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Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience


NMMU recently took a proverbial leap into the future through the benefits of interdisciplinary research as it explores the mysteries of yesteryear.

The recently launched Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience marks a significant step towards understanding evolution via the university’s interdisciplinary approach towards research – in this particular case, the lifestyle and interaction of mankind up to two million years ago.

NMMU’s expanding team of researchers across several disciplines is ideally located to examine the biota of the southern and southeastern coasts of South Africa, which is being increasingly recognised as home to the earliest evidence of the emergence of modern humans.

Leading palaeoscientist Prof Curtis Marean, the guest speaker at the launch, holds the belief that humans have the unique tendency to cooperate with other unrelated humans and form societies and “do amazing things”.

“How this proclivity evolved is a particularly challenging question since it works against standard biological models of natural selection. It’s this, and much more, that we wish to research,” says Prof Marean of the exciting research that the new Centre will tackle.

Prof Marean argued that, for the first time, humans shifted their diet to predictable resources found along the southern and southeastern coastline and began to defend these resources from others.

“To test such hypotheses demands research that cross the social and biological and geological sciences – hence the need for formal cross-disciplinary research centres like this one,” he says.

The Centre will build on the rich legacy of local and international research collaborations, to provide the interdisciplinary insights into what is probably “one of the most important evolutionary theatres globally”.

A major highlight this year has been the publication of a paper entitled “A new research strategy for integrating studies of paleoclimate, paleoenvironment, and paleoanthropology” in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology.

This paper outlines the novel approach that the international research team is using to piece together the history of human evolution in the Cape.

It is a notable example of the extensive collaborative nature of this team: there are 13 authors spanning eight institutions and four continents. The lead author is Prof Marean with NMMU co-authors Botany’s Prof Richard Cowling and Dr Alastair Potts.

Along with the Centre’s international collaborators, Dr Potts and Prof Cowling have recently published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, an outline of how palaeovegetation modelling can provide a powerful tool for understanding human prehistory. Dr Potts also presented a talk earlier this year at the 80th meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, held in San Francisco, on the benefits of using different types of vegetation models for reconstructing palaeo-landscapes.

Additional research includes palaeoclimate modelling of the South Coast (in collaboration with the CSIR) and investigating the human-foraging return rates from the Cape marine and terrestrial resources which was presented at this year’s Paleoanthropology Society meeting held in San Francisco.

Research in collaboration with Arizona State University and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry also entails the foraging return rates along the marine intertidal zone (e.g. limpets, mussels, fish) and the terrestrial resources (e.g. berries, tubers, roots) – in collaboration with Stellenbosch University and Arizona State University.

Photographed above is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Engagement Prof Andrew Leitch (from left), guest speaker and leading palaeoscientist Prof Curtis Marean, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Institutional Support Dr Sibongile Muthwa  and acting Dean of Science Prof Cedric McCleland at the launch of the Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience.