculosa 13ser 300400 sq; up Same Thin P; R-sq radial canals rare A4; Z97
Anacardiaceae Searsia lancea 12ser 200400 pr, sq, up Same med thick R-sq radial canals rare A12
Boraginaceae Ehretia sp. 48ser 200400 pr 12 up/sq Thick, bands none dW40
Burseraceae Commiphora sp. 13s
er 200500 pr, sq, up Same med-thick R 24/up radial canals rare Webber 1941
Malvaceae Dombeya rotundifolia 1+34ser 200500 sq; up Same Thick none R ± storied A162
Oliniaceae Olinia ventosa 13ser 300500 up (sq, pr) Up Septate none Rw 1=3 A111
Rhamnaceae Berchemia discolor 12(3) ser 100200 pr 12 up. Thin P; R-pr, up tracheids dW36
Scrophularia-
ceae
Halleria lucida 15ser 400800 sq (pr, up) Same Thick none A158
alt alternate, alif-confl aliform to confluent, diff diffuse, min minute 24μm, elong horizontally elongated, small 46μm, med medium 68μm, pr procumbent, sq square, up upright,
vasi-alif vasicentric to aliform, Pparenchyma cells, Rray cells, R-sq crystals in the square cells of the rays, R24sq 24 crystals per square cell of the rays, Rw 1=3 uniseriate portion of
the ray is as wide as the triseriate portion, A4,A12,etc. Allott charcoal reference collection number, Z97 Zimbabwe collection number, dW40 deWildt collection number
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Tab l e 4 Complete list of identified charcoal taxa from Stratum 5, Excavation 1, Wonderwerk Cave and the number of pieces from each grid square. Note that every piece was studied
and is listed here
Stratum Identity of charcoal pieces
Sq Bl Depth
(cm)
Ozoroa
paniculosa
Searsia (Rhus)
lancea
Commiphora
sp.
Ehretia
sp.
Dombeya
rotundifolia
Olinia
ventosa
Berchemia
discolor
Halleria
lucida
Not
identifi
able
Tot al nu mb e r of
pieces
5K27053 328
M290512 5 8 1 2 28
M29515 5 5
N220511
N2705213
O260512 25
O28510 3 4 1 8
Q29058 412
Q29Veg 9 11121
Q29510 23 5
Q 29 10-15 1 1 1 3
Q310539416
Q330511
R260514 14
R32052 1 14
5A O 24 1 12
Totals 40 8 2 3 7 10 29 2 35 134
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28 pieces; diversity 4 species). The second most common charcoal was B. discolor
with a total of 29 pieces in 6 grid squares. The least abundant or rare taxa are
Commiphora sp. and H. lucida with only two pieces each. One piece of
Commiphora sp. occurs in sub-Stratum 5a, but based on preliminary work, this
taxon is abundant in Stratum 4. With more material to work with from this and
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possibly other strata, the species should eventually be identifiable. Since the total
number of charcoal pieces in Stratum 5 is low compared with those of the upper
Holocene strata, no spatial analysis will be done at this stage.
Geographical Range, Ecology, Wood Quality and Uses of Charcoal Taxa
from Stratum 5
There are two genera that belong to the Anacardiaceae, Ozoroa and Searsia (Rhus).
O. paniculosa is a small tree or shrub and grows in bushed grassland or on rocky
hillsides in dry, summer rainfall areas (Table 3with references). S. (Rhus) lancea is
also a small tree to shrub, widespread in southern Africa and grows in a variety of
habitats. It occurs today in the Wonderwerk environs (Tables 1and 5).
The three species of Ehretia (Boraginaceae) are widespread in the drier regions
of southern Africa and grow in a wide range of habitats. Ehretia rigida or the puzzle
bush, for example, occurs in wooded grassland, karroid vegetation and bushed
grassland (Table 5). It is a deciduous shrub or small tree and occurs today in the
Wonderwerk Cave area (Table 1).
Commiphora species are common in dry to very dry areas and are often leafless,
but some species occur in bushy grassland and bushland. Many species of the
Burseraceae produce a scented sap or resin. The wood is light and generally not
used for fuel wood, but twigs from Commiphora schimperi areusedasfiresticks
(Table 5). This species and five other species of Commiphora occur today not too
far from Wonderwerk Cave and may have had a wider distribution in the past.
D. rotundifolia, the common wild pear (Malvaceae, Sterculioideae), is a small tree or
shrub, widely spread in bushland, and on rocky outcrops, from Namibia, northern
Botswana, Zimbabwe, Limpopo Province of South Africa and Mozambique. It does
not occur in the Wonderwerk Cave area today.
There are six species of Olinia in southern Africa (van Wyk and van Wyk 1997;
Coates Palgrave 2002), and they each have restricted distributions but occur in
montane or evergreen forest. O. ventosa occurs along the southern Cape coast and is
an evergreen tree with strong, hard wood. Its current habitat and distribution place
the identification of the charcoal in doubt, so this requires further research and
sourcing of more comparative material. Two other species also occur in forest or
forest margins but much closer to Wonderwerk.
Fig. 3 Photomicrographs of charcoal from Stratum 5, Excavation 1, Wonderwerk Cave, taken under bright
field at ×200 and ×500 magnification. Tissues and cells are labeled in the first example only (a,b,c)for
guidance: vvessel, rray, pparenchyma, xprismatic crystal in ray cell, ffibre, vp inter-vessel pits. TS transverse
section; RLS radial longitudinal section; TLS tangential longitudinal section. acOzoroa paniculosa.aTS,
vessels in low radial multiples of 13; longitudinal rays with crystals visible and vasicentric parenchyma (few
cells surrounding the vessels; ground tissue comprises fibres). bRLS, square to upright ray cells containing
crystals (angular dark contents). cTLS, 12 seriate rays and vessels with simple and oblique perforation plates
and small, alternate inter-vessel pits. dfSearsia (Rhus) lancea.cTS, vessels in short radial multiples. dRLS,
mostly procumbent ray cells shown with a few crystals present. eTLS, 12 seriate rays and central ray has a
radial canal (large dark rimmed circle). giEhretia sp. gTS, vessels in short radial multiples and clusters.
