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Research Programmes

Life on Earth is the result of a unique string of biotic events extending back some 3.6 billion years. The aim of the Palaeosciences is to understand the development of ecosystems, identify key moments that led to our current patterns of biodiversity, and understand humanity’s role in the story of life. South Africa is replete with palaeontological, palaeoanthropological and archaeological heritage resources that document this extraordinarily vast story. The Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at the University of the Witwatersrand, with its expansive southern African fossil collections, its broad scientific expertise, and eight decades of research excellence in palaeoscience research is poised to take the lead in international research in Palaeosciences.

Southern Africa has a record of life preserved in its fossils that is more all-embracing than any other region in the world, a record that preserves not only the evolution of plants and animals, but humans too. Amongst humanity there is a growing awareness of the natural environment, and in order to understand current ecosystems it is essential to understand the development of life as well as the interaction of organisms with each other, and their interdependence on each other in order to survive. Over more than 4.5 billion years our planet has transformed from a hostile environment to an orb teeming with magnificent creatures – ranging from microscopic single-celled organisms to giant blue whales. Humankind, which had its origins in Africa, evolved as an inextricable part of the biodiversity of Africa before dispersing around the globe.
Palaeontology is the only discipline that can provide empirical data relevant to how and why biodiversity has changed in the past. Concentrating on our areas of unique strength that is the fossil record of South Africa, the ESI will substantially advance research in biodiversity change in the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, and Quaternary periods.
One of our focus areas of research  explores more than 400 million years of biotic evolution in Gondwana by using the superb southern African Cape, Karoo and Quaternary palaeontological and geological record as a study system for biodiversity and environmental change in deep time. This combines field-based exploration to search for new fossil evidence, taxonomic and phylogenetic research on fossil animals, plants and hominins; meticulous sedimentological and stratigraphic mapping of palaeontologically important rocks; and precise radiometric dating, all within a GIS-based data collection framework. An extensive fieldwork component will discover and document previously unknown species of fossil plants and animals, and yield new data on their sedimentological, stratigraphic, and biostratigraphic context. Combined with comparative museum collection-based fossil research, this fieldwork will enhance knowledge of Palaeozoic to recent biodiversity and the depositional environments.
This far-reaching research endeavour with extensive national and international collaboration will produce new insights into the Earth’s biological and geological evolution of the past 400 million years.
Fossils have broad public appeal and present an expedient means of opening discussions about humanity’s role in extinctions, evolution, and Earth history. We use the popularity of fossils to convey the results of our time-extensive project to the public through our established outreach programme.
South Africa is the only country in the world which has the crucial fossil resources to undertake a research project over this extensive time period from 400 million years ago and the establishment of the ESI at the University of the Witwatersrand offers a unique opportunity to apply these invaluable palaeontological and archaeological resources to interpret past biodiversity changes and the impact of humanity on ecosystems.

Research resources and focus areas

Work at the ESI utilises the time extensive fossil heritage of South Africa to understand evolutionary biodiversity and ecological change over the past 400 million years. Research questions is addressed by fieldwork and excavations; radiometric dating; using a multi-proxy approach to understanding large scale ecosystem change and associated faunal response. The latter objective is multidisciplinary and incorporate micropalaeontology; invertebrate palaeontology; vertebrate palaeontology; palaeobotany; stable isotopes; palynology and phytolith analysis; faunal analysis; sedimentology; and geomorphology. These data will be combined in various time-specific simulations to recreate past Earth models (and its effect on animal and hominid evolution) and to predict future earth models.

Devonian to Jurassic

Introduction - The fossils of the Cape and Karoo Supergroups are internationally renowned for their crucial role in understanding the environmental and biodiversity changes of three of the “Big Five” major extinction events (namely the end-Devonian, end-Permian and end-Triassic) to have beset the planet. Fossils from this sedimentary succession have enhanced global understanding of the evolution of important vertebrate lineages, including fish, amphibians, tortoises, mammals and dinosaurs, and have made an invaluable contribution to studies of Devonian – Jurassic Gondwanan floras.
Proposed Research - The Devonian Period (~420-360 million years ago) records a time marked by the first colonisation of land. Expanding terrestrial habitats and food webs are coincident with the origin of terrestrial vertebrates and by the end of the Devonian the first terrestrial ecosystems were well established. Despite this marked radiation in biodiversity, the end of the Devonian is marred by major extinctions of which the causes and effects thereof are poorly known. The rocks of South Africa’s Bokkeveld and Witteberg Groups represent a superb study system for Devonian organismal evolution and extinction, the development of the earliest terrestrial ecosystems, and the effects of the End-Devonian extinction.
After the end-Devonian extinction diversification of Earth’s biota was punctuated by two major extinction events at the end of the Permian and the end of the Triassic. Rocks of the Karoo Supergroup uniquely preserve this terrestrial turnover and document the biotic response to the assemblage and early dissolution of the supercontinent Pangaea. Karoo fossils provide evidence for the rise, decline, and diversification of early members of the lineage leading to mammals and information about the earliest evolution and cladogenesis of the dinosaurs. The Karoo record provides a crucial window to understanding how major tetrapod lineages evolved on land. Accurate radiometric dates recently achieved by the ESI have enhanced correlation of Karoo fossil beds with those from other Gondwanan continents and provided the foundation for groundbreaking work on the pace and timing of these major evolutionary events.

