Late in October, the skeletal remains of a Khoisan woman were laid to rest in the Tankwa Karoo National Park near Calvinia, following the discovery in 2007. Now known as ‘Madawas’, Nama for ‘bring back’ or ‘return’, she was laid to rest near the Perdekloof campsite, not far from the gorge where she was discovered.
“This marks the beginning of an era in which visitors can pay their respects and learn more about their ancestors of the region,” says Tankwa park manager Kennet Makondo.
In 2007, then park ranger Letsie Coetzee informed the local police about the discovery near the Perdekloof campsite.
As the skeleton was archaeological, independent archaeologist Dr Ryan Gibbon and Dr Victoria Gibbon from the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town applied for a permit from Heritage Western Cape to excavate and investigate the remains.
Part of the condition was that the remains would be reburied in the park.
Dr Victoria Gibbon says Madawas was buried in a tightly flexed position on her back with her knees to her chin. Her sex was determined once the pelvis was excavated. “The pelvis is the most accurate bone in the human body due to the birth canal, so once we had the pelvis, we could confirm that she was female,” Gibbon explains.
Radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis using a small piece of rib bone determined that she would have lived around 1436–1622 and is of Khoisan ancestry. The skeleton represented a person of around 1,52m, between 35 and 55 years of age at the time of death. “San and Khoi people are known to be small bodied, so the short stature is not surprising,” Gibbon says.
The analysis also revealed more about her diet and Gibbon says she also had early signs of osteoarthritis, especially in the ankles, knees and lower back, indicative of 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,” says Gibbon.
“The life history of this individual confirms a long history of peopling in the Tankwa area, and that these early people were living well, were healthy and well adapted to their environment,” Gibbon adds.
The reburial constituted a traditional San ceremony led by the Northern Cape San and Nama leaders Petrus Vaalbooi and Willem Damarah. Madawas was wrapped in a kudu skin and buried in the same position.
Written and photos by René de Klerk
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