On-line version ISSN 1996-7489
Print version ISSN 0038-2353
S. Afr. j. sci. vol.111 n.3-4 Pretoria Mar./Apr. 2015
Sandra J. LennoxI, II; Marion BamfordII, III
ISchool of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
IIDST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
IIIEvolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Spirostachys africana Sond. (tamboti/tambotie) is a woodland tree that is often found near water. It has a poisonous and purgative latex. The archaeological site of Sibudu, a rock shelter in KwaZulu-Natal, has evidence, from well-preserved charcoal and seeds, of past environments and wood use from approximately 77-38 thousand years ago (ka). As their uses and environmental indicators are different, it is critical to confidently distinguish among the three anatomically similar woods of the Euphorbiaceae: Spirostachys africana, Sclerocroton integerrimus and Shirakiopsis elliptica. A detailed anatomical study of reference and archaeological charcoal shows that xylem vessel width increases proportionally as vessel frequency decreases, from Spirostachys africana, Sclerocroton integerrimus to Shirakiopsis elliptica. Crystals of calcium oxalate are present in ray cells of Spirostachys africana, whereas silica bodies are present in ray cells of Sclerocroton integerrimus and Shirakiopsis elliptica. Using these features, the presence of Spirostachys africana was confirmed amongst hearth charcoal of the Spotty Camel layer, with an age of approximately 58 ka and of the Mottled Deposit occupational layer, with an age of approximately 49 ka. The presence of this charcoal, collected from ancient fireplaces or sieved from surrounding sediments, implies that people at Sibudu understood and used this poisonous tree to their advantage. We are encouraged in this view by the presence of many Cryptocarya woodii leaves found on the surface of 77-ka sedge bedding at Sibudu (Wadley L et al., Science. 2011;334:1388-1391). Cryptocarya woodii has insecticidal and larvacidal properties and members of the Laurel family are well known for their medicinal properties.
Keywords: Middle Stone Age; Sibudu; hearth; tambotie; Euphorbiaceae
Three indigenous woods - Spirostachys africana (tamboti), Sclerocroton integerrimus (duiker-berry) and Shirakiopsis elliptica (jumping-seed tree) - were tentatively identified from charcoal recovered from archaeological deposits at the rock shelter Sibudu. The anatomy of charcoal reference material was compared with that of the recovered charcoal in order to confidently identify these taxa in the archaeological charcoal. The identification of these woods in the Middle Stone Age at Sibudu is significant because Spirostachys africana is particularly poisonous. Spirostachys africana Sond., Sclerocroton integerrimus Hochst. (= Sapium integerrimum (Hochst.) J.Léonard) and Shirakiopsis elliptica (Hochst.) Esser (= Sapium ellipticum (Hochst.) Pax) are members of the family Euphorbiaceae, subfamily Euphorbioideae, tribe Hippomaneae A.Juss. ex Bartl. and subtribe Hippomaninae.1
Sibudu is situated on the uThongathi River, KwaZulu-Natal. It has a sequence of archaeological layers from the Middle Stone Age, dated by single-grain optically stimulated luminescence to approximately 77-38 ka.2-6 Some of the evidence for the behaviour of the anatomically modern people who visited and lived at Sibudu includes stone tools, ochre, bone, perforated seashells and hearths7-15, as well as evidence for the making and use of compound adhesives16, and circumstantial evidence for snares17 and bows and arrows18. There is evidence of the use of plant resources from pollen, phytoliths, seeds, nutlets, stems, charcoal and leaves excavated at Sibudu.2,19-27
The relevance of identifying Spirostachys africana
The presence of charcoal at Sibudu implies that people who visited and occupied the site burned wood.2,4,5
Spirostachys africana charcoal was tentatively identified from Sibudu in a previous study.20,21 Nowadays, the wood from this tree is not used as fuel for cooking because the smoke and fumes are poisonous.28 People who live in a particular environment for long periods develop knowledge about local resources2,14,25,29 and the Spirostachys africana wood was almost certainly recognised for its toxic properties and utilised by ancient hunter-gatherers14. Therefore a secure identification of the archaeological charcoal is necessary in order to interpret behavioural strategies in the past.