Rays are wide and seen as longitudinal lines of brick-shaped cells. Note bands of thick-walled fibres
alternating with thin-walled parenchyma cells. hRLS, mostly procumbent ray cells with 12 rows of marginal
upright cells (bottom of photograph). iTLS, rays 56 cells wide and surrounding thick-walled fibres (Photos
by author)
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Fig. 4 Photomicrographs of charcoal from Stratum 5, Excavation 1, Wonderwerk Cave, taken under bright
field at ×200 and ×500 magnification. acCommiphora sp. aTS, vessels in 12s and no parenchyma seen. b
RLS, ray cells with crystals. Note 34 crystals per upright cell (bottom centre). Ray-vessel pitting (lower right)
elongated to scalariform. cTLS Rays 12 seriate. Intervessel pitting small and alternate (lower right). d,e
Dombeya rotundifolia.dTS, vessels in short radial multiples and fibres are thick-walled. eRLS, upright and
square ray cells. fTLS, rays of two sizes, 1 and 34 seriate. Fibres are thick-walled. giOlinia ventosa.gTS,
vessels in radial lines of up to four cells and in clusters, patches of thick-walled fibres. hRLS, mostly upright
ray cells with bands of square or procumbent cells. iTLS, rays with uniseriate portions as wide as the 23
seriate portions. Marginal ray cells are larger and perforated (spotty appearance) (Photos by author)
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There are about 20 indigenous species of the Rhamnaceae in southern Africa
(Coates Palgrave 2002) including B. discolor and Berchemia zeyheri. Today, neither
species occurs in the Wonderwerk Cave area, but B. discolor occurs in low altitude
bushveld across northern Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe and south to Mozam-
bique and eastern Limpopo. B. zeyheri also occurs in bushveld in the Northern
Province, Limpopo and northern KwaZulu-Natal. The woods of both species are
hard and used for making furniture.
H. lucida is one of the few woody members of the Scrophulariaceae. It is a shrub to
small tree occurring in forest margins, grasslands and along streams in rocky places. It
ranges from Northern Province, Limpopo, KwaZulu Natal to the Cape Coast but does not
occur in the Wonderwerk area today (Tables 1and 5). The wood has many uses including
fire sticks (Coates Palgrave 2002) so may have been used for this purpose at Wonderwerk.
The other woods are mostly hard and heavy and would be good fuelwoods.
Fig. 5 Photomicrographs of charcoal from Stratum 5, Excavation 1, Wonderwerk Cave, taken under bright
field at ×200 and ×500 magnification. acBerchemia discolor.aTS, vessels in short radial multiples and
clusters, wood semi-ring porous (horizontal bands). bRLS, 12 rows of marginal upright cells and body
procumbent ray cells some of which have 34 crystals per cell. cTLS, rays 12 seriate. Vessels long with
small alternate intervessel pits. dfHalleria lucida.dTS, vessels in short radial multiples, fibres thick walled
(section cracked). eRLS, square ray cells. fTLS, tall rays 35 seriate. Intervessel pitting is alternate and
minute but appears scalariform at lower magnification (Photos by author)
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Tab l e 5 Modern wood taxa, distribution and ecology. References: CP = Coates Palgrave 2002; vW = van
Wyk a nd v an Wyk 1997
Charcoal taxa;
common name
and references
Geographic range Ecology Wood/plant uses
Anacardiaceae
Ozoroa
paniculosa
Common resin
tree
vW-358; CP-554
Northern Namibia,
southern Zimbabwe,
Limpopo, northern
Cape, KwaZulu Natal
Small to medium deciduous
tree; bushveld and rocky
outcrops or hillsides
Fruit edible; used for dyeing
leather; roots used
medicinally
Anacardiaceae
Searsia (Rhus)
lancea
Karee
vW-402; CP-573
Namibia, South Africa,
Zimbabwe,
Small to medium evergreen
tree; wide range of
habitats; drought and frost
resistant.
Wood hard, tough and durable;
fruits used for beer; tanning
Boraginaceae
Ehretia rigida
Puzzle bush
vW-162; CP-974
Ehretia alba
CP-971
Endemic to southern
Africa; widespread
Deciduous shrub or small
tree, branches rigid, often
drooping; in wooded
grassland, karroid
vegetation, bushveld
Fruit edible; root used
medicinally; rainmaking and
other magic properties
Burseraceae
Commiphora sp.
vW-21; CP-430
Africa; 35 species in
southern Africa; 6
species fairly close to
Wonderwerk Cave
Arid bushveld and semi desert
areas
Resin used for frankincense
and myrrh; wood soft and
burns quickly; C. schimperi
twigs used as fire sticks. CP-
439
Malvaceae
(Sterculioide-
ae)
Dombeya
rotundifolia
Common wild
pear
vW-234; CP-711
From Ethiopia to N
Namibia, Zimbabwe,
Mozambique,
Limpopo, KwaZulu
Natal
Small deciduous tree;
bushveld; once established
is drought and frost
resistant.
Wood heavy and tough;
fencing, implements. All
parts used medicinally. Bark
makes a strong fibre
Oliniace ae
Olinia ventosa
Hard pear
vW-348; CP-774
Olinia
emarginata
CP-772
Olinia
rochetiana
Endemic to the southern
Cape margin
Limpopo, KwaZulu
Natal, Eastern Cape
Mpumalanga
Medium to tall evergreen tree;
low altitude forest.
Evergreen forest, margins.
