In 2018, we initiated renewed excavation of the Later Stone Age (LSA) deposits at Wonderwerk Cave. Here we describe the goals and initial results of the first two seasons of excavation, including the first micromorphological description of these deposits. We employed a small-scale excavation technique to emphasize precision recording and limit the destruction of sensitive deposits. Our preliminary results indicate that meaningful patterns in material culture records and paleoecological proxy materials can be derived from such investigations.
Bioturbation of the LSA deposits is widespread in our micromorphological samples, suggesting that some post-depositional movement of the sediment occurred but did not impact overall stratigraphic integrity. This is supported by the radiocarbon chronology (derived from various material records), which indicates that this movement had a limited effect on the material record.
Three technocomplexes (the Kuruman/Oakhurst, Wilton, and Historic) were identified in the new Wonderwerk lithic material record, alongside increasing evidence for a period of intensified use and/or occupation of the site during the Wilton – a pattern previously identified by the F. Thackeray’s and A. Thackeray’s 1970s excavations. New radiocarbon ages support previous determinations placing the timing of this intensification at ca. 6200 years cal BP.
Faunal and ostrich eggshell records also support previous findings, confirming an anthropogenic origin for the faunal remains and suggesting that different pathways of OES bead production were employed at the site at different times. The presence of herbivore dung and associated spherulites in a micromorphology thin section provides a new potential line of evidence to support the Thackeray’s tentative suggestion for sheep herding at the site ca. 2000 years BP. While this evidence is far from conclusive, it suggests that the Wonderwerk Cave LSA record may have a role to play in resolving the timing of the adoption of sheep by hunter-gatherers on the Ghaap Plateau.
Our work on the LSA at Wonderwerk Cave serves as a touchstone within the more regionally focused Northern Cape Archaeology and Ecology Project (NCAEP) – an international and interdisciplinary research project studying the LSA paleoenvironment of the South African arid interior. Ultimately, NCAEP is designed to produce a multi-proxy diachronic climatic record of the Northern Cape firmly situated within new and existing radiocarbon chronologies.