Sclerocroton integerrimus wood anatomy is similar to that of Spirostachys africana.1,20,30Both were recorded as Spirostachys/Sapium in the scanning electron microscopy (SEM) study of charcoal from Sibudu,20,21 so it is important to try to distinguish between the two taxa. Shirakiopsis elliptica wood anatomy is also similar.1,31 As it was not in the original charcoal reference collection for Sibudu,20 new fresh material was gathered, charred and studied.
Archaeological charcoal is identified by means of wood anatomy32-35 to describe palaeoenvironments and palaeoclimate and to develop an understanding of past wood use36-38. Anatomical features of living or fresh woods, listed by the International Association of Wood Anatomists, accessed on InsideWood, an online database39, can assist with charcoal identification34'35,40 but charred reference material is more useful41-43. Woody taxa have been identified from charcoal assemblages from many sites elsewhere in southern Africa; a few examples are Diepkloof Rock Shelter44 and Elands Bay Cave in the Western Cape45 and from sites in Lesotho46,47.
Habits, habitats and uses of the three woods
Spirostachys africana is a medium-sized, hardwood, deciduous tree, 10-18 m tall, and grows in woodland and valley bushveld. Often found in dense stands; in warm, dry areas along rivers and drainage lines; in poorly drained brackish and clay soils; or near underground water, tambotie is distributed from KwaZulu-Natal to Tanzania.48Sclerocroton integerrimus is a small- to medium-sized, hardwood, deciduous tree, 2-10 m tall, and grows in coastal thicket, on forest margins and in wooded grassland.48Shirakiopsis elliptica is a medium to tall, softwood, deciduous tree, 12-20 m tall. It grows in wooded ravines and is common at the canopy edge of evergreen forests and as a canopy tree in swamp forests.48 The timber of the three trees is similar.49
The bark, wood, stems and leaves of Spirostachys africana contain poisonous milky latex28 which is used as a purgative in small doses50. This fish and arrow poison causes conjunctivitis when in contact with the eyes28 and urticaria and blistering when in contact with the skin28. A triterpenoid (C30) isolated from the bark showed significant inhibition of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella typhi, Vibrio cholera, Escherichia coli and Shigella dysenteriae, explaining the traditional use in several African countries against diarrhoea and dysentery.50-55 Cytotoxic and genotoxic activities have been reported.28,52
The cytotoxins in latex are phorbol esters, which are terpenoids.28,54 Spirostachys africana is classified as an extremely hazardous Class IA cellular poison according to the four toxicity classes recognised by the World Health Organization. This measure of poisoning is based on an LD50 determination in rats, that is, less than 5 mg of plant material ingested per kilogram body mass killed 50% of the population.28 (Poisons kill in minute amounts, toxins are less toxic than poisons and toxicants are toxic in high concentrations only.50) Phorbol esters affect mucous membranes in the skin and the alimentary tract.28 The latex and bark have antimicrobial, anthelminthic and larvacidal properties and are effective against ailments of the digestive tract, skin, reproductive system and respiratory tract.50-55
Spirostachys africana wood is hard and heavy with a beautiful close grain coppery brown colour, impervious to insect attack and weathering.48 When burned, the wood gives off a sweet odour, which can cause headaches, nausea and diarrhoea.28,55 The Venda use Spirostachys africana smoke to fumigate their huts against wood-boring and other insects (Anonymous reviewer, 2014, written communication of personal observation, July 03).
Sclerocroton integerrimus has clear latex which is suspected of being poisonous and is used as a mouthwash to relieve toothache and coughs.56 Fruit is used to make ink and as a source of tannin. Fallen fruit and leaves are eaten by antelope and stock animals.48
Shirakiopsis elliptica is considered very poisonous and is used as a drastic purgative in West Africa.57 The rough bark has sparse, scattered depressions and clear latex. Bark latex is added to arrow poison, ouabain, from the East African Acokanthera schimperi and is used as bird lime and for body markings.57Acokanthera oppositifolia (Bushman's poison), distributed along eastern and northern parts of South Africa, is amongst the Acokanthera species which are known to be sources of extremely toxic arrow poisons.28 Various parts of the Shirakiopsis elliptica tree are used in folk medicine in Africa, in dermatology and gastroenterology, particularly as an anthelminthic.57
A detailed study of the wood anatomy of Spirostachys africana, Sclerocroton integerrimus and Shirakiopsis elliptica has been done to distinguish among these taxa and to clearly identify Spirostachys africana in charcoal from Sibudu. Modern reference material was collected specifically for this project, charred in a furnace and supplemented with data from InsideWood and the literature. As outlined below, the three woods share similar features but there are several useful distinguishing characteristics.
