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How the Makgadikgadi wins the race for the Cradle of Humankind

The Pans are the remains of Lake Makgadikgadi. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
The trending conclusions of the Aussie-South African research team may have the fault of depending on a singular line of argument – in this case genetics, and particularly DNA of the female chromosomes – to make far-reaching inferences.

However, what is heart-warming is that their research is real science and the proposed location offers much weightier possibilities than the ‘Lost City of the Kalahari’ in the van De Post fables.

What is reassuring, therefore, is that the conclusion can be confirmed or refuted by science. I posit that the debate will occupy academia for another 20 years before it subsides. Their method did not need them to set foot in the Makgadikgadi as their genetics data utilised blood samples from existing populations in neighbouring South Africa and Namibia. 

As suggested in personal communication this week with Professor Sheila Coulson and Dr. Sigrid Staurset of Oslo University, traditionally DNA mapping has not been applied to landscapes, but rather on where the people with the oldest genetic material are currently living, not where they were 200,000 years ago.

The study by Hayes, while challenged for its methodological approach and boldness could not have picked a better location in the Makgadikgadi.

Until recently, the Botswana National Museum had a record of only about 30 Middle Stone Age Sites in the Makgadikgadi that go as far back as about 200,000 years old to about 40,000 years back. The 30 sites were reported on account of the presence of actual Stone Age tools of blades, arrow points and related flakes.

Of course there are also several ESA sites identified through what are known as Acheulian Handaxes. However, further afield, ongoing collaborative research by the National Museum, the University of Botswana, Universities of Oxford, Brighton and Oslo is worth noting. It has revealed tens of other hitherto unrecorded Middle Stone Age Sites from a small sampled corner of the Makgadikgadi. 

From such I now suggest the Makgadikgadi may actually be home to well over 200 Middle Stone Age locales. This intensified discovery of the archaeological wealth of the Makgadikgadi is made possible because of the Chaine Operatoire approach led by Professor Coulson and Dr. Staurset. The approach has allowed us to determine other signatures other than formal tools to point to the presence of more MSA sites in the Makgadikgadi.

The reason why the Makgadikgadi was previously not the natural dream location for archaeological research is because the landscape is largely open flat plains as opposed to caves and rock shelters.

Invariably caves and rock shelters are preferred for archaeological digs because they are known to preserve the remains within them in manners that are less prone to confused matrix. Therefore, conventionally, open-air sites like those of the Makgadikgadi are despised for their unreliability in preserving artefacts in orderly profile.

However, one startling observation of the ongoing

Makgadikgadi multi-disciplinary research is that a combined array of factors including the soil type, the geomorphology, the flat terrain and climatic conditions of the Makgadikgadi actually present more in-situ material (as close as possible to where it was when it was abandoned hundreds of thousands of years back) than hitherto thought about open air sites.

The results of this collaborative study will go a long way in providing confidence amongst researchers – now that the Hayes study pinpoints to this as the Eden of humanity.

Unlike previously contesting cradle of human kind locations in South Africa and, say East Africa, the Makgadikgadi has not produced hominid remains.

However, researchers will agree that the Makgadikgadi saltpans being predominantly a calcium carbonate product are more likely to preserve hominid and other skeletal remains.

We already have their stone tools and industry relics in abundance so where are the bones of the Adams and Eves? Already at Xaisini just North of Gweta – which by the way is part of the Makgadikgadi – we have fossil bones of various wildlife imbedded in pan floors.

It is for this potential of the Makgadikgadi and the sensitive nature of the terrain that law enforcement needs to be strengthened in ensuring that all developments in the area follow strict environmental impact studies including the archaeological. Even approved projects should be monitored.

For instance, the Sua Mine and any other mining operations and borrow pits should be regularly monitored by archaeologists and palaeontologists for inspections of both the dumps and the profiles, screening for potential signatures in deliberate and passionate search of the Adams and Eves of the Makgadikgadi.

With all eyes focusing on this Botswana World Heritage Tentative List site, it is only a matter of time that Makgadikgadi environs should yield the hominids who traversed this landscape. My bet is in the Mokubilo area where the landscape already preserves the 250 million-year extinct Glosapteris plant near Makgaba settlement.

However, the Kaitshe Hills too deserve attentive walk if we are to pursue the currently elusive remains of the ‘Matsieng’ of the Makgadikgadi.

The prospects for tourism are immense. The Makgadikgadi are already popular with a sentimental class of tourists who adore the expanse of the terrain and whose hearts melt at the vistas, the sunsets and the sunrises.

Now the fact that one is watching the sunsets and sunrises in the same area where the very humans first spoke will heighten the prospects for sustained tourist presence in the area.

*Phillip Segadika is a landscape archaeologist and Head of the Archaeology and Monuments Division at the Botswana National Museum





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