Asian Correspondent » University of the Witwatersrand Asian Correspondent Wed, 20 May 2015 11:20:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 We’ll rise or fall on the quality of our soil Mon, 04 Nov 2013 07:37:20 +0000 Great civilisations have fallen because they failed to prevent the degradation of the soils on which they were founded. The modern world could suffer the same fate.

This is according to Professor Mary Scholes and Dr Bob Scholes who have published a paper in top scientific journal, Science, which describes how the productivity of many lands has been dramatically reduced as a result of soil erosion, accumulation of salinity, and nutrient depletion.

“Cultivating soil continuously for too long destroys the bacteria which convert the organic matter into nutrients,” says Mary Scholes, who is a Professor in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits University.

Although improved technology – including the unsustainably high use of fertilisers, irrigation, and ploughing – provides a false sense of security, about 1% of global land area is degraded every year. In Africa, where much of the future growth in agriculture must take place, erosion has reduced yields by 8% and nutrient depletion is widespread.

“Soil fertility is both a biophysical property and a social property – it is a social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production,” says Bob Scholes, who is a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Soil fertility was a mystery to the ancients. Traditional farmers speak of soils becoming tired, sick, or cold; the solution was typically to move on until they recovered. By the mid-20th century, soils and plants could be routinely tested to diagnose deficiencies, and a global agrochemical industry set out to fix them. Soil came to be viewed as little more than an inert supportive matrix, to be flooded with a soup of nutrients.

This narrow approach led to an unprecedented increase in food production, but also contributed to global warming and the pollution of aquifers, rivers, lakes, and coastal ecosystems. Activities associated with agriculture are currently responsible for just under one third of greenhouse gas emissions; more than half of these originate from the soil.

Replacing the fertility-sustaining processes in the soil with a dependence on external inputs has also made the soil ecosystem, and humans, vulnerable to interruptions in the supply of those inputs, for instance due to price shocks.

However, it is not possible to feed the current and future world population with a dogmatically “organic” approach to global agriculture. Given the large additional area it would require, such an approach would also not avert climate change, spare biodiversity, or purify the rivers.

To achieve lasting food and environmental security, we need an agricultural soil ecosystem that more closely approximates the close and efficient cycling in natural ecosystems, and that also benefits from the yield increases made possible by biotechnology and inorganic fertilisers.

For more information, contact:



School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences

University of the Witwatersrand

Tel: +27 11 717 6407

Mobile: +27 82 889 8670




Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

Tel: +27 12 841 2045

Mobile: +27 82 292 6769



Professor Mary Scholes



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New evidence on lightning strikes: Mountains a lot less stable than we think Tue, 15 Oct 2013 07:54:45 +0000 Lightning strikes causing rocks to explode have for the first time been shown to play a huge role in shaping mountain landscapes in southern Africa, debunking previous assumptions that angular rock formations were necessarily caused by cold temperatures, and proving that mountains are a lot less stable than we think.

In a world where mountains are crucial to food security and water supply, this has vast implications, especially in the context of climate change.

Professors Jasper Knight and Stefan Grab from the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at Wits University used a compass to prove – for the first time ever – that lightning is responsible for some of the angular rock formations in the Drakensburg.

“A compass needle always points to magnetic north. But when you pass a compass over a land’s surface, if the minerals in the rock have a strong enough magnetic field, the compass will read the magnetic field of the rock, which corresponds to when it was formed. In the Drakensburg, there are a lot of basalt rocks which contain a lot of magnetic minerals, so they’ve got a very strong magnetic signal,” says Knight.

If you pass a compass over an area where a lightning strike occurred, the needle will suddenly swing through 360 degrees.

“The energy of the lightning hitting the land’s surface can, for a short time, partially melt the rock and when the rock cools down again, it takes on the magnetic imprint of today’s magnetic field, not the magnetic field of millions of years ago when the rock was originally formed,” says Knight.

Because of the movement of continents, magnetic north for the newly formed rock will be different from that of the older rock around it. “You have two superimposed geomagnetic signatures. It’s a very useful indicator for identifying the precise location of where the lightning struck.”

Knight and Grab mapped out the distribution of lightning strikes in the Drakensburg and discovered that lightning significantly controls the evolution of the mountain landscapes because it helps to shape the summit areas – the highest areas – with this blasting effect.

Previously, angular debris was assumed to have been created by changes typical of cold, periglacial environments, such as fracturing due to frost. Water enters cracks in rocks and when it freezes, it expands, causing the rocks to split apart.

Knight and Grab are challenging centuries old assumptions about what causes mountains to change shape. “Many people have considered mountains to be pretty passive agents, just sitting there to be affected by cold climates over these long periods of time.

“This evidence suggests that that is completely wrong. African mountain landscapes sometimes evolve very quickly and very dramatically over short periods of time. These are actually very sensitive environments and we need to know more about them.”

It is also useful to try and quantify how much debris is moved by these blasts which can cause boulders weighing several tonnes to move tens of metres.

“We can identify where the angular, broken up material has come from, trace it back to source, and determine the direction and extent to which the debris has been blasted on either side. Of course we know from the South African Weather Service how many strikes hit the land’s surface, so we can estimate how much volume is moved per square kilometre per year on average,” says Knight.

The stability of the land’s surface has important implications for the people living in the valleys below the mountain. “If we have lots of debris being generated it’s going to flow down slope and this is associated with hazards such as landslides,” said Knight.

Mountains are also inextricably linked to food security and water supply. In Lesotho, a country crucial to South Africa’s water supply, food shortages are leading to overgrazing, exposing the rock surface and making mountain landscapes even more vulnerable to weathering by lightning and other processes.

Knight hopes that this new research will help to put in place monitoring and mitigation to try and counteract some of the effects. “The more we increase our understanding, the more we are able to do something about it.”


Research paper:

A research paper to be published in the scientific journal, Geomorphology, is available here:



High resolution images can be downloaded by left clicking on the images available here:


For more information contact:



School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies

University of the Witwatersrand

Tel: +27 11 717 6508




Senior Communications Officer

Advancement and Partnerships Division

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Tel: +27 11 717 1024

Cell: +27 82 052 0939




Angular rock formations in the Drakensburg

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First ever evidence of a comet striking Earth Tue, 08 Oct 2013 11:32:23 +0000 The first ever evidence of a comet entering Earth’s atmosphere and exploding, raining down a shock wave of fire which obliterated every life form in its path, has been discovered by a team of South African scientists and international collaborators.

The discovery has not only provided the first definitive proof of a comet striking Earth, millions of years ago, but it could also help us to unlock, in the future, the secrets of the formation of our solar system.

“Comets always visit our skies – they’re these dirty snowballs of ice mixed with dust – but never before in history has material from a comet ever been found on Earth,” says Professor David Block of Wits University.

The comet entered Earth’s atmosphere above Egypt about 28 million years ago. As it entered the atmosphere, it exploded, heating up the sand beneath it to a temperature of about 2 000 degrees Celsius, and resulting in the formation of a huge amount of yellow silica glass which lies scattered over a 6 000 square kilometre area in the Sahara. A magnificent specimen of the glass, polished by ancient jewellers, is found in Tutankhamun’s brooch with its striking yellow-brown scarab.

The research, which will be published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, was conducted by a collaboration of geoscientists, physicists  and astronomers including Block, lead author Professor Jan Kramers of the University of Johannesburg, Dr Marco Andreoli of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, and Chris Harris of the University of Cape Town.

At the centre of the attention of this team was a mysterious black pebble found years earlier by an Egyptian geologist in the area of the silica glass. After conducting highly sophisticated chemical analyses on this pebble, the authors came to the inescapable conclusion that it represented the very first known hand specimen of a comet nucleus, rather than simply an unusual type of meteorite.

Kramers describes this as a moment of career defining elation. “It’s a typical scientific euphoria when you eliminate all other options and come to the realisation of what it must be,” he said.

The impact of the explosion also produced microscopic diamonds. “Diamonds are produced from carbon bearing material. Normally they form deep in the earth, where the pressure is high, but you can also generate very high pressure with shock. Part of the comet impacted and the shock of the impact produced the diamonds,” says Kramers.

The team have named the diamond-bearing pebble “Hypatia” in honour of the first well known female mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria.

Comet material is very elusive. Comet fragments have not been found on Earth before except as microscopic sized dust particles in the upper atmosphere and some carbon-rich dust in the Antarctic ice. Space agencies have spent billions to secure the smallest amounts of pristine comet matter.

“NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) spend billions of dollars collecting a few micrograms of comet material and bringing it back to Earth, and now we’ve got a radical new approach of studying this material, without spending billions of dollars collecting it,” says Kramers.

