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The Human Evolution Research Institute: Challenging traditional narratives and fostering a new generation of black women in the palaeosciences

The Human Evolution Research Institute (HERI) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is changing the field of human evolution, by creating a more diverse and inclusive group of researchers. With funding from UCT Vice Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s Advancing Womxn Initiative, HERI is supporting a new cohort of black women PhD and post-doctoral fellows. By providing mentorship, financial support and training, HERI hopes to increase retention and promote advancement for black women in fields such as archaeology, geology and evolutionary biology, which have historically been led by white men from regions outside of Africa. 

Here, we chat with the current group of HERI Advancing Womxn Fellows about their research, and how they are disrupting the traditionally held narratives in their field. 

Meet the HERI Fellows: 

Precious Chiwara-Maenzanise – is a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town, as well as a HERI Advancing Womxn 2020 fellow. She is also a recipient of the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences NRF partial cost grant. Her research is titled: Early human social transmission during MIS 5: A perspective from the Kalahari Basin, and her research interest is Stone Age, specifically lithic technology and use-wear analysis and the origins of modern humans. Precious states that “Black women are under-represented in palaeo-sciences, thus my goal is to advance the representation of women in this field.”

Stella Basinyi – is a post-doctoral research fellow and an Advancing Womxn Fellow at HERI. She obtained a BA degree (Archaeology) at the University of Botswana and worked at the Botswana National Museum before her Master of Arts studies in Culture and Environment in Africa at the University of Cologne and Doctoral studies at Justus Liebig University (Giessen, Germany) titled “Living with Heritage: The case of Tsodilo World heritage site and Neighbouring localities”. Her research work illustrates the relevance of Archaeological cultural heritage and indigenous communities in the present.

Rivoningo Khosa – is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Cape Town and a HERI Advancing Womxn Fellow. She is also a Junior Research Scientist at the NRF’s iThemba LABS facility in Johannesburg where she is based, as that is where the only Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere is located. Her research interests are focused on understanding landscape evolution using cosmogenic nuclides by investigating bedrock erosion and surface exposure processes along South African fluvial systems. Rivoningo spends her time working on her PhD research at the NRF’s iThemba LABS facility in Johannesburg, working and contributing towards building cosmogenic laboratories for accelerator-based sciences.

May Murungi – is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Cape Town’s HERI under the Carnegie Developing Emerging Academic Leaders (DEAL) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (2021/2022), as well as holding an Advancing Womxn Fellowship. May is from Uganda where she obtained her first degrees; a BSc. with Education (Biology major, Chemistry minor) and a MSc. Biology (Natural Resources, Ecology and Conservation) and later her PhD in Archaeobotany in South Africa in 2018 where her thesis focused on reconstructing the past vegetation and climate during South Africa’s Middle Stone Age.

PLOS: How did you become involved with HERI?  

SB: I am a post-doctoral research fellow in HERI following a successful application. 

PCM: I got involved with HERI after they advertised for their Advancing Womxn PhD fellowship post. With the help of Dr. Jayne Wilkins, I applied, and I got the funding. Before I applied, I had met Dr. Robyn Pickering working in the field. We were both part of the group that was excavating and researching in Tswalu (as part of the North of Kuruman project in the Northern Cape of South Africa); she was blown away by my passion for Middle Stone Age archaeology and dedication to excavating very hard ancient lake deposits. She advised me to apply for the Advancing Womxn fellowship and this is how I become part of the HERI team.  

RK: I think my story with HERI is a little unorthodox in that I only found about it early last year. After my Masters, I took my first six month hiatus from academics since 1998! So, when I decided to go back to school, I needed an academic home. I also needed a change after getting all my other qualifications from the same institution. So, on one fateful January evening last year, after drafting an email for what now seems like days, I hit the “Send” button, said a quick prayer and hoped for the best. In this email, I was introducing myself and asking Dr. Robyn Pickering to be my academic supervisor. Coincidentally, she was also looking for a new student to take up space and be an Advancing Womxn Fellow and that is how my journey with HERI started. So, I guess HERI and I found each other, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

MM: At the end of 2020, in line with their mission, HERI advertised two postdoctoral fellowships seeking African researchers under their Carnegie DEAL fellowships and I applied for one of the positions relating to reconstructing past climates to work with Dr. Robyn Pickering. I officially joined HERI in June 2021. 

