Change the world

Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience

Background

Given the unique geographical position of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) – situated at the possible ground-zero of human cognitive origins as well as a locus for a diverse range of biotic radiations – the university is ideally situated to engage in national and international collaboration to investigate fundamental evolutionary questions.

A major aim of the CCP will be to formalise and strengthen the existing collaborations between NMMU and the other institutions, both nationally and internationally, that have cognate research interests. The initial focus will be on reconstructing the Quaternary palaeo-landscape and seascape (“palaeoscape”) of the south and southeast coasts. This reconstruction will enable the development of testable hypotheses on the selective regimes that shaped the region’s biota, including modern humans. No region anywhere else in the world offers such an opportunity.

The geographical domain of the CCP incorporates the seascapes and landscapes of South Africa’s south and southeast coasts. This region encompasses much of the Greater Cape Floristic Region and Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspots, and supports an extraordinarily rich array of Middle and Later Stone Age archaeological sites.

Vision

By 2021, the CCP will be internationally recognized as a leading institution for conducting research on the Quaternary evolution of the biota (including early humans) of the species-rich south and southeast coast of South Africa.

Mission

The Mission of CCP is to conduct and coordinate Quaternary palaeoscientific research in an interdisciplinary context on the south and southeast coast of South Africa. The Centre also aims to build human capacity through postgraduate training.

Strategic objectives

The proposed Centre will:

  • conduct and stimulate research across all fields of palaeoscience that provide context for understanding the evolution of biota, with a focus on the human lineage;
  • promote and facilitate inter-disciplinary, intra-institutional and inter-institutional palaeoscience research; and
  • provide tuition in palaeosciences at undergraduate (by exposing students to the palaeosciences within existing modules) and postgraduate levels, and foster co-supervision of postgraduate students by international leaders in different fields.

Palaeoscape

by Maggie Newman

A visualization of the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain off Mossel Bay some 60 000 years ago during a moderate cold phase (glacial). In the distant background is the ridgeline of the current coastline some 30 km away, and the snow-capped Outeniqua Mountains. The vast and monotonous plain is drained by a languid, meandering Gouritz River which has formed extensive wetlands behind the barrier of coastal dunes. The plain is underlain by fertile soils which support a dense and productive grassland which is home to large herds of grazing mammals. These include several extinct forms such as longhorn buffalo, giant Cape zebra, and giant hartebeest and bluebuck, as well as the springbok, eland, waterbuck, zebra and other plains game still found roaming the African tropical grasslands today. The midground shows a group of modern humans at a campsite on a sandy, limestone ridge beneath a large white milkwood tree. On the left, children are collecting fire wood from the dune thicket and protea veld, while two men return from a hunt with bluebuck (centre), and two young women are offloading their harvest of intertidal shellfish. In the foreground, young women are decorating their faces with ochre, prepared using a grinding stone and stored in a perlemoen shell. Nearby, a girl is making a necklace of shells. The women on the right, backed by the huge horn of the longhorn buffalo, are preparing to cook the corms of geophytes collected in the surrounding veld. By contemporary Cape standards, this was a highly productive landscape yielding large amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrate for human consumption. However, harvesting these resources would have required advanced cognitive skills. Thus the technology used by these people was very advanced, comprising for example, small blades fashioned from cores of heat-treated silcrete rock that were used as spear tips.