South African Palaeocave Survey

Andy and Kristi collect data at edge of sinkhole

One of the well-known features of Plio-Pleistocene early hominid sites in South Africa is that they are all associated with historic lime mines – think of Taung, Sterkfontein, Makapansgat, and others. Thus in both a geological sense, and historically, observations in the field have led to a strong connection between the mines and the quest to locate new fossil localities in the dolomite formations. In learning more about mining history and, it is thought that field methods can be refined to identify areas which will hold potential fossil sites. This can be done using portable GPS and ArcPad which allows the addition of new features or locations. Without ArcPad and the GPS relocating historic lime mines and plotting the accurate location of new sites for our database would be incredibly difficult.
The main objective of our project is to locate historic mining sites, and to evaluate whether they contain deposits and other features that are useful to palaeoanthropologists. We are looking for a variety of in situ (i.e., undisturbed) deposits including:

  • speleothem or cave formations, which can be sampled to obtain geological dates, and for stable isotopes which tell us about past climatic and environmental conditions;
  • cave infill sediments (derived from soil and other debris from both outside and inside the cave), which can tell us how the cave filled in, and also may contain evidence of the outside environment such as pollen;
  • fossil bone, including those of reptiles, birds, and rodents, as well as of larger animals including bovids, carnivores, primates, and of course, our own ancestors (hominids).

For some sites, the presence of such evidence can be quite obvious, especially if there are dense fossil deposits just waiting to be excavated. However, at other sites, it can take considerable effort to determine whether this evidence is present. Some sites are small and the deposits easily located, and others – especially when the mining activity was extensive – can be complex and more difficult to define.

To follow this research click on the following link South African Palaeocaves