What can a handaxe say about us?

james_cole_photoI’ve just returned from leading a really exciting expedition in Tanzania, a country rich in archaeological history.

Working with our collaborators on site, Dr Pastory Bushozi from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Dr Martin Bates, from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, we took samples of sediments around hand axes used by ancient human ancestors for butchering animals. The reason? So that we can use some state-of-the-art methodology to  date the site for the first time and, by doing so, reveal more information about the handaxes.

What makes this so exciting? Determining how old they are will help us to shed light on who made them and for what purpose. The behaviour of our human ancestors is far more complex than often thought. Today we use material culture – the clothes we wear, for instance – to tell others something about us, and it may be possible that these handaxes, apart from their practical use, were used by our ancestors to say something about them.

Back in the UK, we are working with Dr Phillip Toms from the University of Gloucestershire, to process grains of sediment taken from the centre of each tube. Using a new method called ‘Optically Stimulated Luminescence’ he will be able to determine the last time the grains were exposed to light

For first time, using this technique, we will be able to place our site within the chronology of East African prehistory. Giving it a date will act as a springboard for conducting larger multi-national and multi-institutional research projects in the future.

Days 8, 9: Dating the Early Stone Age site of Isimila

Here’s a diary of James Cole’s recent research trip to Tanzania as part of a project to date the early stone age site of Isimila.

5th to 6th September 2014

Today we were up early again at 0630 to drive back to Dar es Salaam. It was a long and stressful journey with some hair-raising moments involving large buses driving on the wrong side of the road but we got back to Dar es Salaam safely. We checked into our hotel and returned the hire car.

On Saturday we met up with Pastory before our flight to hand over the OSL samples to him to arrange the export licences etc. so the samples could be shipped back to the UK. We then battled the Dar es Salaam traffic for an hour and a half to get to the airport and flew home.

It was an incredible trip and I hope we can return next year to carry on our work, there is much to do there and Tanzania is a wonderful country to work in. Asante sana Tanzania.

Days 5, 6, 7: Dating the Early Stone Age site of Isimila

Here’s a diary of James Cole’s recent research trip to Tanzania as part of a project to date the early stone age site of Isimila.

2nd to 4th September 2014

We have spent the last few days cleaning back the section identified by Martin as suitable for the OSL samples, and hammering the metal tubes into the sediment and then digging them out again. This was quite labour intensive and tough as the sediments were very compact and concreted. However we were successful in taking our samples, the worry now is getting them back to the UK. Dr Pastory Bushozi also finally made it out to site today (04/09/2014) having been in Dar es Salaam teaching visiting students from America. So Martin and I spent some time taking him around the site and explaining what we had done and why. We also manage to identify the section where we think the original piece of bone was dated from in the 1960’s by Clark Howell et al. I shall miss Isimila as tomorrow we drive back to Dar es Salaam to fly home on Saturday, I hope that nothing goes wrong.

James Cole at Isimila

Dr James Cole pointing to the section where the bone was dated to c. 260000 years ago at Isimila

Day four: Dating the Early Stone Age site of Isimila

Here’s a diary of James Cole’s recent research trip to Tanzania as part of a project to date the early stone age site of Isimila.

1st September 2014

Today we worked in the northern branch of the Isimila Karonga where there has traditionally been a long history of Archaeological investigation. The site of Isimila is a site of global importance for understanding Middle Pleistocene hominin behaviour and evolution.

Despite being a site that is cited in almost every major publication on the Palaeolithic of Africa and beyond, with a potted research history from 1920s – 2000s with major excavations being conducted in the 1960’s by Clark Howell of the University of Chicago, the site is still poorly understood in terms of its chronology and broader landscape context. Initial U-series dating work conducted in the early 1970’s returned a date of c.260 thousand years from the middle of the sequence and c.60 thousand toward the top. However, the relationship of the excavated artefacts to these initial dates is far from clear, and the site may indeed be much older. In addition, the site is currently under threat from extreme erosion with a very real danger of losing valuable archaeological and palaeo-environmental information from a key region in the story of human evolution.  Our project and the subject of this blog was to therefore engage in a programme of dating the sediments using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) which basically measures the last time the sediment was exposed to light.

Northern branch of the Karong

A view looking at the northern branch of the Isimila Karonga (Photo courtesy of Dr James Cole)

The last two days spent walking around looking at the geology of the site was done in order to understand the geology that was present there today and try to relate it to those described by the researchers from the 1960’s in order to usefully correlate our fieldwork with their previous dating attempts. And today Martin seems to have successfully worked out the chronology and identified a suitable section for us to start cleaning back tomorrow.


Dr James Cole holding two large bifaces from the site of Isimila – this is what we are trying to contextualise by dating the sediments (Photo courtesy of Dr James Cole)