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Toe bone rewrites history

Who would think that a sheep bone could change history? But a humble toe bone has done just that.

For a long time, archaeologists have suspected that the changeover from hunting and foraging to herding in the Cape region at the extreme southern tip of Africa took place as early as 2,000 years ago. All they had to go on were comparisons of the shape and size of domestic and wild animal bones, which were usually far from reliable – there being no wild sheep in South Africa.

About 30 years ago, researchers extracted bone protein from a 2,000-year-old toe bone excavated at Spoegrivier in the northern Cape for radiocarbon dating. Now they have used mass spectrometry identification on the leftover bone protein and biomolecular identification to classify the bone as that of a sheep. They relied on palaeo-proteonomics and peptide mass fingerprinting to provide a definitive classification.

There is no doubt about the identification, which not only confirms the long-suspected chronology but also provides a potentially reliable way of tying down the origins of herding in southern Africa for the first time. A humble 2,000 year-old sheep has rewritten the South African past.

The Past reporting.

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