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UT Arlington anthropologist awarded prestigious Leakey Foundation grant to research early humans in South Africa

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Media Contact: Bridget Lewis

News Topics: faculty, research

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A University of Texas at Arlington anthropologist has been awarded a grant from the prestigious Leakey Foundation that will enable her to research early humans in South Africa.

Cleghorn surveyed Harkerville Forest, near the Knysna area in 2012.

Naomi Cleghorn, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, will lead a team of researchers and students this summer to 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.

The funding will allow Cleghorn’s team to sift through yards of dirt – similar to an ancient landfill -- that likely contain shellfish remains and other trash left over from the inhabitants of that time period. She believes additional sites in the area may also hold similar findings, but today they are underwater. 

“This Leakey award is 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.”

Scholars have evidence the South African coastline extended 47 miles 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.

“There has been a lot of work on sites dating back from 120,000 to 50,000 years ago and plenty of research done at sites younger than 18,000 years ago,” Cleghorn 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.”

“There’s a drop off in sites dating between 44,000 to 18,000 years ago, and this needs explanation. We found one right in the sweet spot. We got very lucky.”

Cleghorn’s work is part of a larger, international paleoscape project that brings together experts in climate modeling, archeology, agent-based modeling and anthropology. Her team will include researchers from South Africa, Brazil, Australia and Canada as well as current graduate students Erin Nichols and Christopher Shelton, UT Arlington alumnus Daniel Peart, and a student from the University of Washington.

Searching Pinnacle Point site in Mossel Bay, South Africa.

For the past four years Cleghorn has been working with Arizona State University anthropologist Curtis Marean at other sites in South Africa. Analysis of the findings from the Knysna site also will be supported by a grant through ASU’s Institute for Human Origins. Initial excavations at the new site in 2014 were supported through a UT Arlington Research Enhancement Program grant awarded to Cleghorn. She said the results from the first excavations were instrumental in obtaining the Leakey grant.

“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.”

Cleghorn 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 Africa so many centuries ago.

The $25,000 grant from the Leakey Foundation, named for famed paleoanthropologist and archaeologist 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.

Robert Kunovich, chair of the UT Arlington Department of Sociology and Anthropology, acknowledged the importance of Cleghorn’s work and in attracting external funding.

“Obtaining external funding is very challenging and this award speaks to the strength and importance of Dr. Cleghorn’s research,” Kunovich said.

 About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 40,000 students around the world and the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as the seventh fastest-growing public research university in 2013. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more, and find UT Arlington rankings and recognition at www.uta.edu/uta/about/rankings.php.

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