PLOS: What does your own research entail? 

SB: My research project examines the highly dynamic social practices through which communities around archaeological heritage sites become exposed (and influenced) in their everyday life to the influx of travelers, heritage experts, tourists, curators, and most importantly for this study, international scientists, not least archaeologists, and paleo-anthropologists. This cosmopolitan group is involved in, and benefits from the construction of heritage and science narratives for diverse reasons and interests. My research interrogates the historical influences of sciences and heritage program narratives in archaeology including examining who owns, constructs, and controls the narratives and who does not and why. 

PCM: My research is entitled; Early human social transmission during MIS 5: A perspective from the Kalahari Basin. This research focuses on social transmission in the Kalahari Basin during the Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5, dated 130-74 ka, a key period for understanding the emergence and expansion of modern humans. I am studying and comparing MIS 5 lithic assemblages from multiple sites within the Kalahari Basin, employing and building upon Tostevin’s (2012) cultural transmission approach. The main MIS 5 samples understudy comprise those at Ga-Mohana, Kathu Pan, Wonderwerk, Bundu, Erfkroon, and Florisbad in South Africa, #Gi and White Paintings in Botswana. My research is against the background that humans have been passing on information from one group to the other; thus, I use stone artifacts to help piece together a fuller picture of how early humans emerged, expanded, and shared information over time in the Kalahari Basin. The research aims to produce a detailed account of the MIS 5 lithic technology in this region, thus shedding light on the degree and nature of social interaction in the Kalahari, and it works toward correcting the geographic bias toward coastal regions in southern Africa.  

RK: My research focuses on using the only accelerator mass spectrometer in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere to understand southern African landscape evolution. I use cosmogenic nuclides, 10Be and 26Al to understand the rates of erosion along mixed-bedrock alluvial anabranching rivers in South Africa. Understanding how these rivers have eroded will allow us to understand how they have developed. This will also inform how these rivers have contributed to those who have lived nearby and relied on them over the years. 

MM: My new research project will investigate vegetation and climate dynamics over the last approx. 250,000 years in South Africa’s interior using phytolith analysis that is, microscopic plant silica remains that will be extracted in the laboratory from sediment cores obtained from the Kalkkop Crater in the Eastern Cape. My current research focuses on work that is part of multidisciplinary projects at various archaeological sites in South Africa where I apply the same technique to investigate early human-plant and -environmental interactions to understand the type of plants they utilized, their behavior, and surrounding vegetation and climate and how these might also have influenced their behavior. I therefore mainly seek to provide a past environmental context to studies that study early human behavior and their cultures. I also have a keen interest in improving the dentification and interpretation of phytoliths in ancient sediments. Researchers achieve this by studying phytoliths produced in modern plants and the soils under them. In that regard, a lot of my research also focuses on studying phytoliths in modern South African plant types mainly grasses, sedges and trees/shrubs. 

PLOS: HERI encompasses a wide range of scientific disciplines – from palaeoscience to anthropology. Do you think this interdisciplinary approach provides opportunities for more comprehensive and collaborative research? 

SB: This is one of the many strengths within HERI, because diversity in research promotes better science and opportunities for diverse and multidisciplinary teams for comprehensive understanding of human origins.  

PCM: Yes, this interdisciplinary approach is good, and it provides collaborative research. An interdisciplinary concept/ approach involves crossing various scientific disciplines or fields and integrating different ideas into cohesive thoughts so that we work in unison to accomplish a common goal. 