Comparative reference collection
A wood sample of Spirostachys africana from a Southern African Forestry Department woodblock stored in the Department of Archaeology, University of the Witwatersrand, was carbonised and studied as a reference of anatomical features (SJL 103; Table 1, Figure 1a-c). Inferred archaeological Spirostachys africana charcoal from Ndondondwane Iron Age site58 in KwaZulu-Natal was used as intermediate reference material (NDO; Table 1, Figure 1d). Reference wood samples and voucher herbarium specimens of Sclerocroton integerrimus (SJL 88, Figure 1e) and Shirakiopsis elliptica (SJL 67, Figure 1f) were identified by local botanists and were collected ex hort in Durban and on a farm near Port Edward, KwaZulu-Natal (coordinates 31.04615°S, 30.16886°E) for a study of anatomical features (Table 1).
Sibudu archaeological charcoal was examined from squares of occupational layer Spotty Camel (SPCA), which has not been dated but lies between layers with ages of 61.3 ± 2.0 ka and 56.2 ±1.9 ka, and from Mottled Deposit (MOD) at approximately 49.7 ± 1.8 ka.1,3-6 These layers were chosen because Spirostachys/Sapium charcoal was previously recorded from them by Allott20,21.
Reference woodblocks were charred in a LENTON 0861 muffle furnace (Lenton, Hope, UK) for 3.5 h at 350 °C at the Palaeosciences Centre, University of the Witwatersrand. Archaeological charcoal was identified by comparing it with reference material, using standard techniques.20,21,41-43 Charcoal blocks were viewed from three planes by means of stereomicroscopy (Olympus SZX16, Münster, Germany) and reflective and polarised light microscopy (Olympus BX51) at magnifications of 100x, 200x and 500x. Characteristic anatomy was digitally photographed using Olympus Stream Essentials® image analysis software with extended focal image capability. Anatomical features according to the International Association of Wood Anatomists' list35,39 were recorded for the comparative reference material and archaeological specimens. Identifications were also confirmed against published reference material.1,32,33,39,49
Useful distinguishing features
Prismatic crystals occur in Spirostachys africana ray and parenchyma cells, whereas silica bodies are absent in this species.1,30,59 Silica bodies occur in Sclerocroton integerrimus2,60and Shirakiopsis elliptica1,31 ray cells, whereas crystals are absent from ray cells40. Crystals are occasionally visible in the parenchyma cells of Sclerocroton and Shirakiopsis.2
Prismatic crystals are not common in wood anatomy and their occurrence may be sporadic.35 Features such as crystals and silica bodies are therefore useful attributes and are listed as an anatomical feature when commonly observed. Prismatic crystals are solitary, rhombohedral or octahedral crystals of calcium oxalate which are birefringent (produce a rainbow effect) under polarised light35 and appear shiny in charcoal specimens.
Silica bodies are spheroidal or irregularly shaped particles of silicon dioxide which are non-birefringent (do not produce a rainbow effect) under polarised light35 and appear opaque. Silica is present in ray cells in African Sapium species in aggregates, which often fill the entire cell lumen, or as grains or small dark dots in Asian Sapium species such as Sapium luzonicum.40 The arrangement (aggregated, irregularly shaped or globular) or surface (smooth or verrucose) may be diagnostic in certain groups and needs to be recorded in a description.35
Results and discussion
Figure 1 illustrates reference charcoal of the three taxa. Figure 1d, Spirostachys africana (NDO), is of archaeological charcoal and is therefore an interpreted identification. Figure 2 illustrates the identified archaeological charcoal from Sibudu. Table 1 summarises the charcoal anatomy of the modern reference and archaeological material. Table 2 lists the most useful diagnostic features for identifying the three species, the environmental conditions required by the trees and the medicinal and other uses for their wood.
