INSIDE the cave was cool blue shade but out in the valley the sunlight fell like sheets of yellow stone. A hard breeze blew down the sandstone bluffs and whipped the fine brown river sand but I stood under the overhang and watched five people with fine instruments and all the patience in the world reach down and sift through time.
I was in the Cederberg Mountains this week, in the beautiful painted reaches and arroyos of Bushmans Kloof, and a flipflop-wearing Australian with an atrocious beard and stone-washed blue eyes named Alex Mackay was taking me through the archaeological diggings in the Mertenhof overhang at the confluence of the Doring and Biedou rivers.
Alex and his partner Aara are leading the two teams of filthy, splendid excavators, he all messy passion and infectious excitement, summing up great swathes of archaeological space-time with swinging arms, she all cool precision and meticulous Austrian measurement. How precise and measured? I sat at dinner at the lodge that night and watched her neatly cut a chocolate meringue exactly in half before eating it.
On the cave wall above their heads was a handprint in red, an indeterminable number of thousand years old. I hovered my own hand over it, like a cursor over a link that no longer works, and felt that strange, incommunicative kinship of contact with human beings who lived and were here and managed to record it but whose lives are just on the other side of a dark stone curtain. I was very happy to be there.
I’ve been on digs before in Egypt and in Greece but this one felt different. Those others were more recent Middle Kingdom and Bronze Age sites where diggers were looking for kings and language and cities, but human beings have lived in the Cederberg for at least 120 000 years and their history is marked in the more muted eloquence of stone: scrapers and axe heads and knife points hewn from quartz and hornfels and silcrete.
This team isn’t looking for the showoffs — the loud mouths and shamans and masters of men, the Michelangelos and Agamemnons who put themselves on the wall so that we still notice them today. Standing waist-deep in the centuries, their feet in the ice age, they’re looking for traces of ordinary people who lived and dreamed and loved and grieved in obscurity, just as we used to do.
It’s comforting to consider that long continuity of humankind, the thin chain of us that stretches backward and forward, pushed and pulled but mostly surviving. In the end they became us and we’ll become someone else and we’re all just stardust mingled with rockdust and the wider our perspective, the less any one bit of it matters in the end.
I admire the six young archaeologists in that cave, and the others across beside the river, as much as anyone I’ve met in a long time. They sit through the hot hours of the day, labouring a grain of time at a time to construct a wider angle on our story. They aren’t hoping to reach down in the dust and triumphantly pull out a missing link or a smoking gun or some Indiana Jones aha! moment. They’re part of a long, slow process, adding each new mini-pixel of fact to every other one in order to create a clearer and clearer picture. Their patience and their temperament is weird to me, but very wonderful.
The year isn’t over but already it has been a tiring one, filled with tragedies and panics and, above all, the growing clamour of voices and egos, mine and others, opining about them, demanding to be noticed, on television and in newspapers, on blogs and social media: a grinding din of individuals yelling to be noticed now, rewarded at once with attention. It was immensely soothing to be in the presence of people doing the hard, long, unglamorous and largely egoless work of science: collecting data, aggregating pinpoints of knowledge that accumulate like sedimentary layers and against which we can beat our theories and hypotheses and build better ones, making our pointillist model of who we are.
Not that any model can fully accommodate the oddness of humans. Last year the team uncovered the skeletons of two buried children. They might be 5 000 or 10 000 or 15 000 years old, buried beneath their neat cairn of rocks. The sandstone soil is acidic there so the bone no longer held together — however carefully handled, applied, the trowel passed right through. Until the bone glue was applied, it was just a white concentration of dust. Nearby were two mongooses, neatly laid under their own small cairns of stones. Pets? Totems? Ritual sacrifices?
“Why would anyone bury a mongoose?” I asked.
Alex grinned and shrugged. “People are weird,” he said.
This team isn’t looking for the showoffs — the loud mouths and shamans and masters of men, the Michelangelos and Agamemnons who put themselves on the wall so that we still notice them today.