RK: Absolutely! This is something that more institutions and science in general really need to invest in. So much more can be answered and new questions can be asked from an interdisciplinary approach. From just spending time (in these virtual times) with other students at HERI and engaging in #AcademicTwitter over the last 18 or so months, I have come to learn so much about other people’s work and there always seems to be a link between disciplines that can be identified and that is evidence of how more comprehensive and collaborative research can be.  

MM: Certainly. For one, most research teams are now focusing on using various disciplines to answer the questions they have because often one discipline or a single proxy cannot provide all the answers. In my experience with such institutes, one gains immense general knowledge from the various disciplines involved and the ability to think beyond one’s field for research questions and potential collaborations. 

PLOS: As part of the Advancing Womxn program, the HERI Fellows receive field training and mentorship – how has this made a difference in your career? Why do you think that these kinds of opportunities for women in traditionally male-led research areas are important? 

SB: Mentorship in traditionally male led research areas is important in grooming young female researchers to thrive in careers in academia, which promotes diversity in research questions and therefore better scientific research results.  

PCM: I am yet to participate in any HERI field trip (because I am still new). But so far, I have received mentorships through HERI winter series that are held online beginning of every month. These winter series have helped me intensely in my carrier especially the one that had to do with mental health in academia. This was a good talk given the background that most of us have suffered the mental effects that have been brought by the pandemic.  We have also been advised on how to manage stress in these stressful pandemic times. These kinds of opportunities are important especially to us as women because studies have shown that women are more likely than men to have a great deal of stress. 

RK: Unfortunately, I joined HERI just before the national lockdown started, so I did not get to be involved in, nor have I participated in, any field training as such. However, I do have prior field training from my studies over the years and HERI has also introduced me to the women-only field excursion, which I think is an incredible initiative that I really hope I can participate in one day. I think it is so important to have initiatives such as these because who better to understand challenges faced by women than women? I believe the excursion workshop creates a safe space for women to be open about the different challenges that we experience in the spaces we are in. 

MM: Our first field work was cancelled when South Africa went into another lockdown, but I look forward to the field experiences and programs at HERI especially those that present new dimensions from my previous experiences. To answer the last part of your question, I would simply ask why would we even need to explain their importance? Opportunities for women in these disciplines should be a given in the 21st Century so these fields need to catch up! Before getting into the palaeosciences in South Africa, I don’t think that I had ever conceptualised “male-dominated” fields in this sense. My lecturers in Biology and Chemistry where both men and women with PhDs so gender is not something I quickly saw as a limiting factor until I switched disciplines or countries so to speak – to a discipline that is rare in my country and yet common in South Africa. I did not imagine that women interested in these field should have to deal with misgivings based on their gender and race but alas the atmosphere and its issues can be palpable and are lived experiences for many who in turn are tasked with explaining ‘the why’. 

PLOS: HERI researchers often challenge the traditional narratives that govern our understanding of human evolution. What new things have you learned as part of your work with the institute that have surprised you? 

SB: As HERI drives African-led research on human evolution, the institute also provides a conducive environment for female researchers to inspire and mentor one another, producing greater appreciation of human evolution research from a minority group within a male-led discipline and diversifying the voices that construct narratives of the African Past. I am from the background of Humanities and Social Sciences, but I have never felt out of place in HERI. I gain much from the interdisciplinary exchange that also strengthens my own research with an awareness of a wide range of lenses and many levels in human origins research. 

PCM: I am still yet to learn new things; However, HERI challenges traditional narratives in human evolution. Some of HERI’s research in the interior “Kalahari basin” led by Dr Jayne Wilkins developed theories that say our ancestors evolved behaviors are seen as ‘modern’ at about 100 thousand years ago along the coast are too simplistic. The research provides valuable insights into the evolution of modern human behavior in the interior South Africa, thus diverting from the traditional narratives that behaviors were seen as ‘modern’ at about 100ka along the coastal regions. Women are drastically under-represented in palaeo-sciences (archaeology and human evolution). Women in science are working in a male dominated field and they have been fighting for equality for a long time. Although the situation seems to have improved, the struggle to be part of editorial boards or get leadership position still rages on, thus I applaud the HERI advancing womxn fellowship programme for empowering black women and giving us an opportunity to rise and shine.  