Shrub to small tree
Wood hard, heavy, strong
Rhamnaceae
Berchemia
discolor
Brown ivory
vW-350; CP-668
From Ethiopia to
northern Namibia,
Zimbabwe,
Mozambique,
Limpopo,
Mpumalanga
Medium to large deciduous to
evergreen tree; low altitude
bushveld
Fruit edible; bark and leaves
used medicinally; wood
hard, used for furniture
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Discussion
Other Charcoal Records from South Africa
Pollen records for the southern African Plio-Pleistocene and Holocene are fairly
numerous and cover a large portion of the time frame, but macrobotanical records for
the Oldowan/ESA are scarce (discussed in the introduction). Considering the west
coast, southern coast, east coast and central interior, the charcoal records are not
restricted to, but are commonly associated with, human occupations of cave sites.
Assemblages from the central interior should be more similar to that from Wonderwerk
as they are in the summer rainfall grassland biome.
Published charcoal from Diepkloof Rock Shelter (Western Cape coast) from pre-Still
Bay, Still Bay and Howiesons Poort contexts (previously dated at ca.7058 ka (Jacobs
et al.2008; Tribolo et al.2009) but more recently dated at ca.10952 ka (Tribolo et al.
2013;Guérinet al.2013) indicates a slight shift of the Afromontane and thicket taxa
over time, and increasing diversity of taxa being selected during the Howiesons Poort
time (Cartwright 2013). Elands Bay Cave, also on the southwestern Cape coast, yielded
charcoal from ca.40,000BP and the Late Holocene, with the same trend as at Diepkloof
(Cartwright and Parkington 1997;Cowlinget al.1999). Along the southern coast,
there are the famous sites of Klasies River mouth, Blombos and Pinnacle Point
(Mossel Bay). Deposits in the caves at Blombos and Klasies River Mouth do not
appear to have preserved charcoal. Some charcoal has been recovered from various
layers of PP13/5/6 at Mossel Bay but is poorly preserved and often very small. As
such, it has been interpreted in micro-morphological analyses as indications of fires
and/or bedding (Karkanas and Goldberg 2010).
There is a good record of charcoal from Boomplaas Cave and Buffelskloof in the
Cango Valley (Deacon et al.1983,1984; Scholtz 1986) dating from 42,000 BP to 2,000 BP.
Acacia karroo and Olea spp. are the most abundant woods with the Compositae
(Asteraceae), making up a significant proportion in some levels. The past vegetation and
climate have been interpreted as being cooler than present at 40,000 BP, then woodland was
replaced by shrubland during the extreme climatic conditions between about 25,000 and
16,000 BP (cold and dry Last Glacial Maximum; Deacon et al.1984). Prior to 14,000 BP,
the climate ameliorated and the Olea woodland returned (Deacon et al.1984). From about
11,000 BP thicket taxa returned, including A. karroo, followed in the mid-Holocene with
warmer conditions and then cooler conditions in the late Holocene (Deacon et al.1984).
Tab l e 5 (continued)
Charcoal taxa;
common name
and references
Geographic range Ecology Wood/plant uses
Scrophulariaceae
Halleria llucida
Tree fuchsia
vW-302; CP-1001
Zimbabwe,
Mpumalanga,
KwaZulu Natal,
southern Cape
Shrub or small evergreen tree;
forest, forest ravines and
grasslands; along streams
and rocky places
Fruit edible; all parts used
medicinally; wood fine
grained; wood used as fire
sticks and twigs burned
when offering sacrifices to
ancestral spirits
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None of the woods from Wonderwerk Stratum 5 is the same as those from the CL
layer at Boomplaas (CL = carbonized loam; 1214,000 BP; Deacon et al.1983)except
for Rhus. The species from Booplaas differ from Wonderwerk (Rhus lancea)asthey
are Rhus undulata, Rhus incisa and Rhus macowanii. R. lancea has a very wide
distribution whereas most other species of Rhus have a much more restricted distribu-
tion, with, for example, R. undulata occurring only in the southwestern winter rainfall
zone of South Africa (van Wyk and van Wyk 1997).
From the east coast of South Africa, Sibudu rock shelter on the uTongati River in
KwaZulu Natal has abundant charcoal from >60 to 38 ka (Allott 2004,2006)and
burned remains of bedding from 77 ka (Wadley et al.2011). Over 200 species of
charcoal were identified and show shifts in wood use which may be related to shifts in
vegetation between evergreen forest, more open woodland savanna and bushland.
Podocarpus sp. was burned by the pre-Howiesonspoort occupants of the site and soon
after Acacia species and Erica species were more commonly used. Ndondondwane, an
open Early Iron Age site in the Thukela River Valley, has preserved large samples of
charcoal that are around AD 800 (Greenfield et al.2005).
In the interior of South Africa, several sites with Middle Stone Age (MSA) artifacts
have yielded remains of charcoal. Wonderkrater, near the Nyl River in Limpopo,
contains peat from the past ca. 35,000 years (McCarthy et al.2010), and charcoal
fragments have been recovered from some layers. Border Cave in the Lebombo
mountains to the east of the Drakensberg has a record of occupation from about
75,000 years ago (dErrico et al.2012), but the preserved organic artifacts are younger:
a San digging stick at ca.39,000BP and a poison applicator from ca.24,000BP,both
made from Flueggia virosa wood. No charcoal has been recorded. Siphiso Cave Shelter
in Swaziland has Holocene artifacts and charcoal remains that indicate climate fluctu-
ations from moist to dry and then moist conditions again during the Middle to Late
Holocene (Prior and Price Williams 1985).
On the northwestern side of the Drakensberg, eastern Free State, is Rose Cottage,
another site, with charcoal that has been identified from 31,300 to 680 years BP
(Wadley et al.1992; Esterhuysen 1996; Esterhuysen et al.1999). Level DB dated at
12,690 years BP can be compared with Wonderwerk Strata 5 and 4. The Rose
Cottage taxa represented by charcoal are: Protea spp., Leucosidea sericea,
Maytenus spp., Scolopia mundii,Heteromorpha trifoliata and Passerina montana.
The species differ from those found at Wonderwerk Cave Stratum 5, which is not
surprising as the altitudes of the sites are different although the latitudes are similar
(Wonderwerk: 1680 masl, S27° 50; Rose Cottage ca. 1800 masl, S29° 15).
