The East London Museum treasure rewriting human prehistory
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
The East London Museum is internationally known for its remarkable coelacanth and humanoid trace footprints specimens.
A third, globally important exhibit, the Hofmeyr Skull , is less well known. However, as scientists are discovering, the skulls is hugely significant in understanding human evolution.
In fact, it might isnglehandedly rewrite some of what we know - or thought we knew - about an early human ancestor.
In fact, such is its tremendous palaeoanthropological importance that a cast of the skull currently enjoys pride of place in one of the most comprehensive human evolution displays in any museum in the world: the Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The East London Museum has also been acknowledged by the Smithsonian as an international institutional partner on this project.
The Hofmeyr Skull was discovered along the banks of the Vlekpoort River near Hofmeyr in the Eastern Cape (hence the name), and was donated to the East London Museum in 1954.
It was not until fairly recently, however, that the skull was confirmed to be about 36 000 years old.
"The skull is significant because it carried all the features of an anatomically modern human being with some archaic features such as thicker arches above the brow, large molar crowns and a prominent glabella (the space between the eyebrows and the nose)," says East London Museum Natural Scientist Kevin Cole.
"Although the skull travelled to the University of the Witwatersrand to be studied it was never deemed to be of much significance as a specimen until well into the new millennium. At this time ideas of human origins were well developed such as the Out-of-Africa theory (that all modern humans in the world today originated from a population in Africa)."
"When the Hofmeyr skull was finally put under scientific scrutiny and dated at 36 000 years it gave scientists the opportunity to compare it to other finds in the palaeoanthropological realm.
"The Hofmeyr skull thus connects the origins of people in Europe to Africa – giving more credence to the Out-of-Africa theory."
The skull had previously been studied at Wits University (1964) before being transferred to the Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld) and then on to the University of Cape Town and Stony Brook University (New York), before returning ‘home’ to East London in 2009, Kevin writes.
It has proven impossible to date the Hofmeyr Skull using traditional radiocarbon dating. Thus, a new method involving a combination of optically stimulated luminescence and uranium-series dating, developed by Richard Bailey of Oxford University, was used.
The earth material from the skull "filling the endocranial cavity" (central portion of the endocranial cavity) was dated using a combination of optically stimulated luminescence and uranium-series dating methods, coupled through a radiation-field model.
Based on the assumption that the earth material (mud) in the skull is the same age as the skull, this material was dated to an age of 36 200 +- 3 200 years old.
Osteological analysis of the cranium by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology indicates that the specimen is morphologically distinct from recent groups in Subequatorial Africa, including the local Khoisan populations.
Instead, the Hofmeyr fossil has a very close affinity with other Upper Paleolithic skulls from Europe. Some scientists have interpreted this relationship as being consistent with the Out-of-Africa theory, which hypothesises that at least some Upper Paleolithic human groups in Africa, Europe and Asia should morphologically resemble each other.
"It is a privilege for the East London Museum to curate a piece of the puzzle in the story of human origins," Kevin says. "And it is hoped that the Eastern Cape will still reveal many secrets to add to the story of life.