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Norwegian Centre of Excellence awarded to Wits Archaeologist for early humans research

- Wits University

With its new Centre of Excellence status, the Centre for Early Human Behaviour will receive funding amounting to about R540 million over the next 10 years.

The study of early human behaviour received a huge boost as the Centre for Early Human Behaviour (EHB) at the University of Bergen (UiB) was awarded Centre of Excellence status by the Norwegian Research Council.

This centre, which now ranks among the top10 of the international committee, is run by Professor Christopher Henshilwood, an A-Rated scientist, who holds a 10-year South Africa National Research Foundation funded Research Chair and Professorship at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, as well as a position as Professor in the Archaeology, History, Culture and Religion Institute at the University of Bergen, Norway.  

With its new Centre of Excellence status IV, the EHB will receive funding amounting to about R540 million (US$18 million) over the next 10 years.

“I am really excited about this. This will be a vastly expanded project compared to our previous research. We are now drawing on experts from climate research, neurological science, psychology, geology and social sciences,” says Henshilwood.

Working at the Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter in the De Hoop Nature reserve in the southern Cape, Henshilwood and his team from Wits and UiB have already decisively shown that Africa is the birthplace for the early development of modern human cognition.

The new CoE, which will start in September this year, will mean that experts from several disciplines will now join forces to learn more about the evolution of our early ancestors, Homo sapiens, in an archaeologically-based research centre that aims to catapult Norway and South Africa into the world elite.

“The research should be comprehensive and the group diverse. We have outstanding researchers who already a part of the COE team and also within my chair at Wits,” says Henshilwood.

“Our team is interdisciplinary, with cutting-edge science and technology. I think, in a positive way, that this will change the face of African archaeology in and from Bergen in Norway and also at Wits. The EHB centre has the potential to rival all institutions carrying out research on early Homo sapiens. It will catapult Norway and South Africa into the world elite,” says Henshilwood.

The focus of the EHB will primarily be directed to address unanswered first order questions about Homo sapiens, like what defines the switch to ‘modern behaviour’, exactly how should this term be defined and when, how and why did this switch occur. Another question would be whether there were changes in the human brain that accelerated behavioural variability and how can these be measured now.

“Secondary linked tasks address the social organization of these early humans, for instance, was social cohesion enhanced by symbolic material culture or vice-versa and did it lead to innovation; what cognitive skills had to be in place in order for other skills to develop; how adaptable were humans to environmental change and did climate act as a driver for technological innovation, social change and subsistence adaptations?” says Henshilwood.

The application for the CoE started in 2015, and was supported by Wits Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, and Professor Bruce Rubidge, then interim director of the ESI and director of the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences.

“The establishment of the EHB research programme at UiB and their collaborations with the CoE and ESI at Wits will facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration across already established partnerships at other universities, academic schools, museums and research entities spread throughout South Africa. In turn, such an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration will consolidate, expand and extend Norway’s position as a global leader in the field of early human behaviour,” said Vilakazi.