“Past dynamics and distribution of South Africa’s biodiverse systems”

Project Team Members

Dr Lynne Quick (Nelson Mandela University)
Dr Saul Manzano (University of Leon)
Dr Brian Chase (University of Montepellier, CNRS)
Dr Manu Chevalier (University of Bonn)
Dr Andy Carr (University of Leicester)
Dr Phumelele Gama (Nelson Mandela University)
Dr Irene Esteban (University of Barcelona)
Dr Adriaan Grobler (Nelson Mandela University)
Ass. Prof Marc Humphries (University of Witwatersrand)
Prof Mike Meadows (University of Cape Town)

NRF African Origins Platform Project: 2022 – 2024

ABSTRACT: The southern margin of South Africa hosts an extraordinary array of global biodiversity hotspots and an associated archaeological record that provides some of the earliest evidence of our species’ evolution to behavioural modernity. Combined, these aspects of South African natural and cultural heritage have made the region a focal point of both national and international research initiatives in recent decades. Logically, scientific initiatives have been centred on 1) modern ecology and 2) archaeology, reflecting the most obvious aspects of regional interest. However, despite the important discoveries and advancements that have been made, vital knowledge gaps remain. Most notable is the lack of information regarding the climatic and environmental drivers that have contributed to the evolution of regional biodiversity, and how these changes and this diversity influenced the evolution of our ancestors. This project will develop knowledge of past climate and environmental change along Africa’s southern margin and enable a fusion of disciplines for a more comprehensive understanding of both biodiversity and human-environment interactions in this fascinating region. To this end, this project will encompass the globally unique biodiversity hotspots of the Cape Floristic Region and Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Region, collecting palaeo-archives across key environmental gradients. These archives, including both sediment cores from lakes and wetlands and rock hyrax middens, will be analysed within a multi-proxy, multi-disciplinary framework, using pollen, fungal spores, micro- and macrocharcoal and geochemistry to elucidate changes in vegetation, herbivory, fire, hydrology and climate. This work is designed to actively develop regional capacity, using the new Palaeolab at Nelson Mandela University and engaging students and early career scientists from the area to contribute to this development of fundamental knowledge regarding their environment and history.

Research sites

Project Highlights


Southern Cape interior fieldwork We participated in a very successful hyrax midden recce fieldtrip to the Klein Karoo. Mandela Uni students learnt what middens look like in situ and how to spot them from a distance.

Palynological Training Workshop: To meet one of the overarching goals of the project – to build capacity and enhance the transfer of specialised skills – a comprehensive training workshop for the Palaeolab’s postgraduate student group led by Dr Saúl Manzano at his institution the University of León, in Spain took place from 11 – 15 July 2022.

The workshop integrated both lecture and practical components with several palaeoecology-themed guest seminars, together with intensive palynology training sessions centred on the identification of Cape pollen types.

The workshop not only massively accelerated the uptake of fundamental palynological training (not available in South Africa) but also represented an excellent opportunity for Mandela Uni students to participate in an international scientific initiative and to develop and strengthen their research careers.

Student projects

A. Ntsondwa, S. Manzano, M.S. Humphries, G.A. Grobler and L.J. Quick: Reconstructing the fire history and palaeoenvironment at Thyspunt, southern Cape coast, South Africa. Nelson Mandela University, ongoing MSc project (2022 – 2023).

E. Hilmer, A.C.M. Julier, B.A. Grobler, N. du Plessis and L.J. Quick: Establishing connections between contemporary vegetation distributions, modern pollen representation and the fossil pollen record in the Cape Floristic Region. Nelson Mandela University, ongoing MSc project (2023 – 2024).

M. Govender, S. Manzano, B.M. Chase and L.J. Quick: Using an 8000-year-old fungal spore record from Whale Rock wetland to assess changes in herbivory along the southern Cape coast of South Africa during the Holocene. Nelson Mandela University, Botany Honours Project 1 2022.

M. Govender, S. Manzano, B.M. Chase, N. du Plessis, M.S. Humphries and L.J. Quick: Exploring vegetation change along the southern Cape coast: pollen evidence from Whale Rock, Plettenberg Bay. Botany Honours Project 2 2022.

G.A. Langa, S. Manzano, B.M. Chase and L.J. Quick: Assessing herbivory impacts in the Baviaanskloof during the Holocene using coprophilous fungal spores from hyrax middens. Nelson Mandela University, Botany Honours Project 2022.

G. A. Langa, S. Manzano, B.M. Chase, N. du Plessis and L.J. Quick: Exploring vegetation change and fire dynamics in the Eastern Cape interior: charcoal evidence from the Baviaanskloof. Nelson Mandela University, Botany Honours Project 2 2022.

L.S. Nel, L.J. Quick and S. Manzano: A study of the palynological differences between two dominant Asteraceae species within the southern Cape: Osteospermum moniliferum and Metalasia muricata. Nelson Mandela University, Botany Honours Project 1 2022.

L.S. Nel, L.J. Quick, N. du Plessis and S. Manzano: Extracting more ecologically-significant information from the southern Cape fossil pollen record: A re-assessment of the Asteraceae pollen types. Nelson Mandela University, Botany Honours Project 2 2022.


L.J. Quick, S. Manzano, M.S. Humphries, B.A. Grobler, M. Chevalier, M.E. Meadows, P.T. Gama and B.M. Chase: Palaeoenvironments of the Cape Floristic Region: New research & current developments. 23rd SASQUA Congress, St Lucia, September 2022.