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Uncovering ancient civilizations

Uncovering ancient civilizations

Anthropology Assistant Professor Naomi Cleghorn records data on analysis samples taken from the 70,000-year-old layers at Pinnacle Point in South Africa. She studies how early Homo sapiens developed complex thoughts.

Naomi Cleghorn is taking a step back from researching the demise of Neanderthals in southern Russia to learn how their cousins in southern Africa behaved.

In 2010 the anthropology assistant professor worked with a Russian research team that theorized massive volcano eruptions in Italy and the Caucasus Mountains wiped out many Neanderthal populations during the last glacial period 40,000 years ago, contributing to the overall demise of the species.

In far southern Africa, early Homo sapiens escaped the toughest times of the last glacial period by moving to the coast and intensively exploiting shellfish. This summer Dr. Cleghorn helped direct research at Pinnacle Point in South Africa, examining how these people—possibly the earliest common ancestors of all living humans—developed the complex thoughts and actions that scientists identify as “modern” behavior. Among these skills were the ability to control fire and use heat to improve the raw material for stone tools. There’s even evidence that these early cultures used ground ochre—a bright red rock—for body painting, a precursor to tattoos.

Naomi Cleghorn

Naomi Cleghorn, anthropology assistant professor

Cleghorn spent last summer at the same place working with Professor Curtis Marean, an archaeologist with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University who leads the research project. Pinnacle Point is near the coastal South African town of Mossel Bay, where excavations have shown people lived between 40,000 and 170,000 years ago and where the oldest evidence of human coastal occupation was found.

Her contributions this summer included beginning an archaeological survey in the Knysna region of South Africa. “We looked for sites that have the potential to extend the coastal archaeological record back into the period of our earliest anatomically and behaviorally modern ancestors.”

Cleghorn is an archaeologist specializing in early human and Neanderthal adaptations, with a particular interest in zooarchaeology, bioarchaeology, and paleoecology. In other words, she looks at the remains of humans and animals in archaeological contexts to understand prehistoric behavior and life histories.

Professor Shelley Smith, chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department, puts Cleghorn’s research into perspective.

“Understanding formative events in our own evolution gives us a deeper understanding of the human condition,” Dr. Smith says. “Relating these events to environmental conditions, such as climate change, is of direct relevance to the choices we must make now and for our future.”