Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Creatures Great and Small: Addo Elephant National Park

July 8th, 2019

The brush rose above the tops of our trucks, covering the rolling landscape in a thick green blanket. Eagerly we scanned the gaps in the vegetation for the occupants of the park. Not fifty feet behind us, behind the heavy gate, was the ranger station where we had received our permits, maps, and a list of the animals on the preserve. Our enthusiasm was instantly rewarded: a fully-grown elephant strode from the surrounding tree cover and crossed the road in front of our foremost vehicle, four juveniles in tow. Instantly we stopped, more interested in photographing the enormous beasts than challenging them. A few minutes later they had departed, leaving a young bull elephant in their wake, who confusedly and frustratedly passed the width of the road, shaking his truck before disappearing into the surrounding brush.

Addo elephant National Park (South Africa) was founded to protect the remaining elephants in the eastern cape and maintain the human-elephant interactions. Over the years, it has acquired many additional species, any of which may be spotted during the game drives. As we continued our way through the brush, we soon saw warthogs rooting among the leaves. It was not until we left the cover of the vegetation that herds of animals surrounded us: zebra, warthogs (not necessarily grouped in a herd), and blesbok. Some animals were taking advantage of the sunlight to graze, others rested in the long grass.



Blue-grey mountains surround us as we crest the hills on undulating gravel roads. As we drove, more and more bovids (cloven-hoofed mammals, of which cows are a classic domestic example), popped up. These animals and humans have a long history, with bovid remains recovered from many archaeological sites. As archaeologists know the preferred ecology in which these species thrive, their presence can help reconstruct past environments. However, elephants continue to appear on the horizon, solitary or in groups of two or three. We do not get another close encounter that day.

After driving to our lodgings, a nearby bed and breakfast, we return to the park for a night drive. We fill much of the massive vehicle, which resembles the merging of a bus and a land rover. It quickly becomes dark, the last remnants of rosy sunset fading as the temperature plummets. Eventually, the bus rover roars to life, easing out of the parking lot and away from the welcome center. We quickly leave the lights and noise behind, the landscape dark and shadowed, a breeze skating along the top and sides of the vehicle, and the only the noise the constant hum of the bus rover. Above, hundreds of stars light the sky. Our guide begins to shine a spotlight at the brush, swinging it quickly back and forth in order to catch a glimpse of the animals. Soon our patience is rewarded with a glimpse of a fleeing brown hyena. These animals are rarely sighted, our guide explains, only when they are forced into new territory by lions or spotted hyenas.

HOMER students and researchers

Excited, primed for success, we move forward, pausing by a beautiful owl, which stares at us with golden eyes before departing in a flurry of wings. A unique prize comes next and is soon gone—an aardvark, hurrying across the landscape to the cover of the brush. This animal is only spotted once a year by the guides in Addo—and this is the first sighting for this year.

the elusive aardvark

The next pair of animals are two apex predators—lions. They seem unfazed by our excited chatter, resting within twenty feet of the vehicle. A brother-sister orphaned pair, they are younger enough to still be together. The male blinks slowly in the bright light, but otherwise demonstrates no further interest in us.

As we drive, we spot many other nighttime animals: a spotted hyena, two porcupines, elephants, a hare, more bovids, and another owl. Eventually, we make our way out of the park, our minds full of the wonderful experience.

The following morning, not yet having enough of the animals, we return to the park. Soon we come across a herd of cape buffalo. They are massive, indestructible horns sticking menacingly out from either side of their heads. However, they ignore us and continue to browse, striping the leaves from plants. Too soon we have moved on, leaving the herd to the line of paparazzi.


Birds are everywhere, from the tops of trees to tucked under bushes. They come in an assortment of colors, from brown to blue to bright yellow. Some glare suspiciously at us, others ignore us in favor of food.

Zebra, bontebok and elephants become common, but this does not stop a line of traffic from forming around any sightings. Most of the time, the animals are too far away to be bothered. However, the elephants, whether out of annoyance or a desire to dominate or a honed mischievous streak, force their will upon the humans. A prime example of this occurred at the watering hole. The vehicles lined up along its edge, waiting for the bull elephant leisurely making its way towards the fence, hoping for photos. We were close, close enough to read the sign pinned to the electric wire explaining why some watering holes were protected from elephants. Slowly the bull ambled past the hole, then turned and walked straight at the vehicles.

traffic jam in Addo

First one, then many of the vehicles began to reverse, edging slowly and then quickly away from the bull and the second elephant rapidly approaching. One by one, they herded the cars back and then turned their attentions to each other, locking their trunks and pushing, standing their ground. Perhaps it was only a friendly competition, because soon they were wandering across the grass, away from the displaced vehicles.

the elephant claims his space

a friendly tussle?