RK: My work at HERI fits well into the change that HERI strives to bring in science as it aims to challenge the Southern Africa landscape evolution narratives. It was so refreshing to find that so many HERI students and fellows are challenging narratives through their work. I think the one thing that has really stood out for me at HERI is how involved they are in the development and progress of their students. At previous institutions, I never used to meet in a group with other students for status update meetings or student-supervisor one on one meetings as frequently as we do at HERI. It is really new and different, but I really appreciate it as it promotes accountability and allows you to also see your progress. I wish others would adopt this because it is so important to share the journey as it can be quite taxing, both physically and emotionally. 

MM: I would say my surprise with HERI came early on in the discoveries made during my application and also from before from their presence on social media – to see two white women spearheading the discussions about these traditional narratives and questioning them. For me, this was a first in general in the several years I have lived in South Africa. It has always baffled me to begin with that it is the ‘minority’ in these fields always in the thick of these discussions and fighting to be heard. Otherwise, I am certain there will be a lot of learning in regards to the results of the human evolution research being conducted by researchers and students at HERI that investigate those narratives. 

PLOS: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of you have not yet had an opportunity to begin your fieldwork. For those of you who have, tell us about one of your memorable field campaigns or an aspect of field training you loved (or hated!). 

RK: I have had some field experience and as I finish typing this, I am on my way back to Johannesburg from one in the Kruger National Park working towards my PhD qualification. I think this may have been my most memorable field experience yet. Growing up, my family was always fond of visits to the park and I was always okay with it because we always stayed in the car. This particular experience came with me having to get out of the car and walk along a major river, in the wild! That was a literally wild and interesting experience for me, one I am sure to never forget. I conquered real fears out there but I am really proud of myself for showing up. 

SB: It is challenging to conduct field work among human participants in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. I am currently conducting field work in a community that depended on the revenue from international tourists in Botswana. Witnessing the impact of the pandemic in this community is an uncomfortable experience. I have also been confronted with situations where, during first few days of field work people told me what they thought I wanted to hear – conversations/interview responses seemed guarded and defensive. However, after spending an extended amount of time in the field, researcher-participant relations slightly fade into more of a social space encounter than an “academic/ insider-outsider binary”. I love this about the field.  

PCM: I am yet to participate in any HERI field trip. This is because of the pandemic. I would wish to participate in future HERI fieldworks and field camps, because these are women’s field camps and they are free of the hierarchy, and women’s harassment and actual sexual assaults. Women’s field camps also give an opportunity to engage and learn more about other women and share our different experiences in the science field. HERI field camps also prepare women for how to deal with issues of harassment in the science field and ensure their safety. 

PLOS: Archaeology and anthropology have been historically vulnerable to ‘parachute research’, where researchers from other nations arrive at a country of interest and conduct research without consulting or crediting any of the local population. Have you ever seen or heard of researchers doing this, and how do you think programs like HERI help to address this important issue? 

SB: In addressing the question of parachute research, part of my project investigates the outcomes within the public sphere, of the recent publication by Chan et al (2019) entitled “Human origins in a southern African paleo-wetland and first migrations”. The authors infer that ‘anatomically modern humans’ originated in the Makgadikgadi–Okavango palaeo-wetland of southern Africa around 200 thousand years ago. The study used maternal mitochondrial DNA data as a proxy for populations, and the results locate a southern African “Homeland” in the residual Makgadikgadi-Okavango wetlands. Contrary to these claims, hominin fossil data from across Africa show the presence of characteristics of Homo sapiens more than 300 thousand years ago at the opposite end of the continent (Hublin 2017). In addition, recent works in palaeoanthropology indicate that the evolution of Homo sapiens primitive features is found across time and space, and this data does not indicate a single point of origin. This study produced questionable results, lacked diversity, and ignored the recent work of scholars in the region, which misrepresented the science of human origins in Africa, yet had access to high profile and extensive media coverage and a broader dissemination of data which attracted the attention of varied interest groups. This paper echoes a status quo in Southern Africa in which no authority is given to the scientific observations or interpretive models developed by scholars from the region. The authority remains exclusively in the hands of western and foreign scientists. HERI offers a platform that makes room for local and marginalized voices.  