Attributes common to Spirostachys, Sclerocroton and Shirakiopsis
Vessels are commonly arranged in long, radial multiples (≥4). Perforation plates are simple. Inter-vessel pits are alternate and polygonal; medium (8-10 μm) in Spirostachys africana 1,3(1,49), medium to large (8-10 μπι to 11-16 μm) in Sclerocroton integerrimus60and large (11-16 μm) in Shirakiopsis elliptica31. Vessel-ray pits are bordered and similar to inter-vessel pits in size and shape in Spirostachys africana and Shirakiopsis elliptica; rounded or angular, with much reduced borders, in Sclerocroton integerrimus. Fibres are non-septate, with simple to minutely bordered pits. Fibres are short in Spirostachys africana; in Sclerocroton integerrimus, they are medium length and regularly arranged. Shirakiopsis elliptica fibre length varies from short to long (Figure 1).
Diffuse parenchyma occurs in Spirostachys africana. Parenchyma which is diffuse-in-aggregate (SJL 103, Figure 1a), or in narrow bands or lines which are up to three cells wide, may be observed as a variation.1,30,49 Parenchyma which is diffuse or diffuse-in-aggregate is difficult to see. In Sclerocroton integerrimus parenchyma is diffuse-in-aggregate and/ or there are narrow bands or lines up to three cells wide.60Shirakiopsis elliptica parenchyma is diffuse and/or diffuse-in-aggregate, with the variation of occasionally occurring in narrow bands or lines up to three cells wide.31 Axial parenchyma strand length is either 4 or 8 cells per parenchyma strand in all three woody taxa.
Rays are exclusively uniseriate, commonly heterocellular, with procumbent, square and upright cells mixed throughout the ray (SJL88, Figure 1e), although this pattern varies within and between the three woody taxa (Table 1; SJL 103, Figures 1a-c; NDO, Figure 1d). Shirakiopsis elliptica reference charcoal ray cells are upright and square (SJL 67, Figure 1f). Very long rays occasionally occur in Shirakiopsis elliptica where two rays meet end to end, and are visible in both reference material (SJL 67) and archaeological material (SPCA B4c 45).1,31,40
Rays are frequent, with up to 12 observed per millimetre. Laticifers - thin, radial tubes carrying latex which occasionally occur in Euphorbiaceae wood - were absent from the charcoal examined.1,35
Distinguishing attributes of reference material
The charcoal of the three species differs in vessel size and frequency as well as in the presence or absence of crystals or silica bodies in ray cells. The differences in vessel size and pattern among the wood of the three species are recorded in a photographic study of endgrain woodblocks of Euphorbiaceae.49
Spirostachys africana has several to many, small to medium vessels in long radial lines.1,30,49 Charcoal reference, SJL 103, (Figure 1) and interpreted reference material, NDO, vessels are narrow (30-50 μΓη), at a frequency of between 40-100 vessels per mm2 (an average of 80/mm2) and vessels are arranged in long radial lines (radial multiples ≥ 4). The prismatic crystals in ray cells are birefringent, appearing shiny under reflected polarised light. Shape may vary in different material, from clearly rhombic in the archaeological specimen - which is an interpreted reference for Spirostachys africana (NDO in Figure 1d) - to irregular but shiny in the modern wood forestry block reference material (SJL 103 in Figure 1b and 1c). Crystals are visible in the SEM images recorded by Allott20. Silica bodies are absent from ray cells. The vessel inclusions are either resin1 or gum30. Resin occurs in the heartwood.1 Similar comparative images of Spirostachys africana have been recorded by Allott20, Ilic32 and Kromhout33.
Sclerocroton integerrimus has few, medium to large vessels in radial lines.1,60 Charcoal reference material, SJL 88, vessels are narrower than 100 μm, at a frequency of 20-40 vessels per mm2, and are arranged in short radial lines of two to four vessels. The silica bodies are non-birefringent and opaque under polarised light (SJL 88, Figure 1e).35 The silica bodies present in ray cells are spheroidal, irregularly shaped particles35 arranged in aggregates which often fill the entire cell lumen40. These silica bodies are visible in the SEM images recorded by Allott20. Prismatic crystals are absent from ray cells.