The study of Hypatia has grown into an international collaborative research programme, coordinated by Andreoli, which involves a growing number of scientists drawn from a variety of disciplines. Dr Mario di Martino of Turin’s Astrophysical Observatory has led several expeditions to the desert glass area.

“Comets contain the very secrets to unlocking the formation of our solar system and this discovery gives us an unprecedented opportunity to study comet material first hand,” says Block.

Online paper:

An online version of the scientific journal article can be accessed at:


Issued by:


Senior Communications Officer

Advancement and Partnerships Division

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Tel: +27 11 717 1024

Cell: +27 82 052 0939





Media Relations Coordinator

Strategic Communication Department

University of Johannesburg

Tel: +27 11 559 6653

Cell: +27 72 129 0777


An artist’s rendition of the comet exploding in Earth’s atmosphere above Egypt (credit: Terry Bakker)

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Wits University Scientist Wins Ig Nobel Prize Fri, 13 Sep 2013 07:08:40 +0000 Dung beetles sporting custom made caps and boots entered the annals of the Ig Nobel Prize when South Africa’s second ever winner was announced during the 23rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University on Thursday, 12 September 2013.

Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits University and his colleagues from Lund University in Sweden were awarded Ig Nobel Prizes in Astronomy and Biology for conducting research that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think.

Byrne and the team designed caps and boots for dung beetles and dressed the beetles in their new apparel to prove firstly that dung beetles use the Milky Way to orientate (read more), and secondly that dung beetles climb on top of their dung balls to cool their bodies as they roll the ball away from competitors at the dung pile (read more).

According to Byrne and team members Marie Dacke, Eric Warrant, Emily Baird and Clarke Scholtz: “We are very chuffed to win the Ig Nobel! Believe it or not, it is a significant recognition of one’s work, especially in reaching the wider general public. The IgNobel motto is that the prize is won for science that ‘first makes you laugh’ (i.e. dung beetles wearing hats and watching stars) ‘and then makes you think’. So the poking fun at science is good. The whole enterprise is one of questioning something – even the results – and enjoying it.

“All four of us are really honoured by the award and hope it spreads the word among the general public that science is not dry and boring but actually good fun! We think the Ig Nobel also highlights that basic curiosity-driven research leads to amazing insights into how our remarkable world works.”

South Africa has had one previous winner. In 1999 Charl Fourie and Michelle Wong were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Peace for inventing a burglar alarm for cars consisting of a detection circuit and a flamethrower.

During the 2013 ceremony, 10 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded to winners from 18 nations on five continents. Genuine Nobel laureates physically handed out the prizes to the winners. They included Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), Roy Glauber (physics, 2005) and Frank Wilczek (physics, 2004) presented the prizes to the winners.

One of these Nobel laureates was also the prize in the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.

The ceremony featured the world premiere of The Blonsky Device, a mini-opera in four acts. The story is inspired by the life and work of George and Charlotte Blonsky, the married couple who were granted a patent in 1965 for an “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force”. The about-to-be-mother is strapped onto a circular table, and the table is then rotated at high speed. The Blonskys were posthumously awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 1999.

The evening also included a special one-minute lecture titled: “The Biomechanical Forces Involved in Human Childbirth” by Daniel Lieberman, Harvard Professor of Biological Sciences. In 2009 Lieberman and two colleagues were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for physics, for explaining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

About the Ig Nobel Prizes: 

Organised by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) in cooperation with several Harvard student groups, the Ig Nobel Prizes honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology. More information:

South African and Swedish scientists have won an Ig Nobel Prize for applying silicone boots to the front legs of dung beetles to prove that the beetles climb on top of their dung balls to keep cool.

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Global first as Witsies split pollen Thu, 05 Sep 2013 12:17:59 +0000 Wits researchers have become the first to cut sections through pollen grains and make it possible to view a three dimensional image of the internal wall. This positions them to determine how the characteristics of the internal wall help to classify plants of particular interest.

PhD student Alisoun House has become the international pioneer of this technique with her research on Acanthaceae, a notably eurypalynous (wide range of pollen features), large family of plants whose classification remains contentious.

It’s difficult to find features that define Acanthaceae as a family but one of the features that has been used is pollen. Until now, all of the research has been done by looking at the external features of the pollen – what it looks like on the outside.

Under the supervision of Professor Kevin Balkwill, House used a focussed ion beam-scanning electron microscope (FIB-SEM) to slice through the pollen grains of species belonging to Acanthaceae. She then used an ordinary scanning electron microscope (SEM) to look at the inside walls exposed by the cut.

‘Kevin had the idea that this microscope could be used. People have used it to look at fossilised pollen but it’s the first time it’s been done on fresh pollen from living plants,’ says House.

The FIB-SEM is like an ordinary SEM but where the SEM uses a focused beam of electrons to image the surface of a sample in the chamber, the FIB uses a focused beam of ions to cut a section through a sample in a chosen position. Wits has one of only two or three FIB-SEMs in the country.

House’s experiments proved that it was possible to use the technique to get a three dimensional image of the internal wall structure of the pollen grains.

‘We can now see features in the internal wall that we couldn’t see before using older technology which afforded only thin, two dimensional slices,’ says House.

She will now investigate whether the images are able to further prove similarities between different plants within the family, making the technique a good taxonomic tool. The hope is that these newly visible features of the internal walls of pollen grains will add to the body of information and enable more accurate classifications.

Issued by:


Senior Communications Officer

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Tel: +27 11 717 1024

Cell: +27 82 052 0939


Whole pollen grain of Isoglossa ovata and a cross section through the whole grain.

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Lee Berger joins National Geographic explorers Fri, 16 Aug 2013 08:39:25 +0000 An outstanding scientist from Wits University who is making groundbreaking contributions to exploration has joined the National Geographic Society’s community of explorers. Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, Research Professor in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at Wits, has been named a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.

Berger’s explorations into human origins in Africa over more than two decades have resulted in many significant discoveries, and he directs one of the largest paleontological projects in history, leading more than 100 scientists who are studying fossils from a rich, recently discovered site outside Johannesburg called Malapa.

Explorers-in-Residence are some of the world’s preeminent explorers and scientists and represent a broad range of science and exploration; they develop programmes in their respective areas of study, carrying out fieldwork supported by the Society. Fellows, with guidance and support from the National Geographic Society, generate and cultivate ideas that often become substantive programs.

“Lee Berger perfectly embodies the new age of exploration that the National Geographic Society is celebrating in its 125th year,” said Terry Garcia, executive vice president of Mission Programs. “We’re honored to have the chance to work directly with this dynamic explorer who is a pioneer in his field.”

As an Explorer-in-Residence, Berger will continue his work at Malapa, where he and a team have unearthed the most complete early hominin fossils yet discovered belonging to a new species of early human ancestor — Australopithecus sediba. “We’ll be opening excavations again at the Malapa site and creating a virtual online laboratory where people from around the world can observe and interact with the preparation of early-human fossils,” Berger said. “We’ll also be developing an exploration academy to impart basic and advanced skills in exploration sciences to the next generation of explorers.”

Berger is an award-winning researcher, explorer, author and speaker. He is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Prize for Research and Exploration, awarded in 1997, and the Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award, among many other achievements. His explorations into human origins in Africa, Asia and Micronesia have resulted in many new discoveries, especially A. sediba. Berger also has pioneered advances in applied exploration methods and the application of technology to exploration, excavation and discovery.

Berger is the author of more than 200 scholarly and popular papers, including more than 80 refereed publications, and several academic and popular books on paleontology, natural history and exploration. His work has appeared three times on the cover of the journal Science and has been named the top science stories of the year by Time, Scientific American and Discover magazines. Berger helped found the Palaeoanthropological Scientific Trust, which today is the largest nonprofit organization in Africa supporting research into human origins.

More information on National Geographic Explorers:

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger poses with a cast of Australopithecus sediba, thought to be a new species of early human ancestor. (Credit: Brett Eloff)

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First documented report of swimming and diving in apes Wed, 14 Aug 2013 11:26:08 +0000 Two researchers have provided the first video-based observation of swimming and diving apes. Instead of the usual dog-paddle stroke used by most terrestrial mammals, these animals use a kind of breaststroke. The swimming strokes peculiar to humans and apes might be the result of an earlier adaptation to an arboreal life.

For many years, zoos have used water moats to confine chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans. When apes ventured into deep water, they often drowned. Some argued that this indicated a definitive difference between humans and apes: people enjoy the water and are able to learn to swim, while apes prefer to stay on dry land.

But it turns out that this distinction is not absolute. Renato Bender, who is working on a PhD in human evolution at the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits University, and Nicole Bender, who works as an evolutionary physician and epidemiologist at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Bern, have studied a chimpanzee and an orangutan in the US. These primates were raised and cared for by humans and have learned to swim and to dive.

