Various research projects are currently underway in the Department of Archaeology at UCT. These span topics related to the southern African past, the development of modern behaviour, and the forces shaping human evolution.

Decolonising our origin story

With support from the Advancing Womxn initiative, this work involves designing a new exhibition that focuses on the diversity of modern humans, as evidenced in skin colour, as a starting point to trace our history back to common origins in Africa. The goal is to spark public dialogue around human evolution and inspire the next generation of young female scientists. The group is led by the Human Evolution Research Institute (HERI), which aims to disrupt, transform and decolonise the story of human evolution as it is currently told in South Africa’s Iziko Museum.

Forces shaping human evolution 

Led by Rebecca Ackermann, this work uncovers the evolutionary processes underlying morphological change and diversification in the fossil record of human evolution. Specifically, this research utilises 3D morphometric and evolutionary quantitative genetic approaches to determine how gene flow, drift and selection interact to produce skeletal diversity through time. This also involves investigating animal models for hybridisation both in the field and laboratory. Researchers in the group also investigate recent human diversity, and issues around race and decolonisation.

Human behavioural evolution

This research is led by Jayne Wilkins and aims to answer the origins of human social learning, adaptation, and sociality from a South African perspective. This involves analysis of stone tools left by our earliest ancestors and developing new methods for using them to address evolutionary questions. Work in this area includes analysis of stone tools, experimental archaeology, and excavation. The work is closely aligned with the North of Kuruman Project, a multi-disciplinary investigation of hunter-gatherer adaptation in the southern Kalahari Basin in the Northern Cape.

Metals beyond frontiers

The consumption of metal was an important aspect of Iron Age communities in southern Africa. Often, the direction in which metals moved is unknown owing to lack of research into the subject. This project seeks to identify the provenance of metals found at southern African archaeological sites using trace elements and lead and strontium isotopes. It also strives to build a database of excavated metal objects archived in museums.

Metals and states in southern Africa

In conventional interpretations of the southern African past, ideology, long-distance trade and cattle are some of the factors used to understand the development of socio-political complexity. Despite its ubiquity, and pivotal role in sustaining local and long-distance trade, the role of metallurgy in state formation has not been explored in detail. This project is aimed at addressing this gap in our knowledge by studying the archaeology and technology of Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe, Khami, Mapela and other former states and capitals. The project has already revealed that metals played a more prominent role in the society of southern Africa’s early states than is currently believed.

Palaeo-ecology through isotopic analyses of modern and fossil biominerals

Studies of palaeo-ecology through isotopic analyses of modern and fossil biominerals, such as teeth, and bones from archaeological and palaeontological sites. Particular foci include:

  • Ungulate δ¹⁸O as a proxy for aridity
  • Serial sampling of enamel from teeth
  • Isotopic analysis of ostrich eggshell (OES) and its applicability to palaeoclimate reconstruction
  • Exploring the use of carnivore stable isotopes as environmental integrators in southern African winter rainfall ecosystems.
  • Diets and lifeways of ancient foragers and farming communities in southern Africa and elsewhere.
  • Exploring the applicability of stable isotopes as a forensic tool in Africa.
  • Stable carbon isotope systematics of C₃ plant systems, and implications for palaeoecology, palaeoatmospheres, and palaeoclimates.
  • Development of rare isotopologues of CO₂ as tracers for the carbon cycle and as pCO₂ proxies from fossil biominerals and other carbonates; in particular the use of TILDAS for such measurements.

Phalaborwa Copper Project

This project is a result of collaboration between the Materials Laboratory and the Institute for Archaeometallurgical Studies (Institute of Archaeology), University of College London. It was initiated to re-orient studies of pre-colonial metallurgy from iron extractive metallurgy towards copper metallurgy. Currently, the ubiquitous amount of data on pre-colonial iron smelting technologies and the associated socio-cultural metaphors contrasts significantly with the limited information on copper production. Yet, South Africa has ubiquitous amounts of copper production debris. This project seeks to explore the technology of copper smelting and fabrication in and around the Phalaborwa area.

Southern African crucible metallurgy

Most existing studies on the metallurgy of the southern African region are concentrated on furnaces, slag, and occasionally ores and finished objects. Crucibles, which played an important role as reaction vessels in non-ferrous metallurgy, have only been cursorily investigated. This project documents the diachronic development of crucibles used in southern African metallurgy, and in the processes, teases out issues associated with technological improvisation and innovation. Samples of crucibles ranging from domestic pottery to the more specialised sandstone types are the focus of study. From a comparative point of view, southern Africa has crucibles comparable to those used in Europe and parts of Asia, but also contains some unique varieties which asks significant questions about interaction, cultural exchange, and independent invention in pre-industrial metallurgy.

Timeline for human evolution

The focus of this work is to answer where and when our early human ancestors evolved. Led by Dr Robyn Pickering, this research involves uranium-series dating techniques applied to early human cave sites in the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa. It also involves understanding the depositional environment and hydrological significance of pedogenic carbonates or calcretes, which represent a major and untapped resource of palaeoenvironmental information. These investigations are done in the first uranium-series laboratory in Africa, housed at UCT.

Tin production at Rooiberg, South Africa

This project seeks to understand the extractive metallurgy and distribution of tin in southern Africa. It focuses on the well-known Rooiberg Valley in South Africa. Rooiberg, is one of the two known sources of pre-colonial tin in sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to iron and copper which were introduced to the sub-continent in the early first millennium AD, tin was only worked a millennium later when it was alloyed with copper to produce tin bronzes. The tin working evidence at Rooiberg consists of pre-colonial mine shafts, and smelting sites littered with slag and broken tuyeres. The work at Rooiberg is dedicated to understanding the little-known process of tin smelting in antiquity and tracing the movement of tin in southern Africa using trace element analyses and isotope geochemistry.