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Paleoclimatic and
paleoenvironmental context
of the origins of modern
humans in South Africa

(2004 - present)

Modern humans likely evolved in Africa between 300,000 and 100,000 years ago. It is well documented that the bio-behavioral adaptations of fully modern hunter-gatherers are intimately tied to climate and environment. Importantly, as human bio-behavioral complexity increased, Pleistocene climates became harsher during glacial stages and more variable, a pattern that terminates (strangely) at 10,000 years ago. There is an outstanding record for paleoclimates and paleoenvironments for this time slice in western Eurasia, but little is known for the contemporary African record where modern humans evolved. We propose to jump-start the development in Africa of a detailed paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental record with a multidisciplinary and international project tightly integrated between researchers grounded by the same problem orientation focused on the south coast of South Africa.

The end result of this project will be an understanding of the relation between global climate change and its regional expression in South Africa. This will broaden our understanding of the origins of modern humans by furthering our ability to examine the ecological context for this evolution. It will be one of the few projects in the Southern Hemisphere to study over a long period of time the response of regional floral systems to global climate change as reflected in the ice and deep sea cores. This will help us understand how continental locations, and specifically the Southern Hemisphere, might respond to potential long term changes in climate.

A novel aspect of our research will be the tight integration of the continental, marine, and atmospheric records with the archaeological and geological record in a tightly restricted region. This will be achieved through studies of speleothems (=continental, marine, and atmospheric conditions) and archaeological materials and geological features that reflect both continental and marine conditions (isotopes of teeth and OES = continental record, isotopes of shellfish = marine record, zooarchaeological studies of terrestrial animals = continental record, etc.).

The typical model for studies such as this is more disciplinarily isolated: studies of dunes, speleothems, isotopes on archaeological shellfish, etc., conducted separately. Cross-disciplinary comparisons and correlations then occur, if at all, by serendipity. A more powerful model is to conduct these studies in concert so that comparisons and correlations occur in real-time, allowing a more synergistic process and holistic result that exploits the natural trans-disciplinary nature of the 2P and paleoanthropological empirical record. Paleoanthropology provides a natural organizing intellectual and logistical framework. We hope to illuminate a new model of integrated paleoanthropological, paleoclimatic, and paleoenvironmental research with this project.

Research Team
  • Dr. Curtis W. Marean, Principal Investigator, SHESC

  • Dr. Miryam Bar-Matthews, Geological Survey of Israel
  • Dr. Stephanie de Villiers, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
  • Dr. Geoffrey Duller, University of Wales, Aberystwyth
  • Dr. Brooks Ellwood, Louisiana State University
  • Dr. Paul Goldberg, Boston University
  • Dr. Andrew Herries, University of New South Wales
  • Dr. Werner Illenberger, Illenberger & Associates, South Africa
  • Dr. Zenobia Jacobs, Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating Facility, CSIR
  • Dr. Antonieta Jerardino, Western Cape Heritage
  • Dr. Panagiotis Karkanas, Ministry of Culture Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology
  • Dr. Julia Lee-Thorp, University of Cape Town
  • Dr. Thalassa Matthews, Iziko South African Museum
  • Dr. Peter Nilssen, co-director of field operations, Iziko South African Museum, Dias Museum.
  • Dr. Dave Roberts, Council for Geoscience, South Africa
  • Dr. Judith Sealy, University of Cape Town
  • Dr. Ann Wintle, University of Wales, Aberystwyth
  • Dr. Stephan Woodborne, director of QUADRU, CSIR, South Africa

Sources of Funding
National Science Foundation - $2.5 million pending

Iziko South African Museum, South Africa
Dias Museum, South Africa
Geological Survey of Israel
University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
University of Wales, Aberystwyth
Louisiana State University
Boston University
University of New South Wales
Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating Facility, CSIR, South Africa
Ministry of Culture Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology, Greece
University of Cape Town

Contact: Curtis W. Marean