‘We were extremely surprised when the chimp Cooper dived repeatedly into a swimming pool in Missouri and seemed to feel very comfortable,’ said Renato Bender.

To prevent the chimp from drowning, the researchers stretched two ropes over the deepest part of the pool. Cooper became immediately interested in the ropes and, after a few minutes, he started diving into the two-meter-deep water to pick up objects on the bottom of the pool. ‘It was very surprising behavior for an animal that is thought to be very afraid of water,’ said Renato Bender. Some weeks later, Cooper began to swim on the surface of the water.

The orangutan Suryia, who was filmed in a private zoo in South Carolina, also possesses this rare swimming and diving ability. Suryia can swim freely up to twelve meters.

Both animals use a leg movement similar to the human breaststroke ‘frog kick’. While Cooper moves the hind legs synchronous, Suryia moves them alternatively. The researchers believe that this swimming style might be due to an ancient adaptation to an arboreal life. Most mammals use the so-called dog-paddle, a mode of locomotion that they employ instinctively. Humans and apes, on the other hand, must learn to swim. The tree-dwelling ancestors of apes had less opportunity to move on the ground. They thus developed alternative strategies to cross small rivers, wading in an upright position or using natural bridges. They lost the instinct to swim. Humans, who are closely related to the apes, also do not swim instinctively. But unlike apes, humans are attracted to water and can learn to swim and to dive.

‘The behavior of the great apes in water has been largely neglected in anthropology. That’s one of the reasons why swimming in apes was never before scientifically described, although these animals have otherwise been studied very thoroughly. We did find other well-documented cases of swimming and diving apes, but Cooper and Suryia are the only ones we were able to film. We still do not know when the ancestors of humans began to swim and dive regularly,’ said Nicole Bender.

‘This issue is becoming more and more the focus of research. There is still much to explore,’ said Renato Bender.

For more information contact:

Renato Bender at +41 76 528 84 48 or

Dr Nicole Bender at +41 76 528 84 45 or


Article with videos:

Swimming apes:

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Shortening tails gave early birds a leg up Wed, 14 Aug 2013 09:51:54 +0000 A radical shortening in the bony tails of birds that lived over 100 million years ago freed the legs to evolve in new ways and enabled an explosive radiation of early bird species, a new study shows.

A team composed of Wits Senior Researcher Dr Jonah Choiniere and Dr Roger Benson of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences examined fossils of the earliest birds from the Cretaceous Period (145-66 million years ago). At that time primitive birds such as Confuciusornis had already evolved powered flight while living alongside their dinosaur kin, necessitating changes to their forelimbs. The team investigated how this new aerial lifestyle related to changes in their hind limbs (legs).

The team made detailed measurements of early bird fossils from all over the world including China, North America, and South America. An analysis of these data showed that the loss of their long bony tails, which occurred after flight had evolved, prefigured the amazing variety of talons, stilts, and other specialised hind limbs that make modern birds so successful.

The research is published this week in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

‘These early birds were not as sophisticated as the birds we know today – if modern birds have evolved to be like stealth bombers then these were more like biplanes,’ said Benson, who led the research. ‘Yet despite some still having primitive traits, such as teeth, these early birds still display an incredible array of leg shapes.’

By comparing measurements of the main parts of the legs of early birds – upper leg, shin, and foot – to those of their dinosaur relatives, Benson and Choiniere were able to determine whether the speed and diversity of bird leg evolution was exceptional compared to leg evolution in dinosaurs.

‘What was totally surprising is that the evolution of flight didn’t lead to a first great increase in bird diversity but that the loss of the long bony dinosaur tail did,’ says Choiniere.

It was developing these highly versatile legs, rather than powered flight, that saw the evolutionary diversification of early birds proceed faster than was generally true of other dinosaurs.

For more information contact:

Dr Jonah Choiniere on 011 717 6684 or

Dr Roger Benson on 44 (0)7909 764647 or

showing they had diverse types of leg [credit: Roger Close]”] ]]> 0
SURPRISE SPECIES AT RISK FROM CLIMATE CHANGE Mon, 24 Jun 2013 10:08:21 +0000 Most species at greatest risk from climate change are not currently conservation priorities, according to an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) study that has introduced a pioneering method to assess the vulnerability of species to climate change.

The paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE, is one of the biggest studies of its kind, assessing all of the world’s birds, amphibians and corals. It draws on the work of more than 100 scientists over a period of five years, including Wits PhD student and leader of the study, Wendy Foden.

Up to 83% of birds, 66% of amphibians and 70% of corals that were identified as highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are not currently considered threatened with extinction on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They are therefore unlikely to be receiving focused conservation attention, according to the study.

“The findings revealed some alarming surprises,” says Foden, who conducted the study while formerly working for the IUCN Global Species’ Programme’s Climate Change Unit, which she founded six years ago. “We hadn’t expected that so many species and areas that were not previously considered to be of concern would emerge as highly vulnerable to climate change. Clearly, if we simply carry on with conservation as usual, without taking climate change into account, we’ll fail to help many of the species and areas that need it most.”

The study’s novel approach looks at the unique biological and ecological characteristics that make species more or less sensitive or adaptable to climate change. Conventional methods have focussed largely on measuring the amount of change to which species are likely to be exposed.

The new approach has already been applied to the species-rich Albertine Rift region of Central and East Africa, identifying those plants and animals that are important for human use and are most likely to decline due to climate change. These include 33 plants that are used as fuel, construction materials, food and medicine, 19 species of freshwater fish that are an important source of food and income and 24 mammals used primarily as a source of food.

“The study has shown that people in the region rely heavily on wild species for their livelihoods, and that this will undoubtedly be disrupted by climate change,” says Jamie Carr of IUCN Global Species Programme and lead author of the Albertine Rift study. “This is particularly important for the poorest and most marginalised communities who rely most directly on wild species to meet their basic needs.”

Download photos here:

Study available at:

For more information or interviews contact Wendy Foden at

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100 Years of Weed Control on World Environment Day Tue, 04 Jun 2013 10:19:46 +0000 Alien invasive plants that strangle out South Africa’s natural flora have been the target of teams of weed controllers for exactly one century this year.

Armed with carefully selected agents – insects that eat only the target plant – these dedicated scientists have fought to save the country’s biodiversity from alien invasive plants that have been brought across oceans from as far as Asia, South America, and the US.

“In most cases these plants were brought into the country for aesthetic reasons, or as curiosities. The problem is that there is nothing in South Africa’s natural environment that targets these plants, so they multiply uncontrolled,” says entomologist Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits University.

Alien invasive species pose a serious threat to South Africa’s biodiversity, and by implication, its economy. Farmers lose crops and livestock, and in a country that already has a water scarcity, 7% of water is disappearing to weeds like black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) and satansbos (Solanum elaeagnifolium).

Weed control involves going back to the native country to find an agent that limits the growth of the plant in its natural environment. There are very specific requirements for an insect (or fungus) to be selected as an agent.

“The agent cannot target anything other than the alien invasive species, otherwise you risk doing more harm than good. What’s incredible about weed control in South Africa is that – over a 100 year period – we haven’t made a single mistake,” says Byrne.

Mistakes can be costly. In 1935, Australia imported about 3 000 cane toads in the hope that they would control the destructive cane beetle population. They turned out to be failures at controlling the beetles, but remarkably successful at reproducing, now numbering well into the millions, and eating everything including pet food left outside homes.

But weed controllers in South Africa haven’t put a foot wrong. In fact, they’ve saved the country millions of rands, as recognised by the fact that government is starting to make more funds available via the Working for Water programme.

“In the case of the golden wattle, for every rand spent on weed control, the country has saved R4 333,” says Byrne.

The chain-fruit cholla tree, which is indigenous to Arizona, Texas and parts of Mexico, forms dense stands of spiny, branched, tree-sized succulent plants with easily-detachable stem segments. Birds, reptiles and small mammals are frequently impaled on the long, barbed spines and suffer a cruel death. Game, livestock and pets become so covered in spiny segments that they eventually die.

South African Dr Helmuth Zimmermann, world expert on the bio-control of cacti, took his wife to see a chain-fruit cholla tree, and they witnessed the suffering of a small antelope that accidentally ran into it.

“Zimmermann made a promise to this wife that he would help eradicate this cactus. He did this by finding the highly damaging biotype of cochineal that is now eradicating the cactus,” says Hildegard Klein from the Plant Protection Research Institute.

To download a selection of incredible photographs or find contact details for weed control experts, click here.

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Wits researcher names juvenile specimen of a new species of dinosaur in western China Mon, 06 May 2013 08:43:48 +0000 A new species of theropod, or meat-eating dinosaur, an ancient ancestor of today’s birds, has been named by newly appointed Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute Senior Researcher Dr. Jonah Choiniere and a team of international researchers.