Furthermore, the influence of the Drakensberg Mountains on the Rose Cottage
environs needs to be taken into consideration. Today, temperatures and rainfall of
these two sites differ greatly from each other as they must have done in the past.
To the above résumé of the macrobotanical record of southern Africa, we can now
add that of Wonderwerk Cave from the northwestern interior. This site potentially has
the longest macrobotanical record in the southern African Quaternary and includes
plant fragments and charcoal. From the lowest level, Stratum 12 at about 2 million
years, there is one piece of poorly preserved charcoal. Calcified roots, plant litter
comprising dicot twigs, leaves, grass and sedge culms occur above in Strata 11 and
10. Berna et al.(2012) demonstrated the controlled use of fire in Wonderwerk Cave at
approximately 1 Ma using several lines of evidence. They used micromorphology and
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Fourier transform microspectroscopic analyses of the sediments to show no distur-
bance. IR analysis of the bones indicated they were only burned to a maximum of
700° C. Banded ironstone slabs, which must have been introduced into the cave because
they were not roof-spall, produced pot-lid flakes that could be refitted. Furthermore,
calcified remnants of light plant fuel such as grasses, sedges and dicots were also
recovered from Stratum 10, but no charcoal that would indicate higher temperature
fires. Although fire was probably opportunistically used by hominids prior to this, only
the Wonderwerk evidence has been demonstrated to have been controlled use of fire.
More calcified plant litter occurs in Stratum 8 that is very similar to that found in
Stratum 10. Three seeds were recovered from Stratum 7, but Stratum 6 has no
macrobotanical record. A variety of wood charcoal was collected from Stratum 5
and has been identified as belonging to eight species with only about a quarter of the
134 pieces being unidentifiable. Arboreal pollen identified in the stalagmite from the
layers of about the same age as the charcoal from Layer 5 (ca.1311 ka) are close to the
hiatus in the pollen record that was noted by Brook et al.(2010). The pollen recovered
are Podocarpus,Myrica,Olea,Myrsine,Rhus,Tarc h o n a nt hu s,Diospyros and Euclea
(Brook et al.2010). The pollen represents the regional vegetation, and one assumes that
the charcoal would have been a subset of the vegetation selected from the region for
burning as only Searsia/Rhus sp. is represented in both the pollen and charcoal records.
Not surprisingly, grass pollen is dominant throughout the pollen sequence (as are
phytoliths, see Chazan et al.2012), but is not represented in the charcoal sequence.
Palaeoenvironmental History of the Region
The palaeoenvironmental information from southern Africa for the period 21Mais
limited to coastal and hominin sites. For example, the terrestrial Pleistocene Port
Durnford Beds (Maud and Orr 1975) on the northern Zululand coast contain pollen
in the peat layers and indicated a succession from open marshland to cooler terrestrial
conditions (Oschadleus and Vogel 1996; Scott et al. 1992). However, the coastal
palaeoenvironment is not similar to the central interior. The central grassland biomes
may have had similar climates to that of Wonderwerk.
Dating of the hominin cave sites is problematic, and reconstruction of the climate
has not been a priority, so the information needs to be carefully reassessed and
correlated. Future dating techniques will refine the ages, but meanwhile, an attempt
has been made to sort out the ages of the sites using seriation (Herries et al.2009). Reed
(1997; her dates used here) assimilated climate and vegetation reconstructions from a
number of hominin sites, mainly faunal data, and proposed that Swartkrans, 1.8
1.2 Ma, Member 1 had an open habitat with a river and riverine woodland or forest;
Member 2 was drier than Member 1 with grasslands and wetlands; Member 3 shows
open grassland with a stream and edaphic grasslands. For Kromdraai A, 1.51Ma,
there was scrub woodland, or grassland or wooded grassland. Sterkfontein Member 5
had open or wooded grasslands or plains. These sites are far to the east of Wonderwerk
and may not be good proxies for the climate.
For the Pleistocene (<1 Ma), representing the Central Interior, the spring mound at
Florisbad has a rich fauna (27947 ka) and MSA tools (Henderson 2001). Pollen from
this site indicates that there were several cycles of moisture change in the highveld
grassland (Grün et al.1996). Wood from the mound also shows a wetter period than at
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present but is not precisely dated (Bamford and Henderson 2003). Scott and Rossouw
(2005) state that there are problems with the data and more research is required.
Sites such as Wonderwerk lie in the modern Savanna biome together with Equus
Cave, Lobatse Caves, Wonderkrater and Tswaing, so are more useful for comparisons
with Wonderwerk although their records are discontinuous. By assimilating the
palynological data of these and other sites, Scott (2002) has shown that in southern
Africa, grasslands were well developed by 300 ka, and by association with the woody
taxa, it is possible to show that there were different types of grasslands. By the Last
Glacial Maximum (LGM; ca.4020 ka) at Wonderkrater, there were probably equal
proportions of C
3
and C
4
grasses (Vogel et al.1978, Scott 2002). Using pollen,
phytoliths and isotopes Scott (1982,1999a,b,2002) and Vogel (Scott and Vogel
1983) have shown that there was a northeastward shift of the Thornveld vegetation
during the Early Holocene. More recently, Scott and colleagues (2012) have used old
and new pollen data and principal components analysis (PCA) to show moisture and
temperature variations for the various vegetation types. For the dry woodland vegeta-
tion, they considered pollen from the Wonderwerk stalagmite and Equus Cave copro-
lites: temperatures were lower before 17 ka and then warmed; moisture levels oscillated
strongly between 23.5 and 11 ka with three peaks at 17, 14.6 and 12.6 ka (Scott et al.
