Student Voices

Travel Report: Megan Thibodeau, Archaeology, South Africa

December 02, 2014

Megan Thibodeau, a Masters student in Archaeology, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further her research in South Africa.

     As an MA student, working with Dr. Francesco Berna in the Department of Archaeology the Human Evolutionary Studies Program ( My research is about the earliest use of fire by humans. Fire is one of the most important tools that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, but we know surprisingly little about when, why, and how humans first used and controlled fire. A large part of the problem is the difficulty in identifying fire in the past, as the remains of fire are far more ephemeral than other human behaviors, such as stone tool making. I am working to develop a method of identifying microscopic ash deposits using micromorphology and infrared spectroscopy.

 This summer, as a result of receiving the Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) for Summer 2014, I was able to spend six weeks in South Africa as part of a team excavating two remarkable archaeological sites, Kathu Pan and Wonderwerk Cave.

 Kathu Pan is a nearby site that covers the important transitional period between the Middle and Late Stone Age. Recently, the earliest examples of spear points were discovered there. While there, I got valuable experience in excavating Stone Age sites, worked alongside a geophysics team mapping the surrounding area with magnetometry and GPR, took geological samples for a future diachronic study of the local environment, and learned how to operate the Total System to map the excavation.

 Wonderwerk Cave is one of the most important sites for studying human evolution, as it has been continuously occupied from ca. 2.0 million years ago up until the early 20th century and is the earliest known evidence of hominin activity in a cave. Most importantly, Wonderwerk Cave contains the earliest strong evidence for fire in an archaeological context from 1 million years ago.

 At Wonderwerk Cave, I was able to collect samples of a fire from the Late Stone Age. Unlike the earliest examples of fire in Wonderwerk Cave, this fire is intact and definitively, uncontroversially identifiable as a fire. Now that I am back in the lab at SFU, I will be able to use this sample as a control to test whether my methods of detecting ash work both in the specific environment of the cave, and on samples from tens of thousands of years ago.

 This summer was a vital part of my research. I was able to work with some of the best scholars in my field, gain hands-on experience in excavation, and take crucial samples for my thesis. None of this would have been possible without the GIRTA funding and I am extremely grateful for this opportunity.

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