04 February 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Leave it alone

A lesson learned: we should leave fossils and such intact for research purposes. Removing them from their contexts devalues research.

Once, while exploring an old strandloper midden, I made a serious error in judgment. I sort of knew it was a mistake at the time, but I really didn’t expect to regret it as much as I did.

I pocketed a little spearhead I found lying in the sand. It wasn’t perfect, and it was like a few dozen others lying there. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take it, and the guide didn’t see my petty pilferage. Either that, or he didn’t say anything.

I thought that by taking it home it would remind me of a good time, and link me to a somewhat mystical moment

A midden is basically an old rubbish dump. The rubbish humans generated here in those days (around 20 000 years ago) consisted of shells, mostly abalone shells. The women would sit on the leeward side of a sand dune, shucking shellfish. And on the windward side, the men would gaze out to sea and create little leaf-shaped spearheads. Mine must have been a discard.

I thought that by taking it home it would remind me of a good time, and link me to a somewhat mystical moment as I looked out to sea and imagined these strandlopers (which literally means ‘beachwalkers’ – the coastal Khoi-Khoi people) chipping away and laughing together.

But once I had it home, it seemed to lose all the charged significance it had when it was back in situ. It just became a little stone. I knew my guilt was really getting to me when it started to seem to me that the stone was lonely.

Anyway, the next time I was in the area, I took it back, and immediately felt relieved.

Although I probably wouldn’t have been caught or prosecuted, there are laws protecting such sites. They must be left intact for research reasons. So many people have picked up fossils of great importance and removed them from their context. It renders the fossils almost worthless, devalues research. From now on, I’ll just take a picture.

Category: Responsible Tourism

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