News article on the Pondoland P5 project

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Museum pivotal to research

By BARBARA HOLLANDS on November 11, 2015

A high-tech laboratory which is to be the nerve centre of research into the evolution of our early ancestors who lived on the Wild Coast up to 300000 years ago has been established at the East London Museum.

Captivating artefacts like stone tools and a digging stick as well as a ton of soil from various sites and levels along the Pondoland coastline have already been carefully curated, catalogued and stored in the lab in the museum’s old lecture hall.

The P5 Project, which stands for the Pondoland Paleoenvironment, Paleoclimate, Paleoanthropology Project, is headed by world-respected archaeologist Dr Erich Fisher.

He is an associate research scientist at Arizona State University and has assembled a team of high-powered researchers and academics from Barcelona, New York and South Africa to work on the project.

East London Museum principal scientist Kevin Cole said the laboratory, set up last month, was a coup for the museum because “hot off the press” research of national and international significance would be carried out there.

East London Museum principal scientist Kevin Cole

East London Museum principal scientist Kevin Cole

“Dr Fisher had been doing research in the Pinnacle Point caves in Mossel Bay, but the ecological record has been interrupted due to sea level changes and the sites are now sub-marine.

“He has moved to the Wild Coast to fill in the gaps of pre-history because this coastline has remained unchanged for tens of thousands of years,” said Cole.

The research, which is being carried out at Lambasi’s rock shelters and overhangs just north of Mbotyi and at the Mkambati nature reserve, is to establish what hunter gatherers ate and the positive effect it had on their brain development.

“The theory is that with their high-protein shellfish diet, their cognitive abilities developed faster. This is why the Southern African coast is under scrutiny,” said Cole, who showed the Daily Dispatch team scores of stone tools recovered from the archaeological sites which were fashioned to scrape shellfish off rocks or sharpened to slice through the hides of washed-up seals.

Small packages of tightly wrapped soil samples which were packed in the darkness of rock shelters to protect them being exposed to molecule-altering sunlight, have been shelved in the roomy lab and will be shipped to Wollongong University near Sydney which has specialised equipment to date them.

“The samples have been computerised with barcodes which puts them in context of exactly where they were found. Our lab is important as it has the room to curate the material for future research.”

Cole said Dr Fisher, along with his team of archaeologists, geologists and paleobotanists would be back at the Wild Coast and at the lab in February next year and again in October/November.

“Once the project is over a lot of artefacts will go under permanent curatorship at Grahamstown’s Albany Museum, which has an archaeology department,” said Cole.

About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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