PCM: I think in Archaeology this is a thing of the past now. HERI and other disciplines in Archaeology are trying by all means to de-colonise Archaeology and this is another aspect that is improving. Scholars now give credit to the local communities, and this is important.  

RK: This has not been any different in Geology, where I am registered. I am almost confident in thinking that “parachute research” is a science-wide issue. Personally, I feel proud of being a part of an institute such as HERI which exposed me to the Advancing Womxn Fellowship, which supports African-led research about Africa, in Africa by empowering black women in science. This is a big contributing factor towards challenging “parachute research” as it equips African researchers with resources to do their science boldly. 

MM: Yes, I have seen it and also heard of it as a lived experience for many colleagues from various disciplines researchers and it is a general problem for research in Africa – not just Archaeology and Anthropology. It has led to various platforms raising concern about ‘research for whom’ and concepts of ‘neo-colonialism’. HERI emphasises African-led research and its stance on colonial practices is clear, but I believe it will ultimately be up to African researchers and especially their governments to put an end to this practice by changing how research practices operate on the continent. As far as I know this local involvement is not a requirement for research permits in South Africa unlike in East African countries although this has not necessarily changed the narrative. I have recently seen adverts calling for researchers to apply for funding and they categorically stated that those with their “parachute” approach need not apply. Clearly, the funders are now questioning the practice. This will likely force a change in this practice but not a real interest in ending the practice. I think that individual African researchers should be accountable for their role in encouraging it. Can you imagine the hoops and loops African researchers would have to jump if for some reason they think of and want to excavate an archaeological site or take sediment cores from a lake in say Europe and carry the material back to Africa? I am assuming here that they are jumpable to start with. 

PLOS: PLOS is a champion of “Open Science”. This includes not only open access to scientific publications, but Open Data, code sharing, transparent peer-review, etc. How do you think Open Science can benefit your research field? How can it benefit your community? 

SB: With the current climate of the Covid-19 pandemic and reduced physical contact, I believe as researchers we benefit from platforms that open the research discussions beyond physical contact and promote continuous feedback outside of physical contact through workshops and conferences.  

PCM: Open science can benefit my research because it will publicise my work such that it becomes available to whomever may need it. 

RK: There are a few things that stand out for me about “Open Science”; exposure and accessibility, reproducibility and building. I cannot count the number of times I have tried to find articles or journals only to get access to just an abstract. This seems to me like a block towards building the scientific body of knowledge and education in general. Open Science can benefit more than just my field of research and community because it will expose the future generation, who are curious about science and building their futures, and are already de-motivated by how difficult it must be if access to information is already restricted. Open Access to publications will open science. Another thing that stood out for me during my Master’s years was the concept of “Reproducibility”. When I was writing my methodology chapter, I kept being reminded about this, because in order for someone else to learn, they need to understand what I did and be able to do it again and get similar results. This meant to me that more than being able to prove how credible the work was, it was going to allow someone else to do what I did with different samples in a completely different location and build the database of results using the same methods I did. So open access will allow for a more exponential growth in research and science. 

MM: Open data science in my opinion plays an important role for people from countries where their institutions may not always subscribe to what allows easy access of information for example publications. On the whole, I think it is important to allow for reproduction of the work, comparisons and future use by those after us. Mainly also because interpretations may vary within the discipline, it is important to put it all out there to encourage discussions especially for the research methods. As for how it can benefit my community…that is a tough one if the community in this case is the general public as this kind of data is often in a format that they are not seeking for.  

Note: PLOS recently announced a new Global Research policy that covers ‘parachute research.’

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