Grant puts common people of old under the microscope

17 September 2004

What was life like for the common people of Cape Town during the different periods of colonial history? Were they stressed or were they healthy?

Thanks to a South Africa Netherlands Research Programme on Alternatives in Development (Sanpad) grant of R400 000 these questions will now be answered.

Associate Professor Alan Morris and his team of researchers of UCT's human biology department will use this money to examine skeletal remains that have been excavated from various old cemeteries in and around the Mother City in an attempt to reconstruct the biological history of early Cape Town.

"Because most of these people lived and died with very little note in the historical records of the time, skeletal biology is one of the few tools available that can give us some picture of what life was like for the poorer community in the capital city of the Cape Colony."

A rich range of resources will allow Morris and his team to track changing health and demographic conditions in Cape Town during the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition, the researchers will be able to compare the health conditions and population structures to populations in the colonial metropole (the Netherlands and England) and other slave states.

Morris added: "Skeletons should be seen as primary historical documents in themselves. Each skeleton provides a wealth of information on how that person lived and what kinds of activities and stresses they were subjected to. The cemeteries can also be read as documents about the city's history and, as such, will help us understand not only the static origins of one group, but the dynamic origins of us all."

Including students from UCT, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria, Morris's project is a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional one. At least four postgraduate students will be involved and the funds will also be used to provide bursaries at master's level.

As part of the grant, students will also be hosted by Professor George Maat at Rijks Universiteit Leiden, the Netherlands, where they will learn about the microscopic ageing techniques that Maat and his team have pioneered.

Importantly, an educational outreach programme will be used to spread the knowledge the team uncovers. "Skeletal biology is part of forensics and is seen as a fascinating scientific part of law and police work," said Morris. "Nearly every school child has watched Crime Scene Investigations (CSI) or Medical Detectives, yet the same techniques are used to work with older bone from historic and prehistoric contexts. My experience at university level is that there is a great interest in forensics and this is an opportunity to attract more students to the field, not just for forensics but also for the broader subject of biological anthropology."

The project will enhance research capacity as the development of scientifically-orientated anatomists will help fill the need for anatomically-based researchers and teachers in South African universities.

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