Quaternary faunal systems and human origins

Introduction - The study of human origins allows us to unravel the story of our past and in doing this to make predictions about our future. A strength of the southern African fossil record is that it records the most time-extensive evidence on the planet of early hominin evolution and cultural development, as well as the effect our ancestors have had on biodiversity. Early hominins evolved in the context of the diverse fauna and shifting environments of the Quaternary. Rapid environmental changes appear to have played a major role in early hominin speciation, distribution and the development of modern human behavior. That environmental change may have influenced population growth and dispersal, the timing of the emergence of innovative technology, and the implied advanced cognitive abilities it carries, shows no such correlation with evidence of environmental change. This suggests the influence of other factors that resulted in such a substantial cognitive and creative hominid expansion.
Proposed research - Scientists of the ESI are involved in ongoing discovery and groundbreaking research in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. In addition the ESI is also researching several Middle Stone Age sites (e.g., Blombos and Sibudu), which record the evolution of modern humans and their culture. These cave sites preserve evidence of human artistry and the biodiversity of the time in detail, and it is now possible to accurately date the stratigraphic successions with remarkable accuracy. Our research focuses on time slices including the Plio-Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Pleistocene-Holocene transition, and mid Holocene.


Because the study of fossils has broad public appeal, it has the capacity to reach well beyond typical scientific audiences into the general public. The excitement of scientific discovery, the advances being made and the fossils themselves attract a wide audience. Experience has shown that palaeontology can be used as an “ambassador” for all areas of scientific endeavor, promoting STEM education and outreach and thus enthuse the younger generation in the wonders of scientific discovery. The ESI runs a very active public outreach programme with activities tailored for school children and the general public. This programme currently attracts in excess of 27 000 school children annually and will continue to grow into the future.
The temporally and taxonomically diverse and internationally important fossil heritage of South Africa includes the oldest evidence of life, the earliest metazoan animals, the earliest land-living plants, a remarkable history of tetrapod diversification including the best record of the distant ancestry of mammals, dinosaurs and turtles, and a remarkable record of human origins as well as technological and cultural development. In a continent which has a poor record of quality education in fundamental science, the educational significance of the anticipated research outcomes is immense, and will be utilised to excite the minds of young South Africans in the voyage of scientific enquiry and endeavour in a field where the heritage resources and discoveries made in this country will have global significance.
The remarkable story of “Origins” has huge potential for palaeotourism and job creation possibilities in poorly resourced but scenically spectacular rural areas of the country. Already two World Heritage Sites have been established in South Africa, largely because of their palaeoscience heritage. This rich heritage of “African Origins” has the potential to develop a spirit of nationalism amongst a South African population that has been divided by an oppressive political history.

Research and related staff

Our broad based multidisciplinary research proposal aims to ask probing questions about the development of life, based largely on the uniquely rich and diverse South African fossil record. This record, because it is both geographically and time expansive, has to date received relatively little research attention. However sufficient research has been undertaken by previous generations of palaoescientists to make the authors of the review of the Department of Science and Technology of South Africa on the state of palaeontological research in that country to write “because of the uniquely rich fossil heritage of this country it is not possible to write a comprehensive text on the development of life on earth without referring extensively to the South African fossil record”. Previous palaeoscience research has earmarked the potential of the South African fossil record to understand biodiversity change over time. The time is ripe to explore the fossil heritage resources of South Africa in order to understand the development of biodiversity through time.
Professor Bruce Rubidge – Director ESI and project leader. More than 35 years of experience in fieldwork relating to Permian and Triassic biodiversity of the Karoo. Researches sedimentology, stratigraphy, vertebrate taxonomy and dating.
Professor Francis Thackeray – More than 35 years of experience in research and fieldwork relating to early fossil hominins, particularly their taxonomy, in southern Africa.
Professor Marion Bamford – Research Professor. More than 25 years of research experience on ancient fossil flora of the Permian and Triassic, as well as floras related to fossil hominin localities.
Professor Lee Berger – Research Professor in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science and Explorer in Residence for the National Geographic Society). More than 25 years experience on ancient fossil hominins from southern Africa. Directs the Malapa Cave project.
Professor Christopher Henshilwood
– NRF funded Research Chair in the Origins of Modern Human Behaviour; Professor of African Archaeology at the Institute for Archaeology, History Culture and Religion at the University of Bergen in Norway. More than 35 years of experience relating to fieldwork and research on early human cognition and behavior. Directs Blombos Cave Project.
Professor Lynn Wadley – Research Professor. More than 40 years of experience relating to fieldwork and research on the behavior of early modern humans. Directs the Sibudu Cave project in South Africa.
Dr Fernando Abdala – Senior Researcher. Leading authority on fossil therapsids and the distant ancestry of mammals. Extensive fieldwork experience and has worked in museum collections around the world.
Dr Lucinda Abdala – Senior Researcher. Authority on bone taphonomy and the earliest use of tools by hominins. Extensive fieldwork and excavation experience.
Dr Jonah Choiniere – Senior Researcher. Specialist on dinosaur biology and systematics. Extensive fieldwork experience.