2012). For both sites, a peak in dryness is indicated between 12 and 11 ka, a pattern that
is similar to that from a spring near Windhoek, Namibia, but opposite to the pattern
from Tswaing and Wonderkrater (Scott et al.2012). This apparent discrepancy empha-
sizes the regional nature of the past climate. The moisture peak at 12.6 ka indicated by
the pollen record at Wonderwerk and Equus caves can be correlated with the
Wonderwerk charcoals of Stratum 5 described here, where B. discolor,H. lucida and
O. ventosa were present.
The macrobotanical remains from Strata 12 to 6 are too meagre too add meaning-
fully to the regional palaeoenvironment (2 Ma to ca.15kaBP), but the analyses of the
rest of the Holocene strata may produce interesting results.
Conclusion
There is only one piece of charcoal from the lowermost layers of Excavation 1
(Oldowan and Early Acheulean), but there is evidence in Stratum 10, approximately
1 Ma, of calcified botanical material (Berna et al.2012). The calcified grasses and
sedges have blackened surfaces from burning. The plant material would have been
brought into the cave as they would not have grown in situ since the light levels are too
low and the cave is too dry. With a detailed study of the surfaces, the loose calcified
plant litter from the Acheulean layer Stratum 8 does appear to have been burned and the
embedded litter is highly fragmented and unidentifiable beyond plant group.
The orientation of the root casts from Stratum 11 is unknown, so it cannot be
determined if fresh roots were brought in and were calcified in situ or if they were
brought in already in a calcified state.
The three seeds from Stratum 7 are hard and either silicified or calcified. Two have
not been conclusively identified but since one is from the wild date palm, P. r e c l i n at a ,
then it would imply a water source or high ground water table somewhere within the
home range of the Earlier Stone Age inhabitants of the cave, human or animal.
834 Afr Archaeol Rev (2015) 32:813838
Author's personal copy
Strata 5 and 5a dated to <12,500 (Lee-Thorp and Ecker 2015,thisissue)cal.BP,
contain the oldest, well-preserved charcoal for Wonderwerk Cave. There are 134
fragments, and they represent eight identifiable woody species. The diversity is rela-
tively low, but seven families are represented. The most common woods are
O. paniculosa and B. discolor. Of the eight identified charcoal taxa, only two are listed
in the modern vegetation (S. (Rhus) lancea and E. rigida), and they tolerate low rainfall
in summer and frost during winter. One species occurs in dry to arid regions
(Commiphora sp.). Two species occur in fairly dry regions (O. paniculosa,
D. rotundifolia). Two species occur in more mesic areas (B. discolor and H. lucida),
and one species occurs in moister and more forested conditions, O. ventosa.
Considering the range of woods represented by the charcoal, it is possible that their
past geographical range was wider than it is today as it is unlikely that the cave
inhabitants would have walked great distances to collect firewood. The majority of
the woods found can tolerate dry conditions and a wide range of temperatures, but
thepresenceofB. discolor and H. lucida indicate that conditions between <12,500
(Lee-Thorp and Ecker 2015, this issue) or 14 98913 952 cal. BP (Ecker unpub-
lished) may have been slightly wetter than today.
Acknowledgments Fieldwork at Wonderwerk was supported by the Canadian SSHRC and a Wenner-Gren
Foundation grant to M. Chazan. I thank the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST, South Africa) for funding
to establish the modern charcoal and plant reference collection at the ESI. Funding for equipment is gratefully
acknowledged from the University of the Witwatersrand, National Research Foundation (NRF), Department
of Science and Technology (DST) and Mellon Foundation. Liora Horwitz and Michael Chazan invited me to
join the project for which I am also grateful. The fieldwork and analyses reported on here took place on the
basis of an agreement with the McGregor Museum (South Africa) concerning access to these collections for
members of the project directed by M. Chazan and L. K. Horwitz. Fieldwork and artifact export of material
relating to this research project were undertaken under the terms of permits issued by SAHRA (South African
Heritage Resources Agency) to the McGregor Museum and members of the team.
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... If seasonality shifted to drier summers, evapotranspiration would have been enhanced. Warmer conditions developed by 15 ka (Fig. 5A) as indicated by woody species at Wonderwerk around this time until c. 14 ka (Fig. 7B) (Bamford, 2015). The woody plants include a mixture of frost-tolerant and frost-sensitive types. ...
... From this collection, eight hyenid coprolites were tested but were mostly barren. We attribute the decomposition of pollen to long-term oxidation Fig. 7. Summary of other proxies from Equus (A) and Wonderwerk (B) Caves, viz., stalagmite isotope data, microfauna, wood (Johnson et al., 1997;Lee-Thorp and Talma, 2000;Brook et al., 2010;Bamford, 2015;Thackeray, 2015;Ecker et al., 2018). Dots in A represent samples and lines follow averages. ...
... Biases and inter-site variation in climate interpretations based on pollen, as evidenced in the central interior sites discussed here, may be due to people introducing plant material, such as fuel, bedding and food, into caves or altering the landscape near the study site. For example, at Wonderwerk there is macro-botanical evidence for wood and bedding material collection (Bamford, 2015;House et al., 2020). Increased microscopic charcoal particles are found in the palynological preparations of the middle and late Holocene large stalagmite in the cave (L. ...
Article
We have reassessed the palynological record of Equus Cave in the Savanna Biome of the southern Kalahari, one of the longest Late Quaternary pollen records for the semi-arid central interior of South Africa. We combined published pollen results from the cave, derived from hyena coprolites and the rubified deposits in which they occur, into a single sequence. By re-considering the chronology of this sequence, we critically evaluated the palaeoenvironmental record for the site. We compared the pollen evidence from Equus Cave to that from the longer Wonderwerk Cave records (stalagmite, sediments and dung), also located in the Savanna Biome. Then, we contrasted Equus and Wonderwerk records with other previously published pollen sequences derived from a range of sources from several sites in central South Africa. These sites follow a broad northwest to southeast transect of c. 500 km through the Grassland and Nama Karoo Biomes of the Free State and Eastern Cape. Applying Principal Components Analysis to the pollen data, we derived climatic signals at a regional scale to refine reconstructions of Late Quaternary changes for central South Africa.