The study about the find, which has been two years in the making, appears in the 3 May 2013 online edition of the prestigious scholarly publication Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

The dinosaur, discovered in a remote region of Xinjiang, northwestern China, is named Aorun zhaoi, after the Dragon King in the Chinese epic tale Journey to the West.

The new dinosaur is estimated to have been a little over one meter long and probably weighed about 1.5 kilograms. It wasn’t necessarily a small dinosaur species, though, because Aorun was still a youngster when it became a fossil.

“We were able to look at microscopic details of Aorun’s bones and they showed that the animal was less than a year old when it died on the banks of a stream,” says Choiniere.

Aorun lived more than 161 million years ago, in the Late Jurassic Period. Its small, numerous teeth suggest that it would have eaten prey like lizards and small relatives of today’s mammals and crocodilians.

“The new discovery is another great example of the rich dinosaur diversity of the Late Jurassic of northwestern China,” says Xu Xing, the leader of the Chinese side of the research team.

The specimen was discovered by Choiniere’s former supervisor, Professor James M. Clark of the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “All that was exposed on the surface was a bit of the leg. We were completely surprised to find a skull buried in the rock too,” says Clark.

For more information visit

The paper can be viewed here.


Jonah Choiniere grew up near Boston in the USA, on a 1000 hectare wildlife sanctuary, where he became interested in natural history. He completed an undergraduate degree with honours in Anthropology and another undergraduate degree with honours in Geology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

He completed his PhD at the George Washington University, studying meat-eating dinosaurs from China. During the course of his PhD he participated in six summers of field work in China. After a postdoctoral research fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he worked in the Gobi desert of Mongolia searching for dinosaurs, he joined the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits in September 2012, where he is the Senior Researcher in Dinosaur Palaeontology.

Currently one of the many things he is working on is researching the Elliot Formation of South Africa.

For media enquiries contact:

Dr. Jonah Choiniere

Wits Evolutionary Sciences Institute

Tel: +27 11 717-6684

Cell: +27 79 906 3169



For images of the dinosaur contact:

Vivienne Rowland

Senior Communications Officer

Wits Communications

Tel: +27 11 717-1017




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LAUNCH OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN STRATEGY FOR PALAEOSCIENCES AND THE CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE FOR PALAEOSCIENCES Thu, 11 Apr 2013 19:50:33 +0000 The palaeosciences fraternity and academia have welcomed the launch of the South African Strategy for the Palaeosciences and the awarding of the Centre of Excellence (CoE) for the Palaeosciences of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation to the University of the Witwatersrand and its collaborating institutions, namely the University of Cape Town, Iziko Museum in Cape Town, the National Museum in Bloemfontein, the Albany Museum of Rhodes University, and Ditsong Museum in Pretoria. The announcement was made today at an event held at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Origins Centre. The occasion also recognised the achievement of Prof. Lee Berger and his team; they had another six articles published in Science, one of the world’s most prestigious journals.

The launch of the Strategy for the Palaeosciences is the culmination of two years of meticulous research and stakeholder and public consultation, led by the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Arts and Culture.

“With our geographic location comes the responsibility to protect, preserve and develop knowledge about our abundant fossil wealth. This Strategy for the Palaeosciences sets out some of what the South African Government plans to do to meet its responsibility in this regard.  I am confident that this centre we are launching today will make a substantial contribution towards this goal of positioning South Africa as a world leader in palaeosciences, collections and site management. Apart from knowledge development, a major outcome of this centre is without a doubt human capital development at different levels, from semi-skilled through to professional, and the creation of expertise and careers in newly developing fields such as palaeotourism,” said the Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, in his opening address.

“The Centre of Excellence for the Palaeosciences is the 9th centre in the CoE programme since its launch in 2004. The establishment of the centre has its origins in the National Research and Development Strategy (2002), which identified a number of knowledge fields in which South Africa should aim to achieve international research excellence because of its geographical advantage. The CoE is part of targeted interventions that are being systematically introduced, with the intention of strengthening research capacity in the palaeosciences and generating a dynamic research environment,” said Dr Andrew Kaniki, Executive Director: Knowledge Fields Development of the National Research Foundation.

Wits University’s Prof. Bruce Rubidge, who will be heading the centre, disclosed that “the CoE partnership between Wits and our South African partner institutions will comprise some 30 scientists and many more students and technical personnel, as well as established international research partnerships, making this one of the largest palaeoscience collaborations in the world.” He added that South Africa, “because of its ancient rock history, has a remarkably diverse palaeontological and archaeological heritage, which includes the earliest evidence of life, a rich record of the origins of fish, retiles, early dinosaurs and mammals, and it has an amazing record of distant human origins and culture”. He emphasised that the “establishment of the CoE in the Palaeosciences will enable Wits University and its partners to explore this heritage and establish South Africa as a world leader in this field of research.”

The CoE launched today will manage a number of activities, including –

  • research focused on the creation and development of new knowledge and technology;
  • education and training of the highest standard at master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral levels;
  • information brokerage through providing access to a pool of knowledge and promoting knowledge sharing and transfer;
  • networking through collaborating across national and international boundaries;
  • service rendering in respect of analysis and policy for government, business and civil society.

The Centres of Excellence Programme was established in 2004 and CoE for the Palaeosciences launched today is the ninth centre. The Department of Science and Technology has completed a framework for the opening of a call for an additional five CoEs in the 2012/13 financial year, at least one of which will be in the social sciences and humanities. The awarding of the five new CoEs will be completed before the end of the 2013/14 financial year, at which time there will be a total of 14 CoEs.

For more information, as well as speeches and photographs from the launch go to:

Or contact:

Department of Science and Technology

Nthabi Maoela

082 944 0015

National Research Foundation

Palesa Mokoena

083 410 3677

University of the Witwatersrand

Kanina Foss

082 052 0939

Skeletons on display at the launch of the SA Palaeosciences Centre of Excellence at Wits University

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SIX NEW SCIENCE PAPERS DESCRIBE HOW AU. SEDIBA WALKED, CHEWED AND MOVED Thu, 11 Apr 2013 18:41:02 +0000 Johannesburg – A team of South African and international scientists from the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)  and 15 other global institutions, are publishing six papers and an introduction by Prof. Lee Berger, the lead author and project leader, in the prestigious journal Science tomorrow, Friday, 12 April 2013.

The papers report on some of the most complete early human ancestral remains ever discovered.  The 2-million-year-old fossils belong to the species Australopithecus sediba (Au. sediba) and provide what Berger, from the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute, describes as “unprecedented insight into the anatomy and phylogenetic position of an early human ancestor”.

The six papers represent the culmination of more than four years of research into the anatomy of Au. sediba based on the holotype and paratype skeletons commonly referred to as MH1 and MH2, as well as the adult isolated tibia referred to as MH4. The fossil remains were discovered at the site of Malapa in August of 2008, and the species was named in 2010by Berger and his colleagues. The articles presented in Science complete the initial examination of the prepared material attributed to these three individuals.

The papers are entitled: Dental morphology and the phylogenetic “place” of Australopithecus sediba; Mandibular remains support taxonomic validity of Australopithecus sediba; The upper limb of Australopithecus sediba; Mosaic morphology in the thorax of Australopithecus sediba; The vertebral column of Australopithecus sediba; and The lower limb and the mechanics of walking in Australopithecus sediba, with the introduction entitled The Mosaic Anatomy of Australopithecus sediba.

In essence, the six studies describe how the 2-million-year-old Au. sediba walked, chewed and moved.

Berger summarises that Au. sediba provides us with the most comprehensive examination of the anatomy of a definitive single species of early hominin. “This examination of a large number of associated, often complete and undistorted elements, gives us a glimpse of a hominin species that appears to be mosaic in its anatomy and that presents a suite of functional complexes that are both different from that predicted for other australopiths, as well as that for early Homo.

Such clear insight into the anatomy of an early hominin species will clearly have implications for interpreting the evolutionary processes that affected the mode and tempo of hominin evolution and the interpretation of the anatomy of less well preserved species,” says Berger.

“Aside from the 26 authors from 16 institutions involved in these publications, the team focusing its research efforts on Au. sediba and Malapa now numbers more than 100 researchers from around the world and represents one of the largest dedicated archaeological or palaeontological research programmes,” says Prof. Loyiso Nongxa, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. Berger adds that the work undertaken to date, although only five years in the making (since the discovery of the site in mid-2008), represents some of the most extensive focused literature on a single early hominin species yet created.

Included in the recent discoveries from the site are a new species of fox, named by the team as Vulpes skinneri  just three months ago, and the discovery of more than 300 early human ancestor remains, including parts of skeletons still encased in rock.

