Editlyn At Sibudu 1

Pro­fes­sor Lyn Wadley at Sibudu. Pho­to cour­tesy Pro­fes­sor Mar­l­ize Lombard

It is impos­si­ble to think about the past with­out using your imag­i­na­tion. Pro­fes­sor Lyn Wadley, an archae­ol­o­gist, has spent years using hers and test­ing ideas in order to unlock secrets of the past.

For the past 14 years, Wadley has lead a team of archae­ol­o­gists work­ing at Sibudu rock shel­ter in KwaZu­lu-Natal where they uncov­ered new evi­dence that sheds light on ear­ly humans’ cog­ni­tive ability. 

Dur­ing the Mid­dle Stone Age, 77,000 years ago, our human ances­tors were smart enough to choose plants that con­tained insect repel­lant to sleep on. Fos­silised grass stems and leaves, most like­ly orig­i­nal­ly from the uThon­gathi Riv­er near Sibudu, were pos­si­bly also used by humans to live and work on.

Find­ing the fos­sil plants, as well as per­fo­rat­ed shells that were used as beads, have been major career high­lights for Wadley. Sibudu is only the sec­ond site in South Africa where these shells have been found,” she says. The oth­er is Blom­bos Cave in the West­ern Cape.”

Wadley’s work doesn’t stop at just lead­ing the fos­sil site, she also tests the ideas pro­posed through prac­ti­cal exper­i­ments, a prac­tice known as exper­i­men­tal archae­ol­o­gy. For exam­ple, traces of red ochre were found in old stone tools, where it was used in an adhe­sive to attach the han­dle. Wadley con­duct­ed exper­i­ments and mixed Aca­cia tree gum, beeswax and red ochre, and the result was the iden­ti­cal adhesive. 

This exper­i­ment showed that mod­ern humans 77,000 years ago were able to mul­ti-task. Look­ing at how red ochre was used, I ini­tial­ly thought this was sim­ple tech­nol­o­gy imple­ment­ed in a func­tion­al way, but when I began my test I realised it was a high­ly com­pli­cat­ed process involv­ing manip­u­lat­ing fire, and heat­ing the mate­ri­als that have dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties at dif­fer­ent temperatures.”

Archae­ol­o­gist and co-researcher at the Sibudu cave shel­ter, Pro­fes­sor Mar­l­ize Lom­bard, says exper­i­men­tal archae­ol­o­gy is cru­cial in build­ing the­o­ries that can be used to hypoth­e­sise about past tech­nolo­gies, By try­ing to repli­cate cer­tain tech­nolo­gies now, and under­stand what their appli­ca­tion entails, archae­ol­o­gists can gain some insight into the ways peo­ple were think­ing and behav­ing in the past,” says Lombard.

Wadley grew up in Zim­bab­we where she spent time trav­el­ling, vis­it­ing caves and look­ing at rocks. This stim­u­lat­ed me to study archae­ol­o­gy,” says Wadley. 

It was also in Zim­bab­we that Wadley received her teacher’s train­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Lat­er on, she moved to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cape Town where she grad­u­at­ed with a Master’s in archae­ol­o­gy in 1976. The more senior part of her career was spent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand (Wits) where she com­plet­ed her Ph.D in archae­ol­o­gy in 1987

As a researcher Wadley has pub­lished more than 100 aca­d­e­m­ic papers and has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on gen­der and archae­ol­o­gy. In terms of research, women are invis­i­ble in archae­o­log­i­cal record,” says Wadley. 

She explains that, with a large focus on big game hunt­ing, this research only refers to men hunters. How­ev­er, she said we need­ed to realise that women were just as empow­ered in the past. The fos­sil record shows how ear­ly humans used snares to catch small ani­mals, which were also an impor­tant source of pro­tein. We know that this activ­i­ty is some­thing women are capa­ble of, so they must have been involved.”

Wadley went on to become a pro­fes­sor in the Archae­ol­o­gy Depart­ment at Wits and, even though she is now offi­cial­ly retired, still super­vis­es Ph.D stu­dents. With more than 30 years of teach­ing and lec­tur­ing expe­ri­ence, Wadley says that oppor­tu­ni­ties for women in archae­ol­o­gy have grown.

In the mid 1980s and up until the 90s women were not on the same lev­el as men in archae­ol­o­gy. Both pub­li­ca­tions and exca­va­tions were dom­i­nat­ed by men.” 

As prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor at 14 dif­fer­ent fos­sil sites Wadley has pio­neered the way for women archae­ol­o­gists to fol­low in her foot­steps. I’ve real­ly tried to nur­ture women and encour­age them, to give them con­fi­dence. Most of my Ph.D stu­dents have been women and they have pub­lished extensively.”

Chris­tine Siev­ers, a Ph.D stu­dent at Wits Uni­ver­si­ty, says work­ing with Wadley at the Sibudu Cave shel­ter, and hav­ing her as a super­vi­sor, has been won­der­ful. Lyn is incred­i­bly patient and gen­er­ous with her time. She not only leads us in the aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing process but gives us sup­port and encour­age­ment to pub­lish and to present at conferences.” 

Siev­ers says that their suc­cess in find­ing so much data at Sibudu, and being able to inter­pret it so well, is because Wadley has brought togeth­er a team of researchers from across the world. Lyn has this anal­o­gy where she says we are all the threads in a tapes­try and togeth­er we make a brighter pic­ture, which has been a great project to be a part of.”

Lom­bard echoes this. Lyn’s work eth­ic in the field is remark­able. Yet her soft-spo­ken and calm but assertive lead­er­ship com­bined with her pas­sion for archae­ol­o­gy always brought out the best in every­one work­ing at Sibudu. We shared many a chuck­le because of her dry yet sharp sense of humour. And every­one who exca­vat­ed with Lyn, at Sibudu or else­where, will tell you that her din­ner menu is by far the best!”

Wadley is now retired and spends her time super­vis­ing Ph.D stu­dents and doing research, There is still so much mate­r­i­al from Sibudu and a lot of papers that need to be writ­ten about it,” she says.

As an only child she enjoyed to read, write and paint. Pro­fes­sor Robert Broom was an avid painter of land­scapes and Pro­fes­sor Philip Tobias is also a writer. Wadley says that the inter­est of sci­en­tists in the cre­ative arts is not sur­pris­ing. Sci­ence and art go togeth­er nat­u­ral­ly. You need to use a lot of imag­i­na­tion to think about what hap­pened in the past.”

Maropeng is thrilled to be exhibit­ing some of the fos­sils that Wadley and her team dis­cov­ered at Sibudu, in a new fos­sil dis­play, What makes us human: The sig­nif­i­cance of the Sibudu Cave shel­ter. These fos­sils will be on dis­play until the end of May 2012