What a gneiss picture

This is my best bud Stephanie relaxing in her rock.


I have a whole series of photographs of Stephanie inside rocks. I think it is utterly hilarious that in an entirely unrelated stream of events, a friend of hers (whom I do not know) asked her to model for a photography class she was taking, and ended up shooting her has an earth mother goddess sort of thing emerging from a mossy spot in the ground. And here she is hanging out inside rocks. Must be something about Stephanie.

But wait, there’s more…

The rock iteslf is gneiss. In fact, it is very nice gneiss. Gneiss is a metamorphic rock in which various mineral components have been organized in stripey-layery configuration. The thing that is cool about gneiss is that it is an example of unifinality (as opposed to multifinality). Unifinality is a concept I’ve studied in archaeology, and it has a lot to do with evolution as well (in evolutionary biology we may call it convergence). Gneiss can start out as either sedimentary rock or igneous rock, and still ends up as gneiss! This particular gneiss is granitic gneiss, and it occurs together with regular granite. The stuff you are looking at here is much more easily eroded than some of the other rock in the area, and is quite broken up by joints and faults.

What looks like a waterfall to Stephanie’s left is actually a cascade of some kind of wild flower in bloom at the moment. Invisible, below the flowers, where there is a certain amount of sediment are flaked stone artifacts, pottery, and ostrich egg shell that is probably from eggs that were used as containers.

The archaeological site we found here is one of several sites in this area that previous archaeologists had missed because they are in exactly the wrong place to ever find an archaeological site. They are not near running water or an ephemeral stream or even spring (and there are such features in the area, including a major river). They are not on flattish somewhat easy to navigate ground. They are not on high places where foragers sometimes camped or, at other times, people tended to put special ritual sites in this region. These sites are down in holes, swales, or low spots eroded a zillion years ago into the terrain when an ancient river passed through here, and subsequently reshaped considerably mainly by wind erosion and plant activity.

This particular site was discovered by Stephanie a few days earlier. On this day, we went back to find the site, and even though we were using GPS, it took a couple of hours to locate it. This effort made me realize that all of these particular sties (with these stone tools,k this potter, the ostrich egg, etc.) had something in common: They were really really hard to find. Sounds emanating form the site do not travel across the landscape. A fire carefully maintained here would not have a visible smoke column (though you would be able to smell it depending on wind direction). A person can walk right by these sties without even knowing they are there.

In fact, I conjecture that these were hideouts.

They are clearly very late in date based on the pottery and other factors, but they seem to be stone tool using people. This makes these sites among the latest known (though very poorly dated so don’t get too excited!) examples of stone tool use. These sites are in a region that is known in historic times to be one of the latter day areas of interaction between the indigenous “Bushmen” or “San” people and invading whites. This was in a time and a place where there was a bounty on these foragers’ heads.

It is not strictly a romantic thought that these sites represent the last stand of the Bushmen of this area. There is evidence to suggest that this is the case, and in archeology, the best we can often do is to provide a dry description of the evidence, indicate how this evidence contributes to the falsification of one or two relevant hypotheses, then throw in a little conjecture or story telling in the hopes of inspiring someone to come up with the next set of hypotheses to test. In this case, a more accurate dating of the artifacts would be one such approach.

OK, so maybe it is a little romantic.


  1. #1 Rob Clack
    December 2, 2008

    Fascinating. Of course, the San were massacred by Bantu tribes moving south-west, as well as the whites moving north-east, but I don’t know where exactly in southern Africa you are, so that might be irrelevant.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 2, 2008

    Rob: In South Africa proper, the Bantu groups moved in ca 1600 in the east/northeast, absorbed and/or massacred or pushed out the San, then the Bantu disappeared for a while. Then they came back, and when they did so, spread over a much larger area than before.

    (That was oversimplified, of course)

    Throughout the rest of South Africa proper, though, it was mostly the whites. This particular site is in the northern part of the Northern Cape, and I am pretty sure the initial ‘contact’ with san here was complex, as you suggest, but mostly late and mostly white.

  3. Nice writing. :) And “very nice gneiss” is my favorite phrase from now on. :)