Berger concludes: “Discoveries such as Australopithecus sediba and the Malapa site demonstrate the need for further African based exploration in the rich fossil fields of southern Africa, and additionally demonstrate the tremendous promise of the palaeosciences on the continent.”


For images, background material, audio or video clips, download the media pack from or contact:

Vivienne Rowland

Senior Communications Officer

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Tel: +27 11 717 1017

Cell: +27 83 395 1239



Twitter: @WitsUniversity; @Wits_News



Prof. Lee Berger 

Sediba lead author and project leader

Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute

University of the Witwatersrand

South Africa

Cell: 001 916 848 5563 (USA) – Please note that Prof. Berger will be in the United States until 15 April 2013

Cell: 0027 83 454 6309 (SA)

Tel:  0027 11 717 6664 (SA)



Twitter: @LeeRberger


About Australopithecus sediba

The site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site came to the world’s attention in 2008 when Wits Professor Lee Berger’s young son Matthew discovered the first pieces of what would become one of the most complete early human skeleton ever discovered, part of a juvenile skeleton that was named ‘Karabo’ (The Answer in seSotho), and the type specimen of a new species of hominin – Australopithecus sediba named by Berger’s team in 2010.

The discovery launched one of the largest and most intensive research programmes ever conducted in palaeoanthropology involving over 100 scientists from around the world, which has recovered hundreds of remains of at least four other skeletons.

The reconstructed skull and mandible of Australopithecus sediba Credits: Reconstruction by Peter Schmid, photo by Lee Berger, courtesy of the University of the Witwatersrand

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Key find for treating wastewater on World Water Day Wed, 27 Mar 2013 08:27:16 +0000

Prof. Sunny Iyuke

A newly developed membrane used to separate waste from water could become key in the treatment of pollutants ranging from acid mine drainage to oil-containing wastewater, as well as in processes ranging from desalination to kidney dialysis.

The research was published in Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing Group) on Friday, 22 March, coinciding with World Water Day and falling within South Africa’s National Water Week.

The technology – which was developed by a team of researchers from Wits University, in collaboration with NASA – will make it easier to filter pure water from waste produced during mining, oil and gas exploration and production, and nuclear exploration, to name a few. Even medical purification processes such as kidney dialysis could benefit.

A commercial product will hopefully be developed soon, and there are plans to approach the US government regarding their problems with contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals in their water. Closer to home, the technology could make huge inroads in dealing with the major issue of acid mine drainage.

According to the Head of the Wits School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, Prof. Sunny Iyuke, who developed the product in collaboration with two PhD students, the membrane module (similar to a household water filter) could be used to catch water waste from mines before it entered drains or the water table. Water flow analytics could be used to track the direction and location of any escaped wastewater, where another membrane module (in the form of a borehole) could be stationed.

The nanocomposite membrane gives two products: a smaller amount of concentrated waste and water so clean it could be drinkable. The waste can be reused, as in the case of arsenic, which is used in preservatives for wood and leather, ammunitions manufacturing, and pest control. Even the waste from acid mine drainage could be reused.

“Water is critical to sustaining life, and water scarcity is becoming a huge problem not just in South Africa, but all over the world,” said Iyuke. “This technology produces a win win situation, for industry and the environment.”


Issued by:



Senior Communications Officer

Advancement and Partnerships Division

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Tel: +27 11 717 1024

Cell: +27 82 052 0939



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It’s in the way we move Wed, 13 Mar 2013 07:05:03 +0000 When, how and why modern humans first stood up and walked on two legs is considered to be one of the greatest missing links in our evolutionary history. Scientists have gone to the far ends of the earth – and the wonderful creatures in it – to look for answers to why we walk the way we walk.

In the latest such search, researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (South Africa) have taken a closer look at bipedal kangaroos and wallabies and how they move compared to their cousin-marsupials, such as the quadrupedal Tasmanian wolf.

In an article published online in the scientific journal PLoS ONE on Tuesday, 12 March 2013 at 23:00 SAT (14:00 PDT), the researchers examine connections between bone form and locomotor behaviour in bipedal and quadrupedal marsupials.

The study was led by Dr Kristian Carlson, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Human Evolution (IHE) at Wits University. Contributing authors include: Dr Tea Jashashvili, Postdoctoral Fellow at the IHE at Wits University; Kimberley Houghton, MSc candidate at the IHE at Wits University; Dr Michael Westaway from the Queensland Museum (Australia); and Dr Biren Patel from the University of Southern California (US).

For images and a copy of the paper, go to

Dr Kristian Carlson

Dr Kristian Carlson from the University of the Witwatersrand

Their article is entitled Joint loads in marsupial ankles reflect habitual bipedalism versus quadrupedalism. The research demonstrates that bipedal marsupials, such as kangaroos and wallabies, experience greater forces through their hind limb joints (e.g., ankles) when walking, compared to other marsupials that walk on four legs.

The study has several important implications in the area of research known as functional morphology.

Characterising forces that joints experience during movement is imperative to understanding how the joints of animals function and facilitate such movements. Documenting these forces, however, is extremely difficult for practical reasons.

Using physical instruments to measure joint forces is impossible without altering the natural movements of animals. By combining computed tomography (CT) and image analyses, the team of researchers was able to estimate joint forces in a non-invasive, accurate manner.

As the group predicted at the outset of the study, marsupials supporting their body with only two hind limbs during movement sustain higher estimated forces in their joints compared to marsupials that support their body with all four limbs during movement. This finding offers insight into the structural uniqueness of hind limb joints (e.g., ankles) of bipedal marsupials.

Members of the team are currently expanding the published study into the next phase of a larger project by documenting the same phenomenon in primates in order to investigate whether bipedal humans differ from related quadrupedal primates in parallel (or different) ways as bipedal marsupials differ from related quadrupedal marsupials.

By comparing analogous systems in primates and marsupials, team members will garner potentially new insights into the mechanics of human bipedalism. Such insights will advance current understanding of the morphological adaptations expressed by our distant hominin ancestors (e.g., australopithecines).

These insights will prove particularly timely considering the emerging trend in recognizing substantial variation in the form of bipedalism expressed by our hominin ancestors.


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An insect with a tiny brain and minimal computing power has become the first animal proven to use the Milky Way for orientation. Scientists from South Africa and Sweden have published findings showing the link between dung beetles and the spray of stars which comprises our galaxy.

Although their eyes are too weak to distinguish individual constellations, dung beetles use the gradient of light to dark provided by the Milky Way to ensure they keep rolling their balls in a straight line and don’t circle back to competitors at the dung pile.

“The dung beetles don’t care which direction they’re going in; they just need to get away from the bun fight at the poo pile,” said Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits University.

Byrne and his team previously proved that dung beetles use the sun, the moon and polarised light for orientation. In their experiments, they gave the beetles “caps” which blocked light from reaching their eyes. The team also discovered that the beetles climb on top of their dung balls to perform an orientation “dance” during which they locate light sources to use for orientation.

Now, further experiments, conducted under the simulated night sky of the Wits Planetarium, have shown that the beetles also use the Mohawk of the Milky Way – giving new meaning to dancing with the stars!

“We were sitting out in Vryburg (conducting experiments) and the Milky Way was this massive light source. We thought they have to be able to use this – they just have to!” said Byrne.

Not all light sources are equally useful landmarks for a dung beetle. A moth keeping a constant angle between itself and a candle flame will move in a circle around the flame. However, a celestial body is too far away to change position relative to a dung beetle as it rolls its ball, with the result that the beetle keeps travelling in a straight line.

The scientists suspect the beetles have a hierarchy of preference when it comes to available light sources. So if the moon and the Milky Way are visible at the same time, the beetles probably use one rather than the other.

A few other animals have been proven to use stars for orientation, but the dung beetle is the first animal proven to use the galaxy.


Issued by:


Senior Communications Officer

Advancement and Partnerships Division

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Tel: +27 11 717 1024

Cell: +27 82 052 0939


Web: Beetle with cap_Marcus Byrne SAMSUNG DIGITAL MOVIE

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Africa’s Homo sapiens were the first techies Wed, 05 Dec 2012 08:20:48 +0000 The search for the origin of modern human behaviour and technological advancement among our ancestors in southern Africa some 70 000 years ago, has taken a step closer to firmly establishing Africa, and especially South Africa, as the primary centre for the early development of human behaviour.