... If seasonality shifted to drier summers, evapotranspiration would have been enhanced. Warmer conditions developed by 15 ka (Fig. 5A) as indicated by woody species at Wonderwerk around this time until c. 14 ka (Fig. 7B) (Bamford, 2015). The woody plants include a mixture of frost-tolerant and frost-sensitive types. ...
... From this collection, eight hyenid coprolites were tested but were mostly barren. We attribute the decomposition of pollen to long-term oxidation Fig. 7. Summary of other proxies from Equus (A) and Wonderwerk (B) Caves, viz., stalagmite isotope data, microfauna, wood (Johnson et al., 1997;Lee-Thorp and Talma, 2000;Brook et al., 2010;Bamford, 2015;Thackeray, 2015;Ecker et al., 2018). Dots in A represent samples and lines follow averages. ...
... Biases and inter-site variation in climate interpretations based on pollen, as evidenced in the central interior sites discussed here, may be due to people introducing plant material, such as fuel, bedding and food, into caves or altering the landscape near the study site. For example, at Wonderwerk there is macro-botanical evidence for wood and bedding material collection (Bamford, 2015;House et al., 2020). Increased microscopic charcoal particles are found in the palynological preparations of the middle and late Holocene large stalagmite in the cave (L. ...
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... 184 Environmental variability in the Kalahari Basin makes it a particularly important region for understanding early human adaptations to environmental change, and several avenues (dune fields, palaeolakes, carbonate formations, fauna, OES, micro-and macro-botanicals) are available for palaeoenvironmental investigations at sites and on the landscape. 59,68,95,128,129,132,135 Current research teams are leveraging this record of high-amplitude variability to better understand the nature of Pleistocene human-environment interaction in the Kalahari. ...
... ,68,125 At Wonderwerk Cave, multiple proxies for paleoenvironmental conditions demonstrate shifts through the Pleistocene and Holocene,105,128,[132][133][134][135] and nearby Mamatwan Mine shows evidence for a permanent water body where none exists today.136 At Ga-Mohana Hill, extensive tufa deposits indicate past periods of increased effective precipitation during the Pleistocene.26 ...
Article
Full-text available
The Kalahari Basin, southern Africa preserves a rich archeological record of human origins and evolution spanning the Early, Middle and Late Pleistocene. Since the 1930s, several stratified and dated archeological sites have been identified and investigated, together with numerous open‐air localities that provide landscape‐scale perspectives. However, next to recent discoveries from nearby coastal regions, the Kalahari Basin has remained peripheral to debates about the origins of Homo sapiens. Though the interior region of southern Africa is generally considered to be less suitable for hunter‐gatherer occupation than coastal and near‐coastal regions, especially during glacial periods, the archeological record documents human presence in the Kalahari Basin from the Early Pleistocene onwards, and the region is not abandoned during glacial phases. Furthermore, many significant behavioral innovations have an early origin in the Kalahari Basin, which adds support to poly‐centric, pan‐African models for the emergence of our species.
... In the last stages of MIS 5 (substage a) the pollen record at Tswaing (pollen zone Z6) shows the dominance of warm woodland (Spirostachys) pollen along local freshwater lake and swamp vegetation. Archaeological sites from the interior of South Africa with records dating to the MIS 5b (~90 ka; these are Rose Cottage (Layer LEN, Wadley et al. 1992;Valladas et al. 2005), Wonderwerk (Bamford 2015;Horwitz and Chazan 2015;Chazan et al. 2020) and Bushman Rock Shelter (horizon 21, Porraz et al. 2018), are unfortunately devoid of palaeobotanical studies. The exception is Wonderwerk, but the macrobotanical remains dating to the Pleistocene were insufficient to add meaningfully palaeoenvironmental interpretations (Bamford 2015). ...
... Archaeological sites from the interior of South Africa with records dating to the MIS 5b (~90 ka; these are Rose Cottage (Layer LEN, Wadley et al. 1992;Valladas et al. 2005), Wonderwerk (Bamford 2015;Horwitz and Chazan 2015;Chazan et al. 2020) and Bushman Rock Shelter (horizon 21, Porraz et al. 2018), are unfortunately devoid of palaeobotanical studies. The exception is Wonderwerk, but the macrobotanical remains dating to the Pleistocene were insufficient to add meaningfully palaeoenvironmental interpretations (Bamford 2015). At Baden-Baden, in the western Free State of South Africa, the phytolith data indicated an overall prevalence of warm and arid, C 4 Chloridoideae and Aristoideae grasses at 113.1 ± 13.3 during MIS 5d (sample BB-4, van Aardt et al. 2015). ...
Article
Full-text available
The interior regions of South Africa have had less attention devoted to archaeological research than coastal regions, and palaeoenvironmental studies are also more limited. As such, little is known about the interaction between human behaviours and past environments in these semi-arid regions. Here, we present an archaeobotanical and mineralogical study from the Middle Stone Age site of Mwulu’s Cave, Limpopo Province. Our study shows the importance of using taphonomical approaches prior to interpreting archaeobotanical assemblages, while provides with novel information on the plants used by ancient inhabitants of Mwulu’s. The grass phytolith composition is of environmental significance, where a shift from C4 Panicoideae to C3 grasses is observed in the last occupation event. This tentatively suggests a shift in rainfall regime, from summer rainfall conditions to an increase in winter rain, during Marine Isotope Stage 5b in the Polokwane region, or a decrease in rainfall seasonality. Although we are unable to chronostratigraphically associate this change in the plant composition, our study adds evidence in support of previous propositions for an expansion of the winter rainfall zone into the interior regions of South Africa.
... A correlated increase in the density of OES fragments is also recognizable both in our study and in previous analyses (Thackeray, 1981;Thackeray, 1981;Thackeray and Humphreys, 1983). The new 14 C dates provide further evidence (see Ecker et al., 2017) that this layer dates to approximately the same time as a short and wet climatic episode documented in multiple paleoenvironmental proxy records from Wonderwerk Cave (Avery, 1981;Bamford, 2015;Lee-Thorp and Ecker, 2015;Scott and Thackeray, 2015;House et al., this volume) and the nearby locality of Kathu Pan (Lukich et al., 2019;Scott et al., this volume). What these shifts in the various material culture records mean in terms of human behaviour and use of the cave site and surrounding landscape is yet another, if not the most, important line of inquiry for this project going forward. ...
