Grant Funds Research on Early Humans

Cleghorn
Cleghorn

Thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Leakey Foundation, Assistant Professor Naomi Cleghorn (Anthropology) will spend her summer making history as she digs for history in South Africa.

For six weeks beginning in July, Cleghorn will lead a team of researchers and students from across the U.S. and South Africa at a site near Knysna, South Africa, on the southern coast of the continent. She believes the site dates to a rarely represented time period – between 44,000 and 18,000 years ago – and holds never-before-seen evidence of early human evolution.

“There has been a lot of work on sites dating from 120,000 to 50,000 years ago and plenty of research done at sites younger than 18,000 years ago,” she said, “but there are few sites in between those time periods. The population in that region leading up to this time was one of the largest on Earth compared to other groups around the globe. But there’s a drop off in sites dating between 44,000-18,000 years ago, and this needs explanation.

“We found one right in the sweet spot. We got very lucky.”

The grant will enable Cleghorn’s team to sift through long “occupation layers,” or yards of dirt that likely contains shellfish remains and other trash left over from the people living during that time period. She believes additional sites in the area may also hold similar findings, but today they are underwater – scholars have evidence the South African coastline extended 75 kilometers farther south more than 20,000 years ago. The Knysna site sits on a shelf that would have overlooked a larger gathering of humans living closer to the shore.

“This [Leakey} award is an acknowledgement of how important this site is going to be,” Cleghorn said. “There’s nothing else down there like this. I’m amazed it wasn’t dug previously. The Leakey Foundation recognizes this is worth investing in.”

Cleghorn’s work is part of a larger, international paleoscape project, an initiative that brings together experts in climate modeling, archeology, agent modeling and anthropology. “The idea is to create good bridging arguments between the paelo-climate data we have and human behavior,” she said. Her team will include researchers from South Africa, Brazil, Australia and Canada as well as current graduate students Erin Nichols and Christopher Shelton, former UT Arlington alumnus Daniel Pert, and a student from University of Washington.

For the past four years Cleghorn has been working with anthropologist Curtis Marean (Arizona State University) at other sites in South Africa. (Marean was the keynote speaker at the 2011 Ben and Trudy Termini Distinguished Anthropologist Lecture.) Analysis of the findings from the Knysna site, Cleghorn said, will also be supported by a grant through ASU’s Institute for Human Origins.

Cleghorn said she plans a series of articles based on her research as well as extending the conversation on what may have happened to early humans living in South African so many centuries ago.

“The implication of this research is to figure out what the population is doing during this time,” she said. “Is there really a de-population event like some believe? It doesn’t look like it genetically. Some argue a climate issue may have had an impact on that population… and we’ll be able to test that. “

The Leakey Foundation, named for famed anthropologist Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey, supports projects that examine the origins of early humans. Researchers Don Johanson, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey are just a few previous Leakey grant winners. UTA officials are thrilled Cleghorn is among such esteemed company.

“Obtaining external funding is very challenging and this award speaks to the strength and importance of Dr. Cleghorn’s research,” said Associate Professor Robert Kunovich, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

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(Story by James Dunning/COLA Communications, jdunning@uta.edu)

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