EHS grad involved in record discovery

By on March 7, 2012

By: ANGELA CABEZAS Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Christopher Miller is making history.

When 15-year-old Christopher Miller volunteered to help with a dig at the Ephrata Cloister, he had no idea that the project would inspire him to a career in archaeology — and he certainly never imagined that the career to take him to a cave in South Africa, where he and a team of colleagues would discover the world’s oldest known bedding.

"I was interested in history and things like that, so I volunteered to help students from Elizabethtown College who were digging at the Cloister," Miller said. "That’s what first got me interested in archaeology. I got to experience it first-hand."

Miller participated in the digs at the Cloister until 2000, when he graduated from Ephrata High School (EHS) and left his hometown to attend Boston University. After receiving bachelor’s degrees in both archaeology and earth science, Miller continued his education at the University of Maine, where he received his master’s in earth science at the University of Maine. He then moved to Germany to complete his Ph. D. at the University of Tuebingen, which later employed him as associate professor of geoarchaeology.

"I took German in high school, and I was involved with the Eberbach trips, so I had a German connection already," Miller said. "Having been to Germany and knowing people from Eberbach made it a lot easier to think about moving there than if I had just moved out of the blue."

Though Miller’s time is primarily spent in Germany, his work takes him to other locations around the globe as well, including several sites in South Africa.

One such site is Sibudu, a cave in a sandstone cliff that has been under excavation since 1998. The excavation team was originally led by Lynn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, but the University of Tuebingen’s director took over the project after Wadley’s retirement.

"The team that digs in Sibudu is made up of a lot of different specialists — you have people that focus specifically on the stone tools we find, people that study the bone remains and people who study the plant remains. My specialization is studying the sediment, the dirt, as a trained geologist," said Miller.

Happily for the Ephrata graduate, there was plenty of sediment to analyze — more than a dozen thin, colorful layers in each square meter of stone that was excavated.

"The question was, well, how did all of them form?" said Miller. "How did they all build up on each other, one after the other? We noticed that some of the layers, though made of charcoal and ash, didn’t look like what you would get if you just had a pile of wood and burned it. If you’d look at them at a very small scale, you’d see that they’re made up of plants from the river, and they’re made up of reeds and grasses and sedges."

The team identified this accumulation of plant material as a type of primitive bedding, which the site’s inhabitants would have used as a cushion for sleeping as well as for completing day-to-day activities such as food preparation and tool-making.

In addition to guessing the plant material’s purpose, the team made another interesting observation — on top of the sedges and grasses was a thin layer of leaves, identified as a species of Cryptocarya, also known as river wild-quince. All the leaves were of the same species, which suggested that they were not a natural accumulation of leaves falling from the many different trees growing in the area, but an intentional collection by the cave’s inhabitants.

"We think they were probably using the leaves as a way to keep mosquitoes or other types of pests away, because when you break up the leaves and rub them, they’re aromatic, and the chemicals are insecticidal," Miller said. "It’s not actually that trivial in South Africa, if you think about it, because a lot of the diseases are transmitted through insects, like malaria for instance. So, really, it’s part of a behavior related to health, trying to control diseases through the plants."

In addition to its medicinal purposes, the bedding at Sibudu is noteworthy for another reason — its age. The oldest layers have been dated to 77,000 years ago, making it the oldest bedding ever discovered by more than 50,000 years.

"The site fits into a time period that archaeologists call the Middle Stone Age," said Miller. "This is a very interesting time period archaeologically, because during the Middle Stone Age we had Neanderthals living in Europe, Homo Erectus living in Asia, and then other archaic humans. So, humans, but physically different than ourselves. At the same time, we had what we call anatomically modern humans living in Africa, that physically looked like us, but didn’t act like us."

Then, all of that began to change.

"During the Middle Stone Age, we see these anatomically modern humans evolving in terms of their behavior to be very similar to our modern type of behavior, or what we call the emergence of behavioral modernity," Miller explained. "We see for the first time, for instance, in the Middle Stone Age, evidence of symbolism, the earliest evidence for art, things like that, that we don’t see before in the archaeological record. After this develops in Africa, anatomically modern humans and behaviorally modern humans migrate out of Africa and replace all the other species of human."

Like symbolism and art, the use of insecticidal leaves in the Sibudu bedding is a sign of the shift toward modern behavior, as was the fact that the bedding was periodically burnt — as evidenced by the layers of charcoal and ash — to cleanse and purify the site.

"For us, what was so exciting was the way we could identify the diversity in behaviors associated with the bedding," said Miller. "It wasn’t just collecting plants and throwing them on the ground — they selected specific plants. And then there was the fact that they used fire for a way to manage the bedding when it got old. It was kind of unexpected. No one had reported that before with bedding."

Miller, Wadley and other members of the Sibudu team published these findings in the journal "Science," and Miller hopes that there will be more findings to come.

"I’ll definitely continue work in South Africa," he said. "I never thought I’d be here, but I’m glad I’m involved…I think if my 15-year-old self saw me today he’d be glad I’m doing this stuff." More MILLER, page A15

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