There are so many different lenses we can use to view and understand the past. History books and rock paintings, ice cores and rock strata. What kind of scroll you need depends on the kind of past under investigation.
And so to the useful archive provided by the rock hyrax (Procavia capensi) of southern Africa, a small mammal that has a couple of pertinent habits when it comes to creating a long-term set of reference material.
Hyrax colonies tend to stay in one place over millennia. They also tend to use a communal urinary, which also tends to stay in the same location. Further, hyrax urine is thick and dries quickly, and together with the fecal pellets, contains traces of hyrax life – pollen, bits of leaves, trapped gas bubbles. Over the years the hyrax midden becomes a long, multi-layered chronicle of hyrax life from the vantage point of what generations of hyrax left behind.
The HYRAX Project uses midden archives to look at climate and vegetation change over a period of 50,000 years. It’s not the first midden study, of course, but in an area as arid as southern Africa, the challenges for finding a paleoenvironmental tool are higher than in area with lakes and wetlands, which are rife with sediment traps.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding the right archive for the subject at hand, and then knowing how to read it.