Abstract: Great uncertainty exists surrounding the link between climate change and hominin evolution, cultural development, and dispersal in and out of Africa. Several hypotheses have been proposed about how environmental conditions in Africa might have driven important developments in human origins over the last 4 million years. These findings link important evolutionary events with environmental change including cooling, drying, and wider climate fluctuations over time. However, key questions remain on the type, speed and driver of climate variability in Africa and how it affected evolution and development, e.g., did changing environment affect resources which consequently lead humans to develop new tools, why did so many early hominin species persist, evolve and/or go extinct, why did our species (Homo sapiens) emerge and survive, and how have we shaped our own environment either intentionally or unintentionally? In this session we look to bring together researchers focused on reconstructing past environments in Africa on the basis of empirical data (palaeoclimatic, palaeoecological, archaeological records) with researchers using modelling approaches (climate, vegetation, dispersal and cultural models). We hope to stimulate research and debate on how past change (climate, ecological, behavioral) shaped modern humans and the role of human niche construction on African environments. This session is linked to the INQUA “Mapping Ancient Africa” project, but we welcome all submissions.
The fifth Mapping Ancient African project took place on Monday 11 April 2022 and focused on the African Pollen Database and past vegetation change in Africa.
The seminar was delivered by Sarah Ivory (Penn State University), Rahab Kinyanjui (National Museums of Kenya), and Lynne Quick (Nelson Mandela University). The seminar covers the principles behind and the working of the African Pollen Database (why make data openly available?) and the latest advances in eastern and southern Africa.
For more about the African Pollen Database check out:
The recently published volume of the Palaeoecology of Africa series contains a number of different types of papers: research articles, reviews, perspectives and data papers. One of the key reasons I was motivated to become involved in the project was to help mobilise palaeoecological data from Africa towards open access datasets (African Pollen Database, Neotoma). To hopefully get greater recognition to the great work done over the years and to help facilitate synthetic work that will provide a greater understanding of spatial variance in past climate change. Ultimately, four short data papers were included in the volume: an enhanced c. 16,000 year pollen record from the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia (Gil-Romera et al. 2021), two pollen and charcoal record from the southern Cape Coast in South Africa, c. 3200 and 650 years long respectively (du Plessis et al. 2021a; du Plessis et al. 2021b), and a c. 700 year long record from Madagascar (Razanatsoa et al. 2021). The records provide new insights in to landscape scale environmental change driven by both humans and climate. To find out more check out the open access articles and the data at:
I am pleased to announce that the new, open access, volume of Palaeoecology of Africa (PoA) should be available to download in October. The “Quaternary Vegetation Dynamics” volume comprises 24 chapters, produced by more than 70 authors, and contains extensive review papers, personal perspectives on hot topics, as well as new research and data papers.
To find out more on the volume visit the publishers web site: PoA Vol. 35
Over the next few months I aim to blog about the various specific chapters to showcase some of the key findings. I hope that this book will provide a useful resource to all researchers working on past climate, environmental and vegetation change in Africa, and will provide a springboard for the start of the new “Mapping Ancient Africa” project that will kick off in October.
I am pleased to announce the start of a new project “Mapping Ancient Africa” funded by the International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA) with support from the Palaeoclimate commission (PALCOM) and the Human & Biospheres commission (HABCOM). This project will bring together Quaternary scientists focused on past climates and environments with those working on human evolution and development in Africa. Through the synthesising data and linking these with modelling approaches we hope to bring together a novel group of researchers to explore the climatic and environmental backdrop to hominin development.
Further information on the project can be found on a new “sub-site” within this blog dedicated to the “Mapping Ancient Africa” project. The project is designed to connect researchers working on these topics so if you are interested to be involved please do get in contact. The first meeting will be held in October 2021 online and at four locations: Nairobi (Kenya), Port Elizabeth (South Africa), Potsdam (Germany) and Portland (Oregon, USA) – for further details click here.
The transition from Early Career Researcher (ECR) to head of a new laboratory
When you are in the midst of working on your PhD you feel that this must surely be the toughest challenge you’ll ever face, only to emerge on the other side and realise that it was a holiday in comparison to the academic journey post-PhD.
I completed my PhD at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and immediately launched myself into a postdoctoral fellowship embedded in a relatively large international research initiative. Building on the expertise and knowledge I gained from my postgraduate work, I generated new pollen and microcharcoal records from the southern Cape and west coast regions of South Africa in order to reveal details about how climate and associated environmental conditions have changed during the Holocene. I found the transition from working almost entirely independently on my PhD to collaborating within the context of a large multidisciplinary and multinational team equally very exciting, and very challenging. At this time imposter syndrome hit me hard and I had a bit of an existential crisis (I’m overqualified, too specialized and not earning enough, what the hell am I doing with my life? – I know we’ve all been there!). Just as I was about to give up on academia, I was approached by Nelson Mandela University, one of the smaller, lesser known, public universities in South Africa, situated in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province. After a lot of soul searching, I accepted a research fellowship at NMU, moved out of my home in Cape Town (where I had lived my entire life) and relocated to a new city – by myself, with no contacts, friends or family there.
The primary focus of the new state-of-the-art palaeoecology laboratory at Nelson Mandela University is to conduct palynological studies, with a strong geographic emphasis on the Cape south coast and the Cape Floristic Region in general. While our initial and primary focus will be on pollen analysis, our overarching goal is to establish a highly versatile open science resource-base for palaeoscience research at Nelson Mandela University.
Erin Hilmer completed an undergraduate BSc degree at Nelson Mandela University followed by an honours in geology at the University of Stellenbosch. In addition to her role as the Senior Laboratory Technician of the new palaeolab, she manages Port Elizabeth’s only pollen and spore trap and generates weekly pollen and spore data for the city. This work forms part of a national monitoring network (www.pollencount.co.za). She also has expertise in geochronology and scanning electron (SEM) microscopy.