We caught a glimpse of one more species on our way out, the mongoose, which fooled us with its stance into thinking it was a meerkat. We watched their furry bodies root in the grass, questing for food. Then we too were off, searching for lunch and ready for another week of archaeology.


Monday, July 1, 2019

Life on the Edge

July 1, 2019

This is our sixth field season at Knysna, South Africa, (my fifth) and as usual, it’s great to be back on the South African coast. One of the entertaining things about this blog is documenting the changes which occur over the years. This field season we have greatly expanded the scope of our excavations, by bringing in a larger crew and opening excavations both above and below our previous work. Additionally, we have made some improvements to the site, especially where safety is concerned. One of the best ones is the inclusion of a chain along one of the sketchier parts of the climb. Not only has this improved the general safety of the crew, but it also means that whoever is passing heavy, equipment-laden packs along the ledge is now actually secured to the ledge.

The chain and the ledge

MAP crew excavating
There are now nine HOMER (Human Origins Migrations EvolutionResearch) students onsite, as well as the local MAPCRM crew. The students are from universities across the USA, and will be trained here before heading to the HOMER site in Malawi. The MAPCRM crew have excavated for a decade at the nearby site of Pinnacle Point, and are some of the best in the business.

HOMER student editing the geodatabase

HOMER student "gunning" (operating a Total station)

Previous and current excavations at the site have focused on targeting the Middle and Later Stone age transitions, a period which is absent at many coastal archaeological sites. It’s a period of interesting technological change amid climatic upheaval, thus, archaeologists find it fascinating (at least, some of us do). The main exaction trench has already yielded tens of thousands of artifacts, and we are hard at work expanding it this season. One of our goals is to understand how deep the deposits are, i.e. how long have people been using the site? In order to do this, last season we took our trench and cut it down until we hit bedrock. This year, we have moved the trench outside the cave and to the east, where we hope human activity was more likely to occur and may have been better preserved.

Our main excavations

This was a multi-step process, beginning with finding the grid line that extended out of the cave. The easiest and most accurate way to do this is to use one of the total stations and map the location based on geodatabase. Conveniently, there is a tall steep rock in front of the cave, which is high enough to avoid most wave action and see the area we were intending to dig. It’s also far enough away that we had to communicate with hand signals and some amount of yelling. This led to more or less accurate placement of a line down the steep slope, revealing the easternmost edge of our upcoming excavations.

Mapping the slope

However, before we could dig, a large amount of vegetation needed to be removed. Which meant someone (in this case, me), was required to rope in and scramble up and down the side of the cliff. The section is steep, with loose topsoil, displaced artifacts, and stubby fynbos. It’s steeper than it looks, and has been the downfall of several water bottles over the years. Cutting back the vegetation revealed an unfortunate amount of rocks and spiders, the latter of which at least had the decency to run away. Rocks had to be hurled down the slope into the ocean.

Before excavation or vegetation removal

Once the vegetations had been cleared, we were ready to dig. In actuality, most of the exposed sediment is either topsoil, slip from deposits, sand (this is an anthropogenic, modern deposit from the archaeologists), or rockfall. Tangled roots bound rock and dirt together, slowing progress. Eventually, we cut it back to expose a dense rock layer. Beyond these rocks, we hope, are archaeological deposits. Afterward, we needed to cover the newly exposed surface with a protective layer of sandbags and cut another step into the hillside above the excavation. In this manner, we worked our way up the slope to the cave mouth.
Two steps up

Excavations continue

Removing so much of the hillside requires a stabilizing force to be inserted. In our case, this means hauling many (dozens) of sandbags up the cliff to site. Sandbags are the building blocks of our site (and many other coastal archaeological sites): bracing walls, providing stable platforms for the total stations, and at KEH-1, a staircase along and up the cliff. For every step we cut into the slope, we moved more sandbags, and constructed another platform. 

Sandbag bucket chain

Despite our platform building prowess, there are plenty of precarious positions to be had on the side of the cliff. Every time a total station is set up to map the lower area, we gauge which location has the least probability of death, and set the tripod there. The humans won’t fall far, as we’re all required to be harnessed to a rope. Photographing the section can sometimes be even trickier, although possible with caution and more rope. 

camera angles

Placement 1

 At the end of two weeks, we have almost reached the top of the sediment, placing our new excavations even with the mouth of the cave. Hopefully, the next week will reveal the continuous sequence we are searching for.

