Ancient Khoisan skeleton to be reburied at resting place

Mystery skeleton becomes beacon of heritage

03 February 2019 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER

She led an active life in one of SA's harshest landscapes, and when she was laid to rest Jan van Riebeeck was - at best - still toddling around 13,000km away.
Van Riebeeck's legacy is well known and enduring, but scientists studying the recently discovered Khoisan woman's skeleton hope it will shed fresh light on what life was like in the Tankwa Karoo shortly before Dutch colonisation changed SA forever.
When SA National Parks (SANParks) ranger Letsie Coetzee stumbled across the skeleton in the Perdekloof Gorge, near the Western Cape's border with the Northern Cape in 2007, she called the police. Detectives left it untouched after realising it was ancient, and carbon dating by archaeologist Professor Judith Sealy showed the woman lived some time between 1436 and 1622 - 30 years before Van Riebeeck came ashore at the Cape on the eve of his 33rd birthday.
The skeleton, found 950m above sea level in steep and rocky terrain, had been exposed by erosion and flash floods. With bits of bone breaking off and being scavenged, "the concern was that it might disappear into the gorge", according to SANParks.
University of Cape Town (UCT) archaeologist Ryan Gibbon and biological anthropologist Victoria Gibbon were called in to help SANParks fulfil its legal obligation to "conserve and care for old burials".
Victoria Gibbon said: "With permission from Heritage Western Cape we carefully excavated the burial, on the premise that the person would be reburied in the park."
Since then, the mystery skeleton has become a positive model for respectful reburial plans and community consultation - and a scientific key to unlock doors from the past.
"The burial represents a single individual found in a tightly flexed position with large stones placed on top of the burial," said Gibbon.
The woman had early signs of osteoarthritis, especially in the ankles, knees and lower back, indicating an active lifestyle.
"There is no evidence of physiological stress on the bones, suggesting she was able to maintain a relatively healthy balance and regular intake of nutrition," said Gibbon.
The woman's life, as conveyed by the bones, "confirms a long history of people living in the Tankwa area, and that these early people were living well, were healthy and were well adapted to their environment".
According to SANParks, "people have been fascinated by the photograph of the skeleton's shape in the rocks and how it got there".
When asked where and how the skeleton should be reburied, SANParks said most respondents suggested she should be returned to her original burial site.
For now, the skeletal remains, as well as the burial stones, remain in the care of the facilities at UCT's Health Sciences faculty awaiting reburial later in the year.
After the reburial, according to SANParks, "understanding this female's story will provide a gateway to the history of the Tankwa and will enrich the park and the visitors' experience of the area".
A "narrative around her life and death will be constructed", her presence in the park will be "further acknowledged", and her "resting place into the future will be secured"...

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