KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER—By Alex Millar
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
"Some theories say that harsher climates make you more innovative, or you need to wander further to reach out and when you meet more people or other groups you have more transferral of knowledge."
Margit Simon is a Marine Geologist and Senior Researcher at the Bjerknes Climate Institute in Bergen. Alex Millar, master’s student in fine art, talks to her about her current research into paleoclimate and ocean temperature reconstruction, about wonder, and some other connections between art and science.
Alex Millar: You are using a process called biostratigraphy of sediment cores taken from the bottom of the ocean. Tell me more about that process and its relationship to Blombos Cave.
Margit Simon: A sediment core taken off the bottom of the ocean is just deep sea mud. By analysing different components from the top to the bottom of that core you get information about the age of these layers, but also the individual composition, for instance, the sea surface temperature reconstructions of the ocean they come from. In our case, we study the climate on the South African coastline; about material that came from land to the ocean and how that might have varied over time. This tells us how the climate on land was. With this information we can make the link to the cave sites in South Africa which we know were inhabited by Homo sapiens a certain period back in time during the Middle Stone Age.
Why is there is so much interest in Blombos Cave and the technological and cultural explosion that happened there?
It is a variety of cave sites on the southern coast of South Africa where the archeologists discovered that between one hundred thousand years and fifty thousand years ago there were certain developments in human behaviour that you would classify as a modern type. It is quite remarkable that archeologists would find so much evidence in one place, showing over a relatively short time period how things really progressed in behavioural evolution.
How did you feel on seeing the Blombos Cave for the first time? Was there any sense of connection or empathy for the people that lived there?
The Garden Route leads from Capetown along the coastline. The Blombos Cave is a bit of an off road track where you drive down to the beach and from there it’s an hour and a half coastal walk to get to Blombos Cave. It's a beautiful walk on the ocean that goes through the local vegetation. It has a very nice smell and you come around the corner and walk through a big sand arch, a rock that has been eroded, and around another corner is Blombos Cave. It's almost like the window through time, a beautifully located, peaceful place, so you could see yourself living there even today. And why would you not want to have been there as a Middle Stone Age person?
Wow ok, so walking along the coastal path you are walking in the footsteps of early Homo sapiens as they moved along the coast.
When I first was there, I would think about their situation, about where they would go to fetch water, because there is a little spring maybe half an hour walk away that some farmers still bring their cattle to drink today.
There must be an uncanny sense of time in those places where you can experience time’s magnitude. Where is the most inspiring fieldwork site you've visited?
Blombos Cave for sure, though there is also Klipdrift Shelter which is closely located and covers a younger time period than Blombos. I was fascinated by Klipdrift because the archaeological field site is a tent camp where you just live on the beach for six weeks. A cliff overhangs the ocean so you are very close to the Agulhas Current. I could go swimming with these marine zooplankton that we analyze. I can’t see them, I can’t touch them but I know they are there, and I was just floating within them.
I saw some of these microfossils down the microscope in the lab. Could you explain more about the role of the foraminifera in your research?
Planktonic foraminifera are tiny unicellular zooplankton with a calcite shell. Foraminifera live in the ocean water column and form this calcite shell from the seawater they are surrounded by, meaning they preserve the fingerprint of that water mass in their shell. After they die they sink to the ocean floor and are buried and preserved in the ocean mud. When we recover that ocean mud, via sediment cores, and we extract the foraminifera we have a record through time of these water mass properties when measuring the elemental composition of this ancient calcite shell. As such we can reconstruct ocean surface temperature, salinity and other parameters through time. That in the context of the research around South Africa will tell us what the ocean conditions were like when our earlier ancestors lived near this water/ocean during the middle Stone Age in South Africa.
How did that matter for these Middle Stone Age people?
The Agulhas Current around South Africa influences marine habitats by stabilizing inshore water temperature, which supports intertidal shellfish and littoral fish communities-hence their marine food sources. On the other hand, the effect of the warm Agulhas current today drives the convection of moist coastal air cells for coastal precipitation, delivering a source of fresh water to the region. Meaning that the ocean temperatures were important ultimately for how much rainfall/freshwater was delivered in the coastal areas the caves sites were situated in the past. Stable and sustained, waters offshore the coast of South Africa would have continued to maintain suitable habitats for local shellfish communities, particularly those species that were harvested most frequently.