Shirakiopsis elliptica has very few, large to very large vessels in radial lines.1,31 Charcoal reference material, SJL 67, (Figure 1f) vessels are wider than 100 μηι, at a frequency of fewer than 10 vessels per mm2, and are arranged in short radial lines. Silica bodies occur as grains or small dark dots in Asian Sapium species.41 In our reference material, the silica bodies are inconspicuous, prismatic crystals are absent from ray cells with occasional crystals observed in the parenchyma and tyloses commonly occurring in vessels.1,31
Spirostachys and Sclerocroton archaeological charcoal
Spirostachys africana was identified in charcoal from Sibudu from MOD square C6a and from SPCA squares B4b and D5c. Specimens MOD C6a 39 and SPCA 62 have as many as 110 vessels per mm2, small (20-30 μm) to medium (50-100 μm) in size and arranged in radial multiples ≥4 (long radial lines); rays are uniseriate, frequent and heterocellular, with mixed procumbent, square, upright cells. Prismatic crystals occur in ray cells and shine under polarised light (Figure 2a-c).
Sclerocroton integerrimus charcoal was identified from MOD square E3d and from SPCA squares B4b, B4c and D5a. Few (30-50 vessels per mm2), medium-sized (50-100 μm) vessels occur in radial multiples ≥4. Silica bodies occur as aggregates which partially fill the ray cell lumen and are opaque under both non-polarised as well as polarised light (SPCA B4b 66; Figure 2e). Variation was observed in vessel arrangement and ray cell pattern (Table 1).1,60
Shirakiopsis elliptica charcoal was identified from MOD square C6a. Specimen MOD C6a 46 has many (40 vessels per mm2), medium (±50 μm) vessels in radial lines. Specimen SPCA B4c 45 has as many as 50 large (100-μm) vessels per mm2. Occasionally two uniseriate rays meet, forming rays which are jointly longer than 1 mm. Silica bodies in ray cells appear as inconspicuous grains or small, dark dots (MOD C6a 46; Figure 2). The diffuse parenchyma occasionally contains crystals.1
Summary of the characteristic diagnostic features of each species
The detailed anatomical study of reference material enables the identification of these taxa based on the occurrence of crystals in Spirostachys africana and silica bodies in Sclerocroton integerrimus and Shirakiopsis elliptica ray cells1 as well as on vessel size classes and frequency of vessels. These diagnostic characteristics are compared in Table 2.
The vessel size of Spirostachys, Sclerocroton and Shirakiopsis increases proportionally as vessel frequency decreases, from Spirostachys africana, with the smallest and most numerous vessels, to Sclerocroton integerrimus, then to Shirakiopsis elliptica with the largest and fewest vessels.
A comparison of anatomical features
No clear differentiation in anatomical features among these three taxa under investigation could be found, thus necessitating this study. There is some variation in vessel width and frequency, ray cell type, the absence or presence of tyloses in vessels, of laticifers in rays and of gum or resin deposits in vessels among different published accounts.1,30,31,33,49,59
Relative abundance of crystals may vary. As wood is inherently variable, some features are well defined in some samples, but poorly defined or absent in other samples of the same species.35 There are no quantitative criteria for 'common' in the list of the International Association of Wood Anatomists. Comments on relative frequency are therefore added to descriptions.35
The crystals of calcium oxalate are birefringent under polarised light; however, some cell walls, especially lignified cell walls, are also birefringent (Anonymous reviewer, 2014, personal observation, written communication, July 03). Structures such as xylem vessels with birefringent cell walls have a rainbow sheen in the reference material (SJL 103) and in the inferred reference material (NDO). Birefringent crystals are visible in Spirostachys africana reference material in the tangential longitudinal section in which the cell walls are cut away. The outline of these crystals is visible, differentiating these crystals from ray cell walls in the radial longitudinal section. Under non-polarised light, the crystals in the inferred reference material match those seen in SJL 103 and those usually seen in wood35 and charcoal44. The crystals seen in archaeological specimens of Spirostachys africana match those found in reference material SJL 103 ray cells observed in radial and tangential longitudinal sections at high magnification.
