The archaeological record of southern Africa is world-renowned and presents evidence spanning early hominins to the putative emergence of modern humans. A fundamental transition is between the Middle Stone Age (MSA ~300 ka to ~30 ka) and Later Stone Age (LSA) - the latter signifying the era in which modern behaviour is structurally exhibited (Villa et al. 2012). The chronology and causes of this transition are poorly understood. This project deals with the fundamental question of how and when climatic developments during the last glacial cycle correlated with technological changes and human adaptations (e.g. Ziegler et al. 2013; cf. Chase et al. 2017). The successful candidate will focus on palaeoenvironmental reconstruction using stable isotopes and plant biomarker proxies, and will join a major new research project (led by Dusseldorp) involving new rock-shelter excavations, lithic analysis and geoarchaeological investigations in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa.

The transition to the LSA occurred during the late Pleistocene, when major global climatic re-organisations impacted southern African climates and ecologies. Such changes have been considered in detail elsewhere (e.g. the southern Cape coast; Carr et al., 2016; Chase et al. 2017), but little secure environmental information is available for KZN or, in fact, much of interior southern Africa. In KZN, several key archaeological sites span the critical MSA-LSA transition, but have received limited analysis.  Marine core data suggest conditions here during the transition were more humid than today, but punctuated by aridity (Ziegler et al., 2013). Such changes may have had far-reaching consequences for resource availability. Two KZN rock shelters - Shongweni Caves and Umhlatuzana – will be investigated. The wider project considers: 1) changes in lithic technology and adaptation; 2) improved chronological control for this transition 3) a critical need for environmental proxy data in direct stratigraphic/temporal relation to evidence for occupation. The studentship will focus on (3), combining detailed analysis of site-formation processes with the latest isotope and geochemical environmental proxies to derive a robust, multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental context.  The great potential of applying isotopes and molecular evidence for this purpose has recently been demonstrated in MSA rock shelter contexts (Collins et al. 2017).

View of Shongweni Cave , KZN – a major excavation target for this project


Conduct stable carbon, nitrogen and oxygen isotope analysis of rock-shelter sediments, bone and charcoal from the newly excavated materials to develop new insights into palaeoenvironmental conditions.

Design a sampling programme for analysis of modern vegetation and soils to calibrate isotope palaeoenvironmental interpretations, particularly plant d13C and leaf wax dD (for palaeo-hydrology).

Use Gas Chromatograph- Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) to derive of molecular evidence from rock-shelter sediments for: 1) reconstruction of environmental/ecological conditions; 2) reconstruction of human subsistence practices and environmental conditions (fatty acid food residues and stable isotope analysis of lipids); 3) consideration of the role of fire within the rock-shelter - its character and occurrence - and its impact on site taphonomy (using pyrolysis-GC/MS methods).

Work with the wider excavation team to integrate your findings with geo-archaeological, lithic and chronological data and consider the broader implications for human adaptation to past climatic changes.

Training and Skills

CENTA students benefit from 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 the student's projects and themes. 

You will join a large collaborative team working together on the “Finding resolution for the Middle to Later Stone Age transition” project, providing a wide collaborative network to support your PhD and career. You will become highly proficient in stable isotope analysis (d13C, d15N, d18O and dD) and the analysis of biomarkers via GC/MS, py-GC/MS and GC-IRMS. You will work closely in the project team and will gain additional skills and competences concerning: 1) micromorphology; 2) FTIR; 3) macro-botanical analysis; 4) phytolith analysis. This varied application of methods in a wider project will provide a unique set of skills.


Year 1: Site visits, excavation and field sampling. Training in stable isotope analysis of solid samples (sediments, charcoal). Training in the analysis of bones and teeth for d18O. Sampling contemporary plants, soil and water from environments around rock-shelters.

Year 2: Analysis of sediment and charcoal samples – considering results in close collaboration with micromorphologists and geoarchaeologists. Initial training in GC/MS and lipid extraction, moving to development of an optimised protocol for the extraction of fatty acid residues and their stable-isotope analysis. Analysis and write-up of baseline isotope data from modern plants/soils.

Year 3: Focus on palaeoenvironmental-palaeohydrological analyses via compound-specific stable isotope analysis of leaf waxes and (following methodological work in year 2) residues preserved within sediments. Integration of environmental data with individual site micromorphological / geochronological data. Contribution to wider project analyses of human-environmental relations in KZN during the MSA-LSA transition. Publication of data and presentation at international conferences is anticipated from year 2 onwards.


Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

Andy Carr has an 18-year track-record of palaeoenvironmental research in southern Africa, including close collaboration with archaeologists and on the novel application of isotope proxies. Arnoud Boom directs the Leicester Stable Isotope laboratory. Some of their collaborative work has recently demonstrated the potential of biomarker analyses in rock-shelter materials (Collins et al. 2017)

Gerrit Dusseldorp (Leiden) is the Principal investigator on the “Finding resolution for the Middle to Later Stone Age transition” funded by a prestigious NWO-Vidi grant. He has worked extensively on the archaeology of the South Africa, particularly on connecting subsistence behaviours with technological change and environmental conditions.

Further Details

Contact Andy Carr University of Leicester, asc18@le.ac.uk