Where do you have the most important and productive discussions about your research?
Good question, I think you need a bit of a variety of platforms so what is probably most multifaceted is when we are in a multidisciplinary group at the SapienCE Centre. There, it is not just the climate specialists coming together but many other specialists that you really get a different perspective on the same thing.
Many areas of research are converging on one site.
There are three cave sites, Blombos, Klipdrift Shelter and Klasies River and the group is composed of archaeologists, social scientists, psychologists and climate scientists. So we are discussing human behavioural changes in South Africa from a very wider perspective. For example the use of symbols and other things found that suggest various activities.
How does the understanding about the birth and evolution of symbols in early Homo sapiens change your perspective on the way you use symbols and use information as a scientist?
It of course makes you think about how you define things, as art for instance, when do you define something as beautiful in art or jewellery? Wearing necklaces with shell beads, what were they trying to show? What was the purpose? When something is removed from practicality, or survival, what does it mean? And when do you start wearing these things for other reasons?
The warmer climate at the time meant that there was perhaps less time spent on pure survival and there was more time to create objects of art or objects of status. Culture could then flourish with that extra energy.
I would like to find out what the climate conditions were for certain favourable or unfavourable activities. Some theories say that harsher climates make you more innovative, or you need to wander further to reach out and when you meet more people or other groups you have more transferral of knowledge. Another theory is that, if you were more secure on the survival part of life you would stayed more in the same place and so didn’t need to wander, which gave you more time for innovation, for group activities and exchange at that place.
What thinkers, scientists or writers were particularly influential or inspiring in your path to becoming a scientist?
I was always fascinated with nature and rocks and I was always intrigued by nature related novels. Fantasy, with people going around the world in ships, like the collected works of Jules Vernes, was kind of my thing.
Then you need to build your own ship.
As an artist I sometimes find it difficult to perceive what I do as changing the world but see my creativity as a small part of a much larger community. How you see the value of your work within the broader scientific community and its impact on people outside of this community?
It is tricky to convince people of the importance of reconstructing past climates these days. The public want to hear about how we are going to save the world in the future, because it's such a pressing topic. Generating and contributing to general knowledge for society is not as hyped or fancy. Of course, with the human/climate interaction, everyone has a general curiosity in where we come from and how we became who we are today - our human evolution. Having outreach activities on the site in South Africa where we meet the local people and share our work with them is most rewarding.
What are the reactions from the local community?
They know there is this cave and a research project around it, a key archaeologist has excavated there for decades now. So naturally they want to see the site and these things that are so special. We have open town hall talks, where each of the experts present their research and people can ask questions.
I think that’s really great . It's really nice to hear that it's a big part of occupying a site for an extended period.
It’s important that you create freely accessible opportunities, so people don’t have to pay to access this knowledge, and education.
How does your research affects other aspects of your life and the way you see the world, your relationships to nature or family?
So when I started studying we had this field course and there was a lecturer teaching us about geomorphology, understanding the landscape and how it was formed, and he said you are never going to look at it unbiased any more. And it was true. You go through the world, and have a different perspective. I think I probably have an analytical view or approach which I would definitely blame my research field of work for. I also think I approach things in private life sometimes a bit more analytically than my family does, which can be blamed on my work, in terms of finding patterns and causations.
Are there any kind of metaphors or simple sort of sentences you use to explain your research to people who are new to it or outside the science world?
The things we study are very specific and the language we use is to talk with other scientists. It helps to write more public articles with an editor, who points out what can be said more simply. I think we could do better, to ask, how would I explain this to my grandmother or young children?
It's the same with artists, we get caught out using flowery language and fail in explaining it to family members or those less familiar with the art world. I had that problem in the past, but I think it’s a really important to put things in a more accessible language.
Thanks very much Margit.
1. Microscope in the lab at the Natural Sciences Department, UiB
2. Foraminifera under the microscope in the lab at Natural Sciences Department, UiB
3. Colour and contour map of different depths and location of marine core site 35-91, South Africa