End of day, Friday June 28th

Monday, June 3, 2019

Research in Genoa

June 3, 2019

Greetings from Genoa!

This is my first time blogging from this city (my first real visit, since I’m not counting the ten minutes I spent switching trains last summer), but I’m excited to experience Italian city life. Last year, I spent four weeks in the mountains of northern Italy, contributing to the excavation of a paleolithic site. Since then, I’ve managed to complete my final year at CU Denver and graduate with a Master’s degree. With that part of my training finished, I’m using my newfound expertise to analyze materials excavated over the last three years. No pressure or anything.

Fireworks from Republic day (June 2, Genoa)

Subsequently, two days after my graduation, and during a snowstorm (this erratic weather pattern is common to Colorado), I began my flight to Europe. I should probably have suspected something after I received a terminal ticket to Munich (instead of Genoa), but I was rather exhausted from the end of the semester, visiting family, graduation, and packing everything I owned for my August move, and didn’t think anything of it. Upon my arrival in Amsterdam, I discovered I was rerouted to Munich because my original flight to Genoa had been canceled, and my rebooked flight from Munich-Genoa was already canceled (due to strikes in Italy). I went to Munich anyway, because I figured at least it would be a shorter train ride if necessary, and the airline promptly lost my luggage. Luckily, this was only my clothes and not the plethora of research equipment I was bringing. Even better, I was issued a ticket for the following day, and a bed for the night.

I was quite relieved to watch the plane float over the rugged Italian coastline and land in Genoa without any further complications. My backpack was even waiting for me at the luggage claim.

Genoa is unlike any city I’ve traveled through. Most of the buildings are giant square blocks with banks of windows, often five, six, seven stories tall, stretching along the coastline and ascending the side of the mountains. The effect is that short buildings are suddenly revealed as massive, and sheer drops, steep walls, and stunning views of the city are a daily part of life. It’s breathtaking to stand at the height of rooftop gardens and know that the building falls away for six stories below you. Winding cobble paths connect the major thoroughfares to the apartments, busy streets swarm with pedestrians and vehicles. Many of the buildings here are old, far older than most occupied cities in the Americas. Despite the towering architecture, vegetation is abundant, from mossy paths, to the vines clinging to fences, rooftop gardens, and rows of trees lining sidewalks and shadowing the roads. A thriving port borders the coastline, extending anthropogenic activities over the sparkling waves.

My daily walk to the University

Most of my work takes place at the University of Genoa. The university (est. 1481) is two blocks from the port, and surrounded by similarly historical buildings. It is possible to wander extensively through the university, although this might have more to do with my propensity for becoming lost, and the numerous passages threading throughout the building. I know this because I became slightly misplaced trying to find the paleo laboratory. A word of caution: elevators are not for the claustrophobic, although they are fun to ride.

The lab itself is tucked under one of the buildings and is the most interesting lab I’ve set foot in. Despite whitewashed walls, it has a catacombs vibe (I’m told it was a bunker, although I’m unsure if that was the original purpose), and is larger than any other paleo/archaeology lab I’ve worked in. Each room contains several tables and is lined with shelves full of archaeological material. More archaeological finds, from multiple sites, are tucked into alcoves and the storage room, a winding narrow area at the back. Of course, it has computers and other electronic equipment, and an area to clean and sort artifacts. The only downside is the fact that the lab is naturally cave-like and chilly, but it’s similar to our South African lab in that I am constantly bundled up.

The Paleolab at the University of Genoa

The equipped lab notwithstanding, I brought some specialized equipment for faunal analysis (borrowed from the zooarchaeology lab at CU). As you can tell, this didn’t amount to much:

...But are the basics for any proper analysis. Most of those boxes contain parts of a high-tech electronic microscope and a special light that I can manipulate to look at a bone from every angle. Instant, scaled, high-resolution of photos of specimens.  Usually, I’m the only person here, (except for the student’s lab days), as our Italian colleague Fabio and students are prepping for the field season at a Neanderthal site in northwestern Italy. My goal is to pick up the analysis of the faunal material where it left off last summer, looking at the fauna both from near the burial and from the Neanderthal occupation layers. After two long semesters, it's great to be back in the lab and looking at bones.