This summer two UMMAA curators have received major grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue their archaeological research. Brian Stewart, who works on early human sites in Lesotho, won his award for an excavation at a Middle Stone Age site and a survey aimed at understanding landscape dynamics of that era. John O’Shea received his award for a project involving the digital simulation of Lake Huron as Late Paleoindian hunters would have seen it and comparing present-day Alaskan hunting structures to those from 9,000 years ago. 

Ancient caribou hunters

It’s been eight years since John O’Shea and his research team discovered the remains of ancient caribou hunting blinds on the bottom of Lake Huron, and they’re still exploring the region. In the summer, weather permitting, they use a remote underwater vehicles and SCUBA to map the area and find additional structures and artifacts. In 2015, they edited a book on their findings: Caribou Hunting in the Upper Great Lakes: Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Paleoenvironmental Perspectives.

The innovative use of technology has been a hallmark of this project from the beginning. Now O’Shea has received funding from the NSF to begin a phase of research that promises to take yet another technological leap.

“We’ve created a virtual world simulation of the Alpena-Amberley Ridge in Lake Huron when it was dry—at the end of the Ice Age,” he explains. Bob Reynolds of Wayne State University has developed the software, which will be compatible with a video game platform.

The software is just the first step of the project, though. Once it’s ready, the research team will show it to experts.

“We’ll bring traditional caribou hunters from Alaska and have them enter this virtual world via augmented reality,” says O’Shea. The next step will involve the U-M team traveling to Alaska to view similar hunting structures used by ancient hunters in the Arctic.

Ultimately, the goal is to better understand how caribou and hunters would have moved through the landscape in the Paleoindian era. This will inform how O’Shea and his team interpret the structures on the bottom of Lake Huron and perhaps guide them to places where other discoveries await.

Early highlanders and climate change in Africa

In the mountainous southern African country of Lesotho, there are many sites rich in archaeological material from the Middle Stone Age—roughly 300,000 to 25,000 years ago. Brian Stewart has excavated two such sites, Sehonghong and Melikane, for nearly a decade. With half of the NSF money, he will excavate a third site at the headwaters of the Orange River: Ha Soloja.

“This one really looks old,” he says. “It’s on a beautiful high plateau within Lesotho. Brutal in winter.”

At Ha Soloja, excavations in the 1970s uncovered stone tools dating to 60,000 years ago in the first 50 centimeters. The tools—crescent-shaped blades with distinctive backs—closely resemble tools found in Europe. But the tools found in Europe date to the Mesolithic: about 8,000 years ago, or more than 50,000 years later.

“Ancient Africans were serious innovators,” says Stewart. “The deposit at Ha Soloja goes three meters deep. It could be 100,000 or 200,000 years old. So that’s attractive, that there could be such antiquity in this highland environment.”

With the other half of the grant money, Stewart and his team will do an extensive survey of the area. Their goal is to gather enough archaeological and environmental data to allow them to understand larger patterns of landscape use and change.

“We are trying to understand landscape use via open-air stone tool scatters,” he explains. “We can’t date open-air sites, so we’re hoping to link them to those we excavate in rock shelters. We are trying to reconstruct the climate, both when people were here but also when they weren’t. We know people left the rock shelters, sometimes for 10,000 years or more—but why?”

This is the largest grant for which he’s been principal investigator. “I’m super happy about it,” he says. “I’m delighted. At its core it’s about climate change and human responses. So I feel very fortunate that I submitted it when I did.”


Archaeologists investigate a funnel drive on the bottom of Lake Huron.

Sehlabathebe National Park, in Lesotho, with a rock shelter in the foreground.