Operation Zembe

Underwater searches for the oldest traces of mankind

When in 1995 and 1996 ancient stone tools were found on the bottom of Table Bay, nobody could foresee then that these discoveries would result in an international research project. By Dr. Bruno Werz, Southern African Institute of Maritime Archaeology (SAIMA) & Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria

article werz 12The tools were discovered close to the shipwrecks of the ‘Oosterland’ and the ‘Waddinxveen’, which both sank during a violent storm in 1697. The excavation of these wrecks was the first exercise of its kind in southern Africa. This project has set a standard for proper maritime archaeological research and gained a lot of interest, both locally and overseas. Although the shipwrecks are currently left to rest, covered again by the sands of time, some of the finds that were made during the 1990s nowadays form the core for a project of a totally different nature: Operation Zembe.

‘Zembe’ means ‘axe’ in the Nguni languages. This word gave the project its name, as the first discovery concerned a stone hand axe. Similar objects that were found later also indicate that they were made during the same epoch. After the finds were announced in the scientific literature, it could be confirmed that never before had such ancient artifacts been recovered from under water anywhere in the world. Operation Zembe represents a relatively new approach in marine archaeology. All kinds of new avenues of research have to be explored to reach the main goal; to locate more traces of prehistoric people under the sea.

Although similar investigations have been executed on dry land for many years, the finds from Table Bay indicate that it is possible to extend prehistoric research under water. This opens up a vast new territory for archaeologists. The dry land can now be supplemented with the coastal waters, to depths that are within reach of divers. As one can imagine, this concerns substantial areas. In a European context, for example, this means that large parts of the North Sea now fall within the sphere of interest of archaeologists. Over the last few years, some limited research has already been undertaken there, mainly by British scientists who study artifacts caught in the nets of fishermen.

article werz 5Operation Zembe focuses on the coasts of the Cape Peninsula and other selected parts off the coastline of South Africa. A first attempt was undertaken in 2002, in conjunction with the South African Navy. This was followed by two proper field seasons, in 2004 and 2005, that included volunteers from all over the world. Sport divers from the USA, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Austria and South Africa spent a few weeks diving selected areas. The initial information that was obtained in this way proved to be of great importance for further research.

But the project does not only include divers. Several scientists in different disciplines are also involved. These include Dr. Graham Avery, an archaeo-zoologist at the South African Museum, Dr. Dieter Noli, a stone-age specialist who focuses on coastal archaeology, and Dr. Nicholas Flemming, an oceanographer from the Southampton Oceanography Centre in the United Kingdom. Dr. Flemming is an expert on palaeo-sea levels. Before the discovery of the stone tools in Table Bay, he was the acknowledged discoverer of the oldest prehistoric finds under the sea. In 1984, he located so-called Levallois-Mousterian stone tools at a depth of 5m in the Mediterranean, near the Greek island of Kerkyra. The age of these was established at about 45 000 years. The Table Bay finds that were made a decade later, however, have provided proof that it is possible to recover much older material.

The chance discoveries in 1995 and 1996 formed the start of Operation Zembe. It is no surprise that this project was initiated right here in South Africa, as our country is one of the places where the human race developed. This has been convincingly proven over the years by various finds in the interior, including fossilized skeletal material of hominids, predecessors of modern humans. But how is it possible that ancient artifacts are nowadays situated under the sea? To explain this, one has to turn briefly to the geological and climatic history of the earth.

article werz 4It is a well-documented fact that the sea level changes in time. Rises in temperature, caused by global warming, alternated by cooler periods during the Ice Ages, caused the sea level to be either higher than today or (much) lower. Around present-day Cape Town, the levels fluctuated between +10 and -145m and possibly even more. As a result, large areas of what is nowadays the continental shelf were during different periods in the past dry land. Places like Table Bay and False Bay were at some stages palaeo-valleys, interspersed by fresh water streams, and the sea only started kilometres further out. Animals roamed these landscapes to graze and drink, and some of them were killed by predators. What remained of their carcasses may have served scavenging hominids. On the other hand, hominids and prehistoric people also hunted actively, besides gathering other foodstuff such as tubers, bulbs and fruits. Near the sea shore, bivalves and crustaceans were collected, as well as the occasional fish that were trapped in tidal pools. Evidence of these activities, in the form of stone tools, has been found all along the present coast. It is therefore logical to assume that many more deposits are currently under water.

But Operation Zembe is not only focused on the search for, and in due time, excavation of prehistoric artifacts. The project is of a multi-disciplinary nature and the main motivation is to obtain more knowledge of the distant past. The information that is being collected is diverse. It concerns the position of old shorelines, indications of past climate change and data that may assist in explaining how hominids and prehistoric people responded to environmental changes. This last aspect can be linked to several theories that have been formulated with regard to ancient migration patterns. This includes the ‘Out of Africa’ theory and how the earth became eventually populated.

In practice, ‘fieldwork’ that is undertaken during Operation Zembe focuses on the search for and identification of potential shelters of prehistoric people. To that purpose, systematic searches are being undertaken along rocky shores. Ideally, some of these inundated sites may still contain deposits that have not been completely eroded away. Besides stone artifacts, such layers may contain organic materials that have long since disappeared from archaeological sites on land. As the underwater environment stimulates preservation, it is not unreasonable to assume that in due course, objects made from wood and leather may be found. This also includes pollen that can serve to reconstruct palaeo-climates. It will take another couple of years though before a fully-fledged underwater excavation can go ahead. Until that time, potential sites are being located and surveyed without disturbing their integrity. This is done by systematic searches of selected parts of the coast up to depths of 35m. During these dives, the underwater ‘landscape’ is being interpreted.

article werz 8As was demonstrated during the first field seasons, it takes a while before project volunteers have gained sufficient experience to be able to look with the eyes of an archaeologist. Nevertheless, the results that have been obtained to date are very positive. At several places, old beaches have been identified that are nowadays several metres below the surface. Rock formations that may have acted as places of refuge have also been found. In addition, a number of caves were located. The majority of these are partly submerged and can only be reached by boat or swimming. Due to their inaccessibility, these sites have hardly been affected by more recent human interference. This is very positive, as some of them contain deposits that need to be examined in future. Not before long, however, it is hoped to find some caves that are completely submerged.

The project has already enjoyed major media exposure. A number of national and international newspapers reported on Operation Zembe and another article is expected to appear in Africa Geographic shortly. Several radio interviews have also been given, including one for a special programme on the BBC. The project featured twice on the SABC television news, while M-Net’s Carte Blanche produced a documentary that was even selected as viewer’s choice. And then there is of course the Internet. Should you like to find out more, please search under the following keywords: Operation Zembe; oldest underwater finds; handaxes and Table Bay; SES and Operation Zembe; Bruno Werz or various combinations.

Author: Dr. Bruno Werz