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Faunal Remains from Holocene Deposits, Excavation 1, Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa

Abstract

Ungulate and small mammalian fauna have been recovered from Holocene deposits at Wonderwerk Cave, in the interior of South Africa, in the area of excavation 1. Statistical analyses of relative abundances of rodents and insectivores indicate that conditions were warm (between 19.1 and 19.3 °C) and very dry in the early Holocene in the Wonderwerk palaeo-environment, becoming moister in the mid-Holocene and still moister in the late Holocene. Temperatures in the late Holocene appear to have been about 1 °C lower than conditions in the early to mid-Holocene. In terms of habitats reflected by rodents, the early Holocene is associated with an abundance of the arid-indicator species, Desmodillus auricularis. The degree of aridity subsequently decreases, associated with an increase in a woodland savanna species, Saccostomus campestris. A later increase in abundance of Mystromus albicaudatus reflects an increase in open grassland in the Late Holocene. Equids (zebras) and alcelaphines (including wildebeest and hartebeest) dominate the ungulate assemblages. Two extinct species are represented in the early Holocene, namely Equus capensis (the giant zebra) and Megalotragus priscus (a large alcelaphine). Possible causes of their extinction may include both environmental and cultural factors. Homo sapiens was probably the main agent of accumulation of the Holocene deposits at Wonderwerk, although leopards (Panthera pardus) may have temporarily used the cave in the mid-Holocene at a time when wind-blown Kalahari sands were introduced.

Résumé

Des restes d’ongulés et de petits mammifères ont été découverts lors de la fouille du Secteur 1 des niveaux Holocène de la Grotte de Wonderwerk en Afrique du Sud. Les analyses statistiques basées sur l’abondance relative des rongeurs et des insectivores tendent à indiquer des conditions paléo-environnementales chaudes (entre 19,1 °C et 19,3 °C) et très sèches au début de l’Holocène devenant plus humide à l’Holocène moyen et plus encore durant l’Holocène récent. La température durant l’Holocène récent semble avoir été inférieure d’un degré Celsius par rapport à l’Holocène ancien et moyen. En termes d’habitats reflétés par les rongeurs, l’Holocène ancien est associé à l’abondance de Desmodillus auricularis, une espèce reconnue comme indicateur d’aridité. Ce degré d’aridité diminue ensuite, associé à l’augmentation d’espèces de savane boisée – Saccostomus campestris. Une augmentation de Mystromus albicaudatus reflète quant à elle un accroissement de la prairie ouverte à l’Holocène récent. Les équidés (zèbres) et les alcelaphines (comprenant les gnu et les Hartebeest) dominent parmi l’assemblage d’ongulées. Deux espèces éteintes sont représentées dans l’Holocène ancien, Equus capensis (le zèbre géant) et Mégalotragus priscus (un alcelaphus large). Les causes possibles de leur extinction peuvent inclure des facteurs environnementaux et culturels. Homo sapiens était probablement le facteur principal d’accumulation des dépôts Holocène à Wonderwerk, bien que les léopards (Panthera pardus) aient pu avoir temporairement occupé la grotte durant l’Holocène moyen, lorsque les vents apportèrent les sables du Kalahari.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Anne Thackeray and Peter Beaumont for the pleasure of excavating at Wonderwerk in 1979 and 1980. I thank the late Ben Rouse for his supervision of my PhD thesis at Yale University, and Rick Potts, Harry Merrick and David Pilbeam for their advice and encouragement. Bob Brain, Elisabeth Vrba and the late Elisabeth Voigt of the Transvaal Museum (currently known as the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History in Pretoria) kindly provided access to comparative collections. The late Hillary Deacon gave encouragement and provided opportunity to work on the Wonderwerk project while I was based at the University of Stellenbosch. Janette Deacon helped with the typescript. John Vogel provided radiocarbon dates. Two anonymous referees gave useful comment. The fieldwork and analyses reported on here took place as part of a PhD programme at Yale University with support from a Harry Crossley bursary, a Yale University Fellowship, the Coe Foundation Funds of the Program in Archaeology at Yale University and the Concilium for African Studies at Yale University. This research project was undertaken under the terms of a permit issued by the National Monuments Council of South Africa. The analyses were conducted at the McGregor Museum and at the Transvaal Museum (now called the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History). I am grateful to Michael Chazan and Liora Horwitz for the opportunity to contribute to this volume on Wonderwerk and to participate in the first Wonderwerk Symposium at the cave in 2010.

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Thackeray, J.F. Faunal Remains from Holocene Deposits, Excavation 1, Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Afr Archaeol Rev 32, 729–750 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-015-9201-z

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Keywords

  • Holocene
  • vertebrate
  • fauna
  • South Africa