Article
In 2018, we initiated renewed excavation of the Later Stone Age (LSA) deposits at Wonderwerk Cave. Here we describe the goals and initial results of the first two seasons of excavation, including the first micromorphological description of these deposits. We employed a small-scale excavation technique to emphasize precision recording and limit the destruction of sensitive deposits. Our preliminary results indicate that meaningful patterns in material culture records and paleoecological proxy materials can be derived from such investigations. Bioturbation of the LSA deposits is widespread in our micromorphological samples, suggesting that some post-depositional movement of the sediment occurred but did not impact overall stratigraphic integrity. This is supported by the radiocarbon chronology (derived from various material records), which indicates that this movement had a limited effect on the material record. Three technocomplexes (the Kuruman/Oakhurst, Wilton, and Historic) were identified in the new Wonderwerk lithic material record, alongside increasing evidence for a period of intensified use and/or occupation of the site during the Wilton – a pattern previously identified by the F. Thackeray's and A. Thackeray's 1970s excavations. New radiocarbon ages support previous determinations placing the timing of this intensification at ca. 6200 years cal BP. Faunal and ostrich eggshell records also support previous findings, confirming an anthropogenic origin for the faunal remains and suggesting that different pathways of OES bead production were employed at the site at different times. The presence of herbivore dung and associated spherulites in a micromorphology thin section provides a new potential line of evidence to support the Thackeray's tentative suggestion for sheep herding at the site ca. 2000 years BP. While this evidence is far from conclusive, it suggests that the Wonderwerk Cave LSA record may have a role to play in resolving the timing of the adoption of sheep by hunter-gatherers on the Ghaap Plateau. Our work on the LSA at Wonderwerk Cave serves as a touchstone within the more regionally focused Northern Cape Archaeology and Ecology Project (NCAEP) – an international and interdisciplinary research project studying the LSA paleoenvironment of the South African arid interior. Ultimately, NCAEP is designed to produce a multi-proxy diachronic climatic record of the Northern Cape firmly situated within new and existing radiocarbon chronologies.
... This may indicate a trend towards more arid conditions, or less damp conditions in the uppermost ESA levels, a scenario which is borne out by the stable isotope results (Ecker et al., 2018).Some bones from St. 12 and 11 (n = 30 and n = 2 respectively), have isolated and scattered root marks. Interestingly, 18 calcified root casts, varying in maximum size from 11 × 70 mm (diameter × length) to 2.5 × 23 mm were identified in the macro-botanical remains from St. 11 (Bamford, 2015). Their presence indicates moist depositional conditions in the two lowermost levels. ...
Article
Wonderwerk Cave, in South Africa, is an exceptional site that has yielded a large collection of small mammal fossils in a stratigraphic sequence reaching back ca. 2 million years. Taphonomic studies undertaken to date, show that Tytonidae (likely Tyto alba) was the dominant predator during the Earlier Stone Age. They produced masses of pellets that formed a dense carpet-like surface that covered the cave floor at intervals throughout the sequence. This paper compares the taphonomic signatures of five different Earlier Stone Age small mammal assemblages from Wonderwerk Cave, including assemblages not studied before, as well as a modern pellet assemblage collected from inside the cave. These samples were examined using taphonomic signatures, bone density and spatial distribution which confirm that the main predator in all periods of cave occupation were members of the Family Tytonidae, most likely Barn owls. The Wonderwerk small mammals have enabled us to clarify site formation processes and confirm that there was no transport or mixing of fossils, neither spatially (re-sedimentation) nor chronologically (reworking). This has confirmed the integrity of the stratigraphic sequence in the cave, reinforcing interpretations of palaeoecology, and elucidating intensity of occupation by hominins versus predators, and the behaviour of the predators vis a vis their prey.
... In southern Africa, the potential of archaeologically recovered charcoals as a tool to reconstruct past woody vegetation was first recognised at Boomplaas Cave in South Africa (Deacon et al., 1983(Deacon et al., , 1984Scholtz, 1986). Since then, other anthracological analyses undertaken at Middle Stone Age (MSA), Later Stone Age (LSA) and Iron Age sites have confirmed their reliability for palaeoenvironmental studies (Prior and Price Williams, 1985;Dowson, 1988;Tusenius, 1989;February, 1992;Wadley et al., 1992;Esterhuysen and Mitchell, 1996;Cartwright and Parkington, 1997;Cowling et al., 1999;Parkington et al., 2000;Allott, 2006;Bamford, 2015;Bamford et al., 2016;Mvimi, 2019). While most of these studies have highlighted the potential impact of the nature of the deposits, the wood selection bias or the sampling effect on the interpretation of the anthracological results, they were not supported by experimental investigation. ...
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In southern Africa, archaeobotanical studies are intrinsically linked to prehistoric investigation and the discipline of anthracology has already proved its potential for palaeoenvironmental and palaeoecological reconstructions. While the region benefits from particularly good preservation of macro charcoal remains in its sites, anthracological studies remain underexplored and the methodological framework still needs to be developed and adapted to the diverse southern African ecological contexts. Here we provide a review of sampling methods and sample representativeness and we compare it with wood charcoal analyses performed in southern Africa. We used the charcoal-rich layers from the Later Stone Age sequence of Bushman Rock Shelter (BRS) to elaborate a sampling strategy producing samples that can both be analysed in a timely manner and that are statistically representative of the whole assemblage. In light of our results, we discuss the relevance of applying anthracological methods developed in European contexts. The evaluation of the taxa richness, diversity and size distribution at BRS leads to the recommendation of the identification of at least 500 charcoal fragments per stratigraphic unit. Thick layers should be split into two distinct samples, one comprising the top half and the other one the bottom half of the layer. The analysis of thin layers with limited charcoal abundance necessitates increasing the surface of sampling. All size-classes should be analysed to avoid any sampling bias.
