Prometheus Unfounded: Contradictions and Conundrums at Wonderwerk Cave

Wonderwerk Cave profile (Photo by M. Chazan)

I’ve previously opined on aspects of the claim for very early fire use at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa here, here, here, and here. In brief, it’s Swiss cheese. Today I’m beginning to look at Peter Beaumont’s 2011 synthesis of the ‘evidence’ for hearths in the cave, published in Current Anthropology. Forgive me if this comes across as unusually pedantic–I find the author’s descriptions to be less-than rigorously scientific, and thus less-than helpful if one’s hoping to cast a critical eye on what amounts to his life’s work. I’ve found it all very difficult to wrap my brain around. See what you think.   
     Beaumont begins his discussion of what he calls ‘hearths’ by mentioning that in places he observed ‘poorly defined ash lenses’ and in other places ‘ash-rich’ deposits, which he thought had been ‘single hearths … largely destroyed (perhaps by trampling).’ It’s unfortunate that there could be so much ambiguity entailed in such a short paragraph.
     First of all, what really is the difference between a ‘poorly defined lens’ and an ‘ash-rich deposit’? Aren’t they both ‘ash rich’ if you can recognize the ash in profile? And what about the other sequelae of burning, charcoal and the reddened substrate. I would have expected any fire that could turn plant fuel to ash would have been sufficiently hot and of such a duration that it would also have reddened the sediments beneath the fire. Moreover, in many cases where reddened sediments and ash are visible in a stratigraphic sequence there is a higher than average chance that there will be a layer of charcoal-enriched or blackened sediment between the reddened substrate and the ash. Trampled or not, Beaumont’s inference that these ash lenses were hearths is hardly to be believed on the face of it.
     Presumably Beaumont wants us to believe that, in the case of the ‘ash-rich’ places, any vertical distinction that at one time would have been evident between the ash and the reddened sediments had been obliterated by treadage. Yet, if that were the case, how is it that he’s able to discern anything that might be called discrete (albeit poorly defined) ash lenses? For Beaumont to be able to observe ‘lenses’ comprising ash, those lenses must have escaped, in large part, the destructive results of trampling. And surely, if the ash ‘lenses’ had escaped the ravages of time and trampling such that they were visible in profile, the underlying reddened sediments would also have retained enough integrity to be visible, too! Yet, the author mentions nothing about the substrate, reddened or otherwise. Odd. On the other hand, one has to agree that in all likelihood it was trampling that transformed what had once been intact ash deposits elsewhere in the cave into something the author calls (merely) ‘ash-rich.’

[My recognizing problems with Beaumont’s after-the-fact verbal descriptions doesn’t ensure that the his inferences are incorrect. However, one does have to wonder. Doesn’t one? One would have thought that a perspicacious referee or editor would have noticed these vague and incongruous descriptions. Wouldn’t one?] 

     Alas, the abovementioned ‘hearths’ aren’t the only curiosities to be found in Beaumont’s treatment of putative fire use at 1+ Ma. In another example he describes stratum MU2, in excavation 5, where as much as 45 cm (!) of the stratigraphic column ‘is very largely composed of white ash with many burned bones and fire-damaged Middle Stone Age artifacts.’ This ash apparently ‘accumulated slowly’ and continuously between about 1,155,000 and about 70,000 years ago. [Get out your calculators!] 
     Depending on what Beaumont means by ‘very largely composed of’ [and it’s not at all clear], it sounds as if he’s suggesting that for 1,085,000 years a very wide area of the cave received little other sedimentary input than that of completely combusted plant material. That’s a prodigiously long time for a single depositional process to have endured, and a phenomenally long time for a large surface comprising a substance as mobile as ash to have survived without either blowing away or being adulterated by larger [especially inorganic], autochthonous clastic input. 
     Even more mysterious: Beaumont claims that the ash was the result of thousands of fires fueled by above 15 tons of fuel. It’s really hard for me to imagine that such a focus of hominid activity could have escaped the inevitable, and destructive, treadage that would have accompanied that use of that part of the cave for what amounts to a single activity–that of making and keeping fire–over such a vast expanse of time. I suppose it’s not impossible. But, probable? I really don’t think so. Plausible? Barely.
     Beaumont’s description of MU 2 in excavation 5 just makes no sense. If his account of its clastic composition is accurate, nothing but a long-lived colony of fire-loving faeries could have produced it! There must be alternative explanations. And, indeed there are, provided by an unlikely source–the latter-day excavators of Wonderwerk Cave, the very ones who have recently reprised Beaumont’s long-standing claim of fire use by Acheulean hominids.
     Here’s what Matmon, Chazan, Porat and Horwitz conclude in ‘Reconstructing the history of sediment deposition in caves: A case study from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa‘ published in the Geological Society of America Bulletin (First published online October 14, 2011, doi: 10.1130/​B30410.1).

