Project Highlights:

  • Developing and environmental context for South Africa’s globally-significant archaeological record
  • New insights into palaeoenvironmental change in the southern African arid interior
  • Application and development of the latest geochronological methods

The archaeological record of southern Africa spans ~2 million years and contains internationally-important evidence for the emergence of our species (Lombard, 2012). Late Pleistocene sites on South Africa’s coast show early evidence of modern human anatomy and behaviour and in this sense the significance of coastal climatic/resource stability for human occupation has been emphasized. However, humans did occupy the (presently) more arid southern African interior during the Early, Middle and Later Stone ages (i.e. over more than 1 million years). Records are more fragmentary, but include evidence for the relatively early occurrence of some cultural and technological developments. Given that there is clear evidence for changing humidity and surface hydrological conditions in the arid South African interior, occupation of this region may well have been somewhat punctuated during the late Pleistocene and is hypothesised to have been strongly mediated by surface water availability. In conjunction with colleagues in South Africa currently working on the development of a more complete archaeological record for interior regions of southern Africa, this project will focus on the development of geomorphic records of landscape, evolution and surface hydrological change to provide a key environmental framework within which to place newly emerging and existing archaeological data. The project will focus on the interior Highveld region of southern Africa (Free State, Northwest Province and Mpumalanga) where archaeological occurrences are found in close association with numerous pan (palaeo-lake) systems and relict alluvial deposits. The primary goal will be the reconstruction of pan hydrological histories (such palaeo lakes representing potential foci of human occupation given their provision of key resources) primarily using luminescence dating methods applied to sequences of pan floor sediments and to fringing lunette dunes- aeolian deposits formed from material deflated from the pan floor during phases of low water conditions/aridity (e.g. Carr et al., 2006; Holmes et al., 2008). The project will also seek to apply the latest luminescence methods, particularly those potentially capable of extending the age range of the method (e.g. Pickering et al., 2013), to archaeologically-significant alluvial deposits both in the Highveld and in the Vaal River catchment. In the latter multiple river terrace systems have been identified comprising and are proposed to range in age up to as much as 1.5 million years.

Left: Sampling a pan-fringing lunette dune for OSL dating. Right: Recent lunette dune (~2.5 ka) being eroded by contemporary inundated pan condition


The project will focus primarily on the reconstruction of pan hydrological histories using luminescence (quartz and particularly feldspar) dating methods as a chronometer and additional sedimentological and inorganic geochemical methods as a means to reconstruct (palaeo) lake conditions and status. This work will be carried out under the auspices of the wider PalaeoTrACKS (Tracing Ancient Cognition and Knowledge Systems through the Stone Age) project led by Professor Marlize Lombard (University of Johannesburg), a component of which is focused on human occupation of trans-Vaal Highveld Grassland Bioregion. These methods will be applied in conjunction with detailed field mapping and stratigraphic logging. New luminescence analytical approaches will also allow the testing and development of luminescence methods as a means to provide more detailed chronological control on earlier (Acheulean) archaeological material in this region. There may also be potential to apply cosmogenic dating methods should suitable materials be identified

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to CENTA research themes. The successful student will obtain extensive skills in the luminescence dating method, using a variety of dosimeter minerals and potentially a range of measurement approaches. Luminescence dating and pan sediment geochemical analyses will provide scope for training in geochemical analyses, notably ICP-MS methods. The project will also provide training geomorphic field mapping and interpretation, sedimentology and basic remote sensing methods.


Year 1: Initial field reconnaissance, site identification and field mapping and collection of initial luminescence dating samples and later training in basic dating methods. Field mapping, remote sensing and digital elevation data analysis of regional hydrological systems.

Year 2: Major field mapping and sampling campaign, extended period of luminescence dating analyses, secondary field sampling campaign, geochemical and supplementary dating analyses (if appropriate) of older Vaal River alluvium

Year 3: Integration of stratigraphic/morphological data, finalising geochronological data.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The project will be supervised by Carr, whose research interests concern long-term African landscape and climate change. He directs the University of Leicester luminescence laboratory. Co-supervision will be provided by Professor Marlize Lombard (University of Johannesburg), a world-leading expert on southern African archaeology. Her Palaeo-TrACKs research group, which also includes archaeologist and co-supervisor Gerrit Dusseldorp (Leiden) will provide further support and guidance (particularly concerning the archaeological implications) as well as practical support for field sampling. The PalaeoTrACKS project is specifically concerned with the adaptations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers to the interior Grassland Biome environments of South Africa.