SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

September 09, 2016 14:00 ET

Stone tools, diet and sociality at the dawn of humanity

$2.4 M SSHRC grant funds international team of experts led by University of Calgary archaeologist in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - September 09, 2016) - Earlier this summer University of Calgary archaeologist Julio Mercader began working with a multidisciplinary team of researchers to study ancient diets, stone tools and sociality in the face of environmental changes at several sites known to be some of the cradles of humanity, dating back 1.8 million years.

The multi-ear excavations – made possible thanks to a SSHRC Partnership Grant for $2,461,839 over seven years – will mark the first time that a Canadian led team has ventured into the Olduvai Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Heavily excavated for decades, Olduvai Gorge has been invaluable in furthering the understanding of human evolution, demonstrating how social complexities developed in the earliest humans. Particularly revealing is the evolving production of stone tools discovered in the area.

And yet, this important paleoanthropological site has never seen an excavation program as comprehensive as the one Mercader has stepped up to co-lead. "There has never been a partnership this wide and far-reaching at the Olduvai Gorge, with so many experts from different labs, institutions and countries," says Mercader, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary. "The mix of research topics is truly compelling, because we're covering the technology, the climate, the diet, the plant life, the human realities. That mix is important. This is the sort of effort that no single team of researchers could achieve on its own."

Indeed, the team Mercader brings together will include 20 scholars from 10 organizations and four countries, including universities in the U.S., Spain, Tanzania and Canada, with McMaster University the other Canadian institution on board. The partnership extends across disciplines to include archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, museologists, social and environmental scientists, geoscientists, biologists and conservationists.

Mercader notes that the biological diversity of the Olduvai Gorge adds greatly to its richness as a source of paleoanthropoligical discoveries. A key objective of his team will be to explore the correlation between climate change on the site and shifting technologies, food processing abilities and diets over time.

"For about a half a million years, from around 1.8 to 1.3 million years ago, we can see evolution from a technological point of view and we begin to understand how climate change had an impact on the resources these early humans exploited," says Mercader. "We can observe how their diet went from simple to one more complex, where they began to combine meat and plant life. We're looking at a complex manipulation of the ecosystem, in the face of climate change."

Mercader adds that there is a contemporary value to studying the way early humans adapted to climate change. "We look at the ways in which drought impacted the landscape and the food resources and how early humanity was able to adapt to these changes, modifying their diets and the ways that they lived," says Mercader. "These are problems that we also face today. We are still adapting to climate change."

Olduvai Gorge is also invaluable for the technological changes it reveals in the same time frame, between 1.8 and 1.3 million years ago, as early humans moved from the use of crude tools to hand axes and cleavers. "This represents a seminal evolution in human technology," Mercader says.

While their SSHRC Partnership Grant is for seven years, Mercader and his team hope to create long term opportunities in the Olduvai Gorge by building bridges with the traditional land owners in the area so that the work being done continues. The goal is to make Olduvai Gorge self-sustainable as a national and international resource.

"This Partnership Grant highlights our expertise in understanding how humans adapt to change, which is a key component of our Human Dynamics in a Changing World research strategy," says Anne Katzenberg, Associate Vice-President (Research) and a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. "It also provides exceptional opportunities for international exchange and student training. We congratulate Julio Mercader and look forward to all that will be achieved as part of this project."

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