The Spirostachys africana crystals are magnified to 500x the original size and they are clearly visible. In SEM studies of charcoal, energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry analysis capabilities may be used to distinguish between crystals of calcium oxalate and silica, such as the crystals found in Searsia undulata (Namaqua kuni-bush), Cassine peragua (spoon-wood) and Gymnosporia buxifolia (spike-thorn) from archaeological charcoal at Diepkloof Rock Shelter.44
The variation in anatomical features between the charcoal and fresh wood or between charcoal made from modern wood and archaeological charcoal are because of the natural variation occurring in biological material affected by the sample origin (twig or trunk) or habitat.49 Quantitative variation may be a result of the shrinkage and distortion which occurs during the formation of charcoal.36,38
We have supplemented the charcoal wood anatomy descriptions with those from fresh woods from the InsideWood database as more detail usually is visible in fresh wood. Comparative sizes rather than measurements are used in anthracology because the anatomy may be distorted by shrinkage, vitrification, diagenesis, and fragmentation and powdering.36,38,41
The charcoal anatomy of Spirostachys africana, Sclerocroton integerrimus and Shirakiopsis elliptica enables these species to be distinguished by vessel arrangement, size and frequency, as well as by the presence or absence of crystals or silica bodies in ray cells.
Spirostachys africana has narrow, frequent vessels; prismatic crystals are present in ray cells. Sclerocroton integerrimus has wider, less frequent vessels. Of the three species under comparison, Shirakiopsis elliptica has the widest and least frequent vessels. Silica bodies are present in ray cells of Sclerocroton integerrimus and in Shirakiopsis elliptica as small grains and dots while prismatic crystals are absent from ray cells. The silica bodies of Sclerocroton integerrimus are aggregates of irregularly shaped silicon dioxide particles which often fill the entire cell lumen and appear opaque under polarised light. The silica bodies of Shirakiopsis elliptica appear as grains or small, dark dots.
Spirostachys africana was identified amongst hearth charcoal of the SPCA layer in squares B4b and D5c, with an age of approximately 58 ka; and in charcoal of the MOD layer in square C6a, with an age of approximately 49 ka. This find confirmed the use of Spirostachys africana wood at Sibudu rock shelter. Sclerocroton integerrimus charcoal occurred in SPCA in squares B4b, B4c and D5a and in MOD in square E3d. Shirakiopsis elliptica charcoal was found in SPCA B4c and in MOD in square C6a.
Sclerocroton integerrimus, Shirakiopsis elliptica and poisonous Spirostachys africana wood was deliberately burned by people at Sibudu who utilised natural resources. Sclerocroton integerrimus timber is a hard, heavy, durable wood. Shirakiopsis elliptica timber is soft, light, and suitable for making implements. Spirostachys africana wood is a hard, durable wood, with poisonous properties.
Many of the present day uses of these woods were not applicable during the Middle Stone Age, but these species may have been selected for making wooden implements and for firewood. Spirostachys africana wood is a skin irritant and it seems unlikely that this wood would have been worked by hand to make implements. Nor does it seem likely that the poisonous wood was used for domestic fires to cook food. It seems more likely that Spirostachys was deliberately selected for its toxic or insecticidal properties, perhaps so that its smoke would fumigate insects from the camp in Sibudu.
The National Research Foundation (South Africa) and the Palaeontological Scientific Trust and its Scatterlings Projects (PAST) are thanked for providing funding. S.J.L. thanks the ESI for equipment and her PhD supervisors for enabling this research and for helping in countless ways. Dr Christine Sievers and the late Tony Abbott helped to collect the modern wood reference material. Archaeologists working at Sibudu under the leadership of Professor Lyn Wadley, University of the Witwatersrand, collected the charcoal during several excavations over several years. A donation of modern wood from the Larry Leach Herbarium and Department of Biodiversity, University of Limpopo, extended the charcoal reference collection. Access to the microscopes in the Geology Department, University of Limpopo, assisted the study of Shirakiopsis silica bodies. The anonymous reviewers are thanked for improving this paper.
S.J.L. was responsible for the experimental work and wrote the manuscript; M.K.B. supervised the research, helped with charcoal identification and assisted with writing the manuscript.
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Evolutionary Studies Institute
University of the Witwatersrand
Private Bag 3, Wits 2050
Received: 23 Apr. 2014
Revised: 16 July 2014
Accepted: 25 July 2014