On the Trail of Human Development in the Kalahari

In the framework of a newly approved DFG project, a Kiel archaeologist is investigating the influence of climate change on the evolution of modern humans in Africa

 

That Africa is the cradle of humankind is meanwhile scientifically proven. Fossil finds date the presence of Homo sapiens, today’s humans, to ca. 300,000 years before our time. However, much is still unexplained for the early phase of human development. What influence did climate change have on human development and what role did it play in the emergence of Homo sapiens as the only surviving species among many?

In order to get to the bottom of these questions, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has granted the archaeologist Dr. Michaela Ecker (Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, Kiel University) 1.3 million Euros for the next six years. The funding is provided in the framework of the Emmy Noether Program, which enables outstanding young scientists to qualify for a professorship at an early stage by leading their own working group.

The evolution of humans in Africa is closely linked to environmental and landscape changes. “However, there is hardly any environmental data from terrestrial archives in Southern Africa, in order to understand the influence of this climate change on the biological and cultural evolution of Homo sapiens,” explains Ecker. The project “Kgalagadi Human Origins” begins here and focuses on reconstructions of past climate and environmental conditions at the investigated archaeological sites in the southern Kalahari basin within the border region of Botswana and South Africa.

“In this context, we are concentrating on the time period between 800,000 and 400,000 years before today,” states Ecker. “This was a time of extreme climate change, which is characterised by an increase in the number and intensity of glacial-interglacial climatic phases, i.e. cold and warm periods.”

In close cooperation with archaeologists from Botswana and South Africa as well as international experts from the USA and Great Britain, Ecker reconstructs changes in the flora and the seasonality of precipitation, which have led to the current very dry environment. “The results of this project contribute to our knowledge about human-environmental adaptations in times of severe climate change,” says Ecker.

The new interdisciplinary Emmy Noether group is networked with several institutes of Kiel University. Ecker works together with scientists from the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, the Institute of Geosciences, the Institute for Ecosystem Research, and the Leibniz-Laboratory for Radiometric Dating and Stable Isotope Research.

The project officially commenced on June 1st, 2021. The first field campaign is planned for this year, providing that the COVID-19 circumstances permit it.

Project homepage: www.kho-project.com.

Landscape
© Michaela Ecker

Landscape in the southern Kalahari near Tsabong in Botswana. Stone artefacts are visible in the foreground of the image.

Prehistoric stone artefact
© Michaela Ecker

Prehistoric stone artefact from the southern Kalahari.

River bed
© Michaela Ecker

The dry river bed of the Molopo River. The field work focuses primarily on seasonal rivers and lakes, which are now usually completely dry.

Scientific contact:

Dr. Michaela Ecker
Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology
0431/880-4379
mecker@ufg.uni-kiel.de