Job Talk for Origins of Human Culture archaeology search: "Building Multidisciplinary Research in Terra Incognita: Current Results from the Malawi" by Jessica Thompson


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  • Host Department: Anthropology
  • Date: 02/08/2013
  • Time: 4:00 PM

  • Location: 411 West Hall

  • Description:

    Research on the origins and dispersal of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans has fueled one of the most prominent theoretical debates in anthropology. This work has shown that many of the important changes leading to modern behavioral complexity occurred in Africa during the Middle Stone Age (MSA – from ca. 280 – 30 thousand years ago [ka]). However, one major unresolved issue is if the emergence of this complexity occurred over a short or a long chronology. Another such issue is how behavioral change and/or population movements may have been structured by major shifts in paleoclimate. Efforts to resolve these issues have been frustrated by: 1) An empirical record that has few and unevenly distributed stratified sites; 2) Poor geochronological control; 3) Few localities with both Middle and Late Pleistocene artifactbearing deposits; and 4) Archaeological deposits that lack accompanying high-resolution paleoclimatic datasets. Recently, one of the longest and most detailed terrestrial paleoclimate records in Africa was described from cores taken in the northern basin of Lake Malawi, in central Africa. These records show that several periods of ‘megadrought’ occurred in the region between ca. 135 – 75 ka, during which time water volumes in Lake Malawi were reduced by as much as 95%. As local environments underwent dramatic change, MSA populations at this important crossroads in Africa would have become fragmented, reconfigured, and possibly mobilized or displaced. However, MSA archaeology has been geographically dominated by the better-known records of the eastern and southern African subregions – leading to the false impression that there was little MSA occupation at all adjacent to Lake Malawi. In fact, new research in the Karonga District of northern Malawi shows that it holds an exceptional MSA record suitable for testing these climate-structured demographic models of modern human origins. The Malawi Earlier-Middle Stone Age Project (MEMSAP) was developed to assemble from this record the first long Middle-Late Pleistocene sequence of techno-behavioral change in central Africa. To date, full excavations at six sites have provided large artifact assemblages for analysis, contextualized by broad-scale surface survey and geoarchaeological results from over

    70 test pits across the Karonga landscape. Variability in both stone artifact manufacture and depositional context is apparent, with many sites demonstrably in situ. The work has also led to the rediscovery and reanalysis of significant sites that had been cursorily reported in the 1960s, including an alleged Middle Pleistocene elephant butchery site and an important Late Pleistocene open-air site with modified ochre. Here, the results of four seasons of fieldwork demonstrate how this ongoing multidisciplinary research project was built, and how a landscape approach to these problems has been both theoretically and practically implemented in the field.