Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sifting through South Africa's archaeologically rich lands

Morris Sutton, a Tennessee factory-manager-turned-archaeologist, feels the wonder of hunting for fossils and Stone Age tools and uncovering a time when mankind was in its adolescence.

When Morris Sutton picks a chipped, ordinary-looking rock from the soil, he's the first to touch the stone tool since an ancestor of man used it nearly 2 million years ago.

In his dim, cool cavern at the bottom of a 30-foot ladder, he feels the wonder of it, breathing in the loamy smell, peering through a window deep into time.

Sutton, 47, an archaeologist, was a Memphis, Tenn., factory manager who grew tired of the flat horizon of commerce and manufacturing and of laying off fellow employees.

So he quit to pursue his hobby: hunting for fossils and Stone Age tools. He went back to college to study archaeology and later moved to South Africa, where he is a postdoctoral researcher with the Institute for Human Evolution at Witwatersrand University.

South Africa is a mecca for archaeologists; its fossils cover an unbroken sweep of prehistoric time, from the first smudge of life through the dinosaur era to early hominids and beyond. Some of the world's most significant fossils were discovered here: the Taung child, Little Foot and, in April, a young male hominid, believed to be a new species, Australopithecus sediba, whose remains appear to be nearly 2 million years old.

"You can look at the latest forms of life and the first evidence of life and all the way through the dinosaurs, all the way through the first emergence of hominids and our ancestors, right through to today. There's nowhere else in the world where you can find that," says Andrea Leenen, head of the Paleontological Scientific Trust, a South Africa not-for-profit organization that sponsors paleontological research.

At Witwatersrand University, the fossil treasures include several eggs of a small dinosaur species, preserved just as they were hatching. Thousands more items sit on shelves and in boxes, not yet chipped out of their rock casings. It will take decades to process them.

Fossil hunters are famous for their egos, jostling for media attention and research funds and holding sniffy debates about whose find is the oldest or the closest ancestor of man.

The soft-spoken Sutton doesn't fit the stereotype of an Indiana Jones-style wunderkind, desperate to unearth the oldest human ancestor. He calibrates his assertions cautiously as he clambers over a rough, dry landscape pocked with caves.

Dixon, Robyn. 2010. "Sifting through South Africa's archaeologically rich lands". Los Angeles Tiimes. Posted: September 27, 2010. Available online:

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