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Detailed, well-dated palaeoclimate and archaeological records are critical for understanding the impact of environmental change on human evolution. Ga-Mohana Hill, in the southern Kalahari, South Africa, preserves a Pleistocene archaeological sequence. Relict tufas at the site are evidence of past flowing streams, waterfalls, and shallow pools. Here, we use laser ablation screening to target material suitable for uranium-thorium dating. We obtained 33 ages covering the last 110 thousand years (ka) and identify five tufa formation episodes at 114–100 ka, 73–48 ka, 44–32 ka, 15–6 ka, and ~3 ka. Three tufa episodes are coincident with the archaeological units at Ga-Mohana Hill dating to ~105 ka, ~31 ka, and ~15 ka. Based on our data and the coincidence of dated layers from other local records, we argue that in the southern Kalahari, from ~240 ka to ~71 ka wet phases and human occupation are coupled, but by ~20 ka during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), they are decoupled.
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This paper presents the first insight into the interpretation of the wood charcoal from the Holocene layers of Wonderwerk Cave. Situated in the Northern Cape Province in the arid interior of South Africa, the site provides a unique and valuable chronological record of past environmental fluctuations and responding human behavioural adaptations spanning the last two million years. The Holocene strata have been dated to cover the last 12.5 ka cal BP years, but exclude the last 100 years because of contamination. A sizeable amount of charcoal was recovered from these strata and remnants have been identified, described and the species composition amongst the strata compared. Most identified species are those that tolerate hot, dry conditions, signalling an arid trend during the Holocene. Comparison with present day species distributions suggests an eastwards shift in modern vegetation. The charcoal data also indicate that during the mid Holocene there was a wetter period from 6.2 to 4.5 ka cal BP, coinciding with stratum 4a.
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Here we present charcoal identifications for Rose Cottage Cave, Eastern Free State, from layers dated between about 96,000 and 35,000 years ago (∼96 and ∼35 ka ago). We then suggest plant community types that might have been established in the area in warm Marine Isotope Stage 5 (MIS5) versus cooler MIS4/MIS3 phases. The hypothesis is that frost-tender plants should occur in warm phases while hardy Leucosidea sericea, Protea spp. and Erica spp. should be more common during cooler phases more recent than ∼74 ka ago. Leucosidea sericea thrives under moist conditions and its presence in late MIS4 and in several MIS3 layers at Rose Cottage implies that the area may have been moister than many other sites in the interior of southern Africa, thereby making it attractive for occupation. The charcoal identifications at ∼96 ka ago included taxa like Buddleja salvifolia that need somewhat warmer conditions than taxa such as Leucosidea sericea. Taxa diversity based on the charcoal identifications is generally low at the site throughout the Middle Stone Age, but the vegetation from relatively warm MIS5 seems more diverse than that of MIS4 and MIS3. Some taxa identified, for example, Calodendrum capense, Leucosidea sericea, Erica caffra and Protea caffra no longer grow near the cave although they are commonly found in other parts of eastern South Africa.
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Fossil woods found in the Australopithecus deposits at Sterkfontein Caves, Gauteng, South Africa, are described. The sediments are dated at 2.6-2.8 million years. The woods have been identified as the liana Dichapetalum cf. mombuttense and the shrub, Anastrabe integerrima. Today there is only one species of Dichapetalum, D. cymosum, in South Africa, so the presence of this typically central African gallery forest liana is evidence that at least refugia of dense, humid forest-type vegetation occurred at Sterkfontein during the Pliocene. Anastrabe integerrima grows today on forest margins along and inland from the east and southeast coasts of South Africa. The presence of this plant in the fossil record implies that rainfall was higher during the Pliocene and that gallery forest occurred in an area where today grasslands predominate. Rarely are fossil hominids and plants found together, so this deposit has potential for palaeoclimatic reconstructions.
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In order to define criteria for long-term climate change models in Southern Africa, an overview of the available pollen data during the Late Quaternary is needed. Here we reassess the paleo-climatic conditions in southern Africa by synthesising available fossil pollen data that can provide new insights in environmental change processes. The data considered here include the latest as well as previously published information that has been difficult to assess. Available calibrated pollen sequences spanning the Late Pleistocene and Holocene were subjected to Principal Components Analysis (PCA) to monitor taxa sensitive to moisture and temperature fluctuations. The PCA values are presented graphically as indicators of climate variability for the region. The results cover different biomes that include the summer-rain region in the north and east, the winter-rain area in the south and the dry zone in the west. The PCA plots directly reflect major changes of terrestrial environments due to variations in temperature and moisture. Mostly sub-humid but fluctuating conditions are indicated during the cold Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 2, which were followed by a dry phase soon after the beginning of the Holocene but before the middle Holocene in the northern, central and eastern parts of the sub-continent. Marked but non-parallel moisture changes occurred in different subregions during the Holocene suggesting that climatic forcing was not uniform over the entire region. Some events seemed to have had a more uniform effect over the sub-continent, e.g., a relatively dry summer rain event at c. two thousand years ago, which can possibly be related to the ENSO phenomenon. The role of anthropogenic activities in some of the most recent vegetation shifts is likely.
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Although the Florisbad spring site in the central Free State is famous for its unique evidence of Pleistocene humans and fauna, it also provides microfossil evidence, especially pollen, of long-term vegetation and climate change. This brief account of the palaeobotanical evidence provides a summary of the pioneering work of the late Eduard M. van Zinderen Bakkerat Florisbad. The aim is to briefly review some past environmental interpretations, identify inherent site problems, and to point out the direction of future palynological research. It is suggested that these studies will greatly benefit from fossil plant phytolith investigations and a more in-depth pollen analysis (especially of the Asteraceae pollen component) that will link pollen data more effectively to palaeontological and archaeological evidence.