The cave sediments comprise a sequence of fine sands and silts that were transported naturally by wind to the environs of the cave and later into the cave by water. Transport within the cave occurred by low-energy water sheetflow, which distributed and deposited the sediment in its final location. Field observations and grain-size distribution analysis of the sediments inside and outside of the cave imply the following sediment transport scenario: eolian transport of Kalahari sand to the Kuruman Hills, slope wash of the eolian sediment into the intermontane valleys, fluvial transport of the sediment from the intermontane valleys to the entrance of the cave, and final deposition of the sediment inside the cave by low-energy water action.

 These are the verbatim conclusions. Unfortunately for the authors, this sequence of transport processes leading to the input of allochthonous sands and silts at Wonderwerk Cave can equally explain the presence of anything that would be as easily transported as sands and silts. Indeed, anything lighter than fine sand–if it shows up at the doorstep–would have been subsequently transported into the cave by sheetwash. Sheesh! They’ve done my work for me! 
     Their conclusions also solve a riddle that I found while wandering through the images from Wonderwerk. This one shows non-conformable and curiously wavy strata. I’ve drawn yellow rectangles where I see evidence of what appear to be erosional events overlain by non-conformable strata. These observations support the conclusions of Matmon et al. It appears that there have been numerous erosional episodes during the build-up of sediments in Wonderwerk Cave. The wavy contacts suggest an agent even more energetic than sheetwash. If these observations are borne out it’s clear that at times the input of material and liquid from outside the cave was considerable.     

After Berna et al. 2011

Make of it what you will. 
     Beaumont describes ‘grass mats’ in various stages of combustion that occur here and there in the cave. Regardless of how they arrived at the cave’s doorstep, in they went–wind-whipped dry grass, partly combusted grass, grass ash [try saying that five times really fast without saying something unfit for polite company], small bits of burned bone made as light as fine sand by partial combustion. You name it! Matmon et al.’s conclusion opens the door to serious questioning of Wonderwerk’s depositional history. How can they claim, unequivocally, that any wind-transportable allochthonous sediments came to rest in the cave by the hands of hominids?
     Seriously! They are way past the bounds of logical inference when they claim that any of the tiny particles that Berna et al. describe in exquisite micromorphological detail were left there as a result of hominid behaviour. Somebody’s gotta tell them. I’m trying me best. But they appear not to be listening.
     So, get out there to the meetings and to your classrooms and call out the litany of overwrought inferences of hominid behaviour that keep emanating from Wonderwerk Cave!     

One thing’s for sure: the excavations at Wonderwerk Cave are looking more and more like job security for this Subversive Archaeologist.

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It’s Not Monday! It’s Fry-Day.

I just pressed send on an email to Francesco Berna and Paul Goldberg, asking them to respond to my argument just the other day that they shouldn’t have expected to see Berlinite in the fire-affected sediments at Wonderwerk Cave. Viz.

Berna, et al. 2012. Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa. PNAS April 2, 2012. Published online before print April 2, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1117620109

Remember? They argued that the fire had to have been deliberately introduced to the cave by hominids because they found nothing that would suggest that spontaneous combustion of bat guano was responsible. They erroneously believe that bat guano spontaneous combustion necessarily produces Berlinite. But they are tripped up by an empirical bump in the road. They report finding the effects of heat, but only up to 550 degrees Celsius. Unbeknownst to them, Berlinite forms at 583. Thus, their claim for fire use at 1 Ma is baseless. 
     I’m hoping that the direct approach will coax them either to overcome the shortcomings of their empirical findings or publish a retraction of their huge claim that at 1 Ma hominids were using fire.

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