Howiesons Poort segments from Sibudu Cave

A Howiesons Poort segments from Sibudu Cave with ochre along their backed portions resulting from ochre-loaded adhesives (modified after Lombard 2006, 2007b); b quartz backed artefacts from Sibudu Cave (modified after Lombard 2011); c hafting positions for hunting experiments with Howiesons Poort-like segments (modified after Lombard and Pargeter 2008)

A new research paper by renowned Wits University archaeologist, Prof. Christopher Henshilwood, is the first detailed summary of the time periods he and a group of international researchers have been studying in South Africa: namely the Still Bay techno-traditions (c. 75 000 – 70 000 years) and the Howiesons Poort techno-tradition (c. 65 000 – 60 000 years).

The paper, entitled Late Pleistocene Techno-traditions in Southern Africa: A Review of the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, c. 75–59 ka, has been published online in the Journal of World Prehistory on 6 November 2012.

Henshilwood says these periods were significant in the development of Homo sapiens behaviour in southern Africa. They were periods of many innovations including, for example, the first abstract art (engraved ochre and engraved ostrich eggshell); the first jewellery (shell beads); the first bone tools; the earliest use of the pressure flaking technique, that was used in combination with heating to make stone spear points and the first probable use of stone tipped arrows launched by bow.

“All of these innovations, plus many others we are just discovering, clearly show that Homo sapiens in southern Africa at that time were cognitively modern and behaving in many ways like ourselves. It is a good reason to be proud of our earliest, common ancestors who lived and evolved in South Africa and who later spread out into the rest of the world after about 60 000 years,” says Henshilwood.

The research also addresses some of the nagging questions as to what drove our ancestors to develop these innovative technologies. According to Henshilwood answers to these questions are, in part, found in demography and climate change, particularly changing sea levels, which were major drivers of innovation and variability in material culture.

This paper is just the latest to come from Henshilwood and his teams’ research on African archaeology that revolutionised  the idea that modern human behaviour originated in Europe after  about 40 000 years ago. There is increasing evidence for an African origin for behavioural and technological modernity more than 70 000 years ago and that the earliest origin of all Homo sapiens lies in Africa with a special focus in southern Africa.

Henshilwood writes: “In just the past decade our knowledge of Homo sapiens behaviour in the Middle Stone Age, and in particular of the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, has expanded considerably. With the benefit of hindsight we may ironically conclude that the origins of ‘Neanthropic Man’, the epitome of behavioural modernity in Europe, lay after all in Africa.”

Prof. Christopher Henshilwood at the Blombos Cave

Prof. Christopher Henshilwood at the Blombos Cave


In the past decade the research led by Henshilwood and a team of multi-disciplinary researchers has turned around, within a decade, the widely held idea that modern human behaviour originated in Europe after about 40 ka ago. With his research team he increasingly provides evidence for an African origin for behavioural and technological modernity more than 70 000 years ago and has decisively shown that Africa is the birthplace for early development on modern human cognition. He has thus restored a pride in the place that Africa played in the evolution of Homo sapiens and has been honoured for this by past South African Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki and through the many awards and invitations that he has received nationally and internationally.

His more than 40 publications since 2001, including four in Science (three as 1st author) in 2002, 2004, 2010, 2011 and review articles in Science, 2009 and Nature, 2012, demonstrate that southern Africa was a primary centre for the early development of human behaviour mediated by symbols. Since 1999 Henshilwood has published more than 40 papers in leading peer reviewed journals, volumes and books on aspects of African archaeology, especially the Middle and Later Stone Age; on the origins of language and symbolism; the effects of climatic variation on human demographics, and the epistemology of early behavioural evolution.

In 2010 Henshilwood was rated as an A1 researcher by the European Research Council and awarded a R25 million, 5 year research grant (2010 – 2015) as Principal Investigator to carry out research on the Middle Stone Age in South Africa. This award is shared in part with Wits University. In 2012 his Research Chair at Wits University on the “Origins of Modern Human Behaviour” was renewed for 5 years. Over the past 5 years Henshilwood has made a major contribution to archaeological research at Wits University and the University of Bergen in Norway and also at a national and international level.

In 1999 Henshilwood founded the African Heritage Research Institute in Cape Town, South Africa, under the patronage of former president Nelson Mandela, to promote archaeological research on the origins of H. sapiens in southern Africa. In 2001 he was honoured at the opening of the South African parliament by former president Thabo Mbeki for his research in African archaeology. In 2005 he was awarded the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, by the French Prime Minister for distinguished contributions to French education and culture within a South African context. He was accepted as a member of the South African Academy of Science in 2009.

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Wits researchers part of study that discovers a unique feature of HIV that enables infected people to make antibodies able to kill a wide range of human immunodeficiency viruses Mon, 22 Oct 2012 13:29:42 +0000 Two Wits researchers have led an AIDS study published today in the journal, Nature Medicine, which describes how a unique change in the outer covering of the virus found in two HIV infected South African women enabled them to make potent antibodies which are able to kill up to 88% of HIV types from around the world.

This ground-breaking discovery provides an important new approach that could be useful in making an AIDS vaccine.

The study, performed by members of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) consortium, involves scientists from Wits University, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town, who has been studying, over the last five years, how certain HIV-infected people develop very powerful antibody responses. 

These antibodies are referred to as broadly neutralising antibodies because they kill a wide range of HIV types from different parts of the world. This CAPRISA team initially discovered that two KwaZulu-Natal women, one of whom participated in the CAPRISA 004 tenofovir gel study, could make these rare antibodies.

Through long-term follow-up laboratory studies on these two women, the team led by Wits researchers and Centre for HIV and STI at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases of the National Health Laboratory Service based scientists Dr Penny Moore and Professor Lynn Morris, discovered that a sugar (known as a glycan) on the surface protein coat of the virus at a specific position (referred to as position 332) forms a site of vulnerability in the virus and enables the body to mount a broadly neutralizing antibody response.

“Understanding this elaborate game of ‘cat and mouse’ between HIV and the immune response of the infected person has provided valuable insights into how broadly neutralizing antibodies arise,” says Moore. 

Morris, Head of AIDS Research at the NICD explained: “We were surprised to find that the virus that caused infection in many cases did not have this antibody target on its outer covering. But over time, the virus was pressured by body’s immune reaction to cover itself with the sugar that formed a point of vulnerability, and so allowed the development of antibodies that hit that weak spot”.

“Broadly neutralising antibodies are considered to be the key to making an AIDS vaccine. This discovery provides new clues on how vaccines could be designed to elicit broadly neutralising antibodies. The world needs an effective AIDS vaccine to overcome the global scourge of AIDS,” said Professor Salim Abdool Karim, Director of CAPRISA and President of the Medical Research Council, in his comments on the significance of the finding.

While their existence has been known for a while, highly potent forms of broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV were only identified about 3 years ago. Until now, it was not known how the human body is able to make broadly neutralizing antibodies.

This study discovered one mechanism by which these antibodies may be made. To make this discovery, the research team studied the target of some of these antibodies, a sugar that coats the surface protein of HIV, forming a site of vulnerability. By tracing back the evolution of the virus that elicited these antibodies, this team showed that this particular weak point was absent from the virus that first infected these women. 

However, under constant pressure from other less powerful antibodies that develop in all infected people, their HIV was forced to expose this vulnerability over time. This allowed the broadly neutralizing antibodies to develop. 

Analysis of  a large number of other viruses from throughout the world, performed in collaboration with scientists from the University of North Carolina and Harvard University, suggest that the vulnerability at position 332 may be present at the time of infection in about two thirds of subtype C viruses (the subtype most common in Africa). Hence, if a vaccine is developed to target this glycan only, it may not be able to uniformly neutralize all subtype C viruses; as a result AIDS vaccines may need to attack multiple targets on the virus.


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Dung beetles use dung balls to stay cool Mon, 22 Oct 2012 10:00:25 +0000

Dung beetles roll their feasts of dung away to avoid the hoards of other hungry competitors at the dung pile. But now a team of researchers from South Africa and Sweden have discovered that they also use their balls in another, rather clever way. The moist balls keep the beetles cool even as they push a weight up to 50 times heavier than their own bodies across the hot sand.

“The beetles climb on top of their moist balls whenever their front legs and heads overheat,” said Prof. Marcus Byrne from Wits University. “We stumbled upon this behaviour by accident while watching for an ‘orientation dance’ which the beetles perform on top of their balls to work out where they’re going. We noticed that they climbed their balls much more often in the heat of the midday sun.”

Further experiments showed that this midday phenomenon only held true when the beetles were crossing hot ground. In fact, beetles on hot soil climb their balls seven times as often as those on cooler ground.

To show that it was the beetles’ hot legs that made them climb the ball, the researchers applied some cool (as in temperature) silicone boots to their front legs as alternative protection from the heat. “To our great surprise, this actually worked, and beetles with boots on climbed their balls less often,” said Dr Jochen Smolka from Lund University, who collaborated on the research.

The discovery marks the first example of an insect using a mobile thermal refuge in this way. It is also a demonstration of the remarkably sophisticated strategies that insects and other cold-blooded creatures employ to maintain their body temperatures.

Once on top of a ball at midday, the beetles were often seen “wiping their faces”, a preening behavior that the researchers suspect spreads regurgitated liquid onto their legs and head to cool them down further. That’s something the insects never do at other times of day.

The findings are yet another reminder of the many creative solutions found in nature. According to Smolka, “Evolution has an astonishing ability to make use of existing structures for new purposes – in this case using a food resource for thermoregulation.”

For more information contact Kanina Foss at +27 11 717 1024 or

Dung beetle with silicone boots on


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Largest genomic study reveals Khoe-San from Africa is unique, special Fri, 21 Sep 2012 06:52:57 +0000 Genetically, culturally and ethically the Khoe-San have something special to add to this world. The importance of this study is to put the Khoe and San heritage in the right place in history and this research will provide a genetic backdrop for future studies – Mattias Jakobsson

The largest genomic study ever conducted among Khoe and San groups reveals that these groups from southern Africa are descendants of the earliest diversification event in the history of all humans – some 100 000 years ago, well before the ‘out-of-Africa’ migration of modern humans.

Some 220 individuals from different regions in southern Africa participated in the research that led to the analysis of around 2.3 million DNA variants per individual – the biggest ever.

Traditional San art manufactured by the #Khomani people

Traditional San art manufactured by the #Khomani people

The research was conducted by a group of international scientists, including Professor Himla Soodyall from the Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit in the Faculty of Health at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Entitled Genomic variation in seven Khoe-San groups reveals adaptation and complex African history, the study has been published in the renowned scientific journal, Science, on Thursday, 20 September 2012.

“The deepest divergence of all living people occurred some 100 000 years ago, well before modern humans migrated out of Africa and about twice as old as the divergences of central African Pygmies and East African hunter-gatherers and from other African groups,” says lead author Dr Carina Schlebusch, a Wits University PhD-graduate now conducting post-doctoral research at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Soodyall, from the National Health Laboratory Services in South Africa, has a long standing relationship with Khoe and San communities and said that the findings are a “phenomenal tribute to the indigenous Khoe and San people of southern Africa, and through this magnificent collaboration, we have given the peoples of Africa an opportunity to reclaim their place in the history of the world”.

Besides the publication of the study, the authors will also be visiting the San groups of the Kalahari in the Askam area in South Africa on the 24th of September 2012 for the country’s Heritage Day celebrations. “We are excited that together with some of our colleagues from Uppsala University, we will be able to join in the celebrations with the San groups in the Kalahari who participated in our research and to acknowledge their contribution in making our research possible”.

The researchers are now making the genome-wide data freely available: “Genetic information is getting more and more important for medical purposes. In addition to illuminating their history, we hope that this study is a step towards Khoe and San groups also being a part of that revolution,” says Schlebusch.

Another author, Professor Mike de Jongh from the University of South Africa adds, “It is important for us to communicate with the participants prior to the genetic studies, to inform individuals about the nature of our research, and to not only to share the results with them, but also to explain to them the significance of the data for recapturing their heritage.”


A ≠Khomani San settlement near Askham in the Northern Cape Province in South Africa

A ≠Khomani San settlement near Askham in the Northern Cape Province in South Africa

According to Assistant-Professor Mattias Jakobsson from Uppsala University, these deep divergences among African populations have important implications and consequences when the history of all humankind is deciphered.

The deep structure and patterns of genetic variation suggest a complex population history of the peoples of Africa. “The human population has been structured for a long time,” says Jakobsson, “and it is possible that modern humans emerged from a non-homogeneous group.”

The study also found surprising stratification among Khoe-San groups. For example, the researchers estimate that the San populations from northern Namibia and Angola separated from the Khoe and San populations living in South Africa as early as 25,000 – 40,000 years ago.

“There is astonishing ethnic diversity among the Khoe-San group, and we were able to see many aspects of the colorful history that gave rise to this diversity in their DNA”, said Schlebusch.

The study further indicates how pastoralism first spread to southern Africa in combination with the Khoe culture. From archaeological and ethnographic studies it has been suggested that pastoralism was introduced to the Khoe in southern Africa before the arrival of Bantu-speaking farmers, but it has been unclear if this event had any genetic impact.

The Nama, a pastoralist Khoe group from Namibia showed great similarity to ‘southern’ San groups. “However, we found a small but very distinct genetic component that is shared with East Africans in this group, which may be the result of shared ancestry associated with pastoral communities from East Africa,” says Schlebusch.

With the genetic data the researchers could see that the Khoe pastoralists originate from a Southern San group that adopted pastoralism with genetic contributions from an East African group – a group that would have been the first to bring pastoralist practices to southern Africa.

The study also revealed evidence of local adaptation in different Khoe and San groups. For example, the researchers found that there was evidence for selection in genes involved in muscle function, immune response, and UV-light protection in local Khoe and San groups. These could be traits linked with adaptations to the challenging environments in which the ancestors of present-day San and Khoe were exposed to that have been retained in the gene pool of local groups.

The researchers also looked for signals across the genome of ancient adaptations that happened before the historical separation of the Khoe-San lineage from other humans. “Although all humans today carry similar variants in these genes, the early divergence between Khoe-San and other human groups allowed us to zoom-in on genes that have been fast-evolving in the ancestors of all of us living on the planet today,” said Pontus Skoglund from Uppsala University.

Among the strongest candidates were genes involved in skeletal development that may have been crucial in determining the characteristics of anatomically modern humans.


Professor Himla Soodyall

Professor Himla Soodyall

Professor Himla Soodyall

Soodyall joined the Division of Human Genetics in 1987 as a medical scientist. She completed a PhD with Professor Jenkins in 1992, a study that made use of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)  – shedding light   on how females have contributed to shaping of gene pool of living people. After conducting post-doctoral research at Penn State University with Professor Mark Stoneking (1993-1996) – one of the authors of a seminal paper in 1987 that promoted the “Out of Africa” theory concerning modern human origins, Himla returned to South Africa and continued with her research on understanding the genetic history of sub-Saharan African populations using other genetic markers that include the Y chromosome DNA which traces paternal ancestries, and autosomal DNA markers which is inherited from both parents. In 2005 she was invited to participate in the international Genographic Project hosted by the National Geographic Society in partnership with IBM and the Waitt Family Foundation representing the sub-Saharan African region.
Dr Carina Schlebusch

Dr Carina Schlebusch

Dr Carina Schlebusch

Schlebusch joined Soodyall’s group in 2005 and was awarded a PhD from Wits University in 2010. Her research expanded on genetic studies on the Khoe and San groups from southern Africa. She joined Jakobsson’s group at Uppsala University in 2009, and through collaborative research, was able to conduct the research outlined in the article in Science. The collection of samples and use of the DNA for this research was approved by the South African San Council (2006) and endorsed by the Human Research Ethics Committee (Medical) at Wits University.

Professor Mike de Jongh

Professor Mike de Jongh

Professor Mike de Jongh

De Jongh is Professor Emeritus at the University of South Africa, Pretoria. His research interests are in the fields of human mobility, ethnicity, minority groups and Khoekhoen/San identity. He has published widely on these topics and his most recent book is: ROOTS AND ROUTES—Karretjie People of the Great Karoo. The Marginalisation of a South African First People (2012).

Assistant-Professor Mattias Jakobsson

Assistant-Professor Mattias Jakobsson

Assistant Professor Mattias Jakobsson

Jakobsson received his PhD in Genetics from Lund University in 2005 and conducted a postdoc (2005-2008) at the University of Michigan, working with Dr. Noah Rosenberg. Jakobsson’s postdoctoral research resulted in important advancements for our understanding of worldwide human genetic variation, and new approaches to investigate population genetic variation, and some of the results were published in Nature, Nature Genetics and PLoS Genetics. Jakobsson joined Uppsala University in 2008 and was recently awarded an ERC starting grant.

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Wits Health Sciences Research Day and PG Expo promises to showcase health through research Thu, 13 Sep 2012 12:57:46 +0000 The 2012 Health Sciences Research Day and Postgraduate Expo takes place on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 under the theme: Excellence. Relevance. Determination. Transforming Life through Research Excellence.

This biennial event exposes the staff and postgraduate students to leading research work taking place in the Faculty of Health Sciences.  It is a showcase for relevant and exciting research discoveries in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits.  It strengthens links, collaborations and co-ordination of research efforts amongst research entities and individuals working in the field of health sciences and related disciplines.

For 2012, presentations – both oral and posters – have been invited in five thematic tracks: infectious diseases; diseases of lifestyle; education, policy and systems; molecular and comparative biosciences; and clinical sciences and therapeutics for health. The themes were created to give an opportunity for all research – whether basic or clinical – to be showcased.

“The visibility of the Faculty’s research has grown significantly in the last decade or so, and the breadths of the activities which have been performed are covered by the themes to envelope the whole breadth of research ongoing within the Faculty. The themes define the Faculty’s activities,” says Dr Bavesh Kana, HSRD Committee Chair and former HSRD winner.

The prizes are worth the effort for entrants: R20 000 is awarded for the best overall oral presentations and R10 000 for the best poster presentations. The best student oral presentation receives R5000 and the best poster presentation collects R2500 for each thematic track.

“By awarding big prizes we hope to encourage participation of the best of the Faculty’s research, to make it incredibly competitive and to have huge prestige associated with it. The history speaks accordingly –previous winners have had their studies published in high impact journals and have been invited to present their work at international conferences. The value of the prizes raises the bar of the event and Research Day could be seen as a good indicator of what’s to come in terms of imminent research breakthroughs,” says Kana.

Prof. Beverley Kramer, Assistant Dean for Research and Postgraduate Support in the Faculty of Health Sciences says she is excited to see young researchers excel during the 2012 HSRD.

“We need to see that our emerging researchers are well-trained and that they stay at Wits in the long term,” says Kramer.

The following round table discussions also take place during HSRD, hosted by the HSRD Organising Committee, addressing South Africa many unique health challenges which currently threaten to undermine its overall economic, social and technological advancement – Tuberculosis (TB) and AIDS.

A world without AIDS?

Discussion leader: Lynn Morris: National Institute for Communicable Diseases of the NHLS/Wits


Penelope Moore – NICD of the NHLS/Wits on Research towards a cure 

Francois Venter – WRHI on PreP and prevention 

Alex Welte – South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, University of Stellenbosch on Theoretical perspectives on elimination of infection and epidemics

Venue: Hospital Auditorium, Wits Medical School  

Time: 14:40-15:30

Eliminating TB 

Discussion Leader: Gavin Churchyard – Aurum Institute


Bavesh Kana – DST/NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research on Why is it so hard to kill the tubercle bacillus?

Kerrigan McCarthy – Aurum Institute on What will it take to control TB in SA: a modelling perspective

Neil Martinson – Perinatal HIV Research Unit on What will it take to control TB in SA: the role of TB case finding

Venue: Marie Curie Lecture Theatre, Wits Medical School

Time: 14:40-15:30

Colliding Epidemics – Africa in Transition                           

Discussion Leader: Michèle Ramsay – Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience & NHLS


Brandon Wainwright – Queensland Institute for Molecular Bioscience, Australia on Essentially the beginning – an understanding of molecular and cellular processes

Stephen Tollman – MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt) on Sizing the collision – a population perspective on burden and risk

Alisha Wade – Wits School of Public Health on Clinical management for chronic care – what does it take?

Venue: Neurosciences Auditorium, Charlotte Maxeke Hospital

Time: 14:40-15:30

For more information and programme details on the 2012 Health Sciences Research Day and Postgraduate Expo, visit .

For media enquiries contact on +27 11  717 1017.

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Dawn of Humanity Illuminated in Special Journal Edition – 50 Years After the Leakeys Tue, 21 Aug 2012 09:37:35 +0000 Wits’ scientists are part of the most comprehensive research to come out of Olduvai in East Africa since the early 1980s 

The first systematic, multidisciplinary results to come out of research conducted on the edge of the Serengeti at the rich palaeoanthropological site in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania since that produced by Louis and Mary Leakey’s team, have recently been published in a special issue of the prestigious Journal of Human Evolution.


Olduvai Gorge on the edge of the Serengeti in Tanzania

Professor Marion Bamford, deputy director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, and Professor Ron Clarke from the Institute of Human Evolution – both at the University of the Witwatersrand – contributed papers to the 191-page special edition. Bamford and Clarke’s contributions are part of 15 papers by 25 scientists to have come from research conducted by the Olduvai Landscape Paleoanthropology Project (OLAPP) since 1989 and the special edition is entitled Five Decades after Zinjanthropus and Homo habilis: Landscape Paleoanthropology of Plio-Pleistocene Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

“The significance of this special edition is the culmination of the work we have been doing at Olduvai the past two decades and is an impressive range of articles that deals with various aspects of our distant ancestor Homo habilis.”

Professor Robert Blumenschine

Professor Robert Blumenschine, guest-editor of the special edition of the Journal of Human Evolution

“No one site tells us more about the last two million years of human evolution than Olduvai and with contributing researchers from Wits University, this collaborative work dispels the suppose rift in palaeosciences between East Africa and South Africa,” says Professor Robert Blumenschine, guest-editor of the special edition and Chief Scientific Strategist of the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), based at Wits.

Bamford and Clarke are also associated with and supported by PAST which provides funding to members of the OLAPP team, including to the local excavators and technicians supporting the research in Tanzania.

“The publication celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Leakey-discoveries in 1959 and 1960 of the Zinjanthropus (now known as Paranthropus boisei) and Homo habilis type species. The Leakey’s work, spanning five decades until 1984, established Olduvai as the single most important record for hominid biological and technological evolution over the last two million years,” Blumenschine says.

Bamford’s paper entitled Fossil sedges, microplants, and roots from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and her collaborative paper with Rosa Albert entitled Vegetation during UMBI and deposition of Tuff IF at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania (ca. 1.8 Ma) based on phytoliths and plant remains, provide the first systematic report of plant fossils from Olduvai. Together, these papers show the great potential plant fossils hold for high resolution palaeoenvironmental reconstruction of the habitats used by Homo habilis at Olduvai.

OH 65 Homo habilis Maxilla found by OLAPP

OH 65 Homo habilis Maxilla found by OLAPP.

Clarke, who has worked closely with the Leakeys in the 1960s, gives in his paper entitled A Homo habilis maxilla and other newly-discovered hominid fossils from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, a full description of the Olduvai Hominid (OH) 65 palate, the first complete upper dentition of Homo habilis. This specimen provides crucial evidence for redefining Homo habilis.

Clarke also describes the specimen OH 7X, that is the previously missing right second molar of the OH 7 mandible discovered by the Leakeys 46 years earlier, and used by them to originally describe the species Homo habilis.


OLAPP researchers have in the past two decades departed from the tradition approaches in palaeoanthropology and have conducted multidisciplinary excavation over broader areas – distances spanning 20km – to provide more detailed environmental and ecological context to their research.

OLAPP focused on the earlier, 2.0 – 1.8 million year old parts of the Olduvai sequence during which time Homo habilis existed. It was the first species of our genus and the first human ancestor to exhibit brains larger than apes, stone tool making and use, and consumption of meat and other foods from large animals.

OLAPP’s objective has been to understand the ecological pressures that selected for these fundamentally human traits.

A number of papers in the special issue describe the novel methods employed to achieve this goal, which featured excavation of a large number of trenches from single discrete time intervals over landscape scales (hundreds to thousands of meters).

Detailed study of these sediments, fossil plants and animals recovered from the excavations allowed OLAPP scientists to place the stone tools and butchered animal bones also recovered in a very high resolution palaeoenvironmental context.

Blumenschine, a Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, USA, was assisted in guest-editing the special issue by Fidelis Masao, from the University of Dar es Salaam, Ian Stanistreet, from the University of Liverpool, and Carl Swisher, also from Rutgers University. Blumenschine also contributed various papers to the special issue.

To view the special issue, visit


PAST is Africa’s Origin Sciences champion. PAST is a South African NGO that since 1994 has been promoting and preserving southern Africa’s rich fossil heritage through seven successful programs that integrate education, research, and public outreach activities in the origin sciences (see No other institution in Africa – and indeed in the world – shares this mission, and PAST is universally recognized as the most important independent source of support for origin sciences research and education in southern Africa.

PAST’s newest initiative, Scatterlings of Africa, of which Clarke and Bamford are founding members, is an ambitious effort to expand the organization’s mission across Africa while retaining its traditional core focus on southern Africa. Scatterlings is a powerfully transformative idea that instils pride in Africa as a treasure trove of human heritage, while fostering a more positive perception of the continent previously mired in biases based on superficial differences such as skin colour. It is an educational concept that inspires scientific curiosity among learners and fulfils humankind’s fundamental need to understand its roots and diversity. 


Professor Ron Clarke:

Homo habilis male - drawing by Ron Clarke - Caves of the Ape-Men, Clarke and Partridge (2010), Wits University Press

Homo habilis male - drawing by Ron Clarke - Caves of the Ape-Men, Clarke and Partridge (2010), Wits University Press

Also known as the “palaeo-surgeon”, Clarke has for the past 21 years been directing excavations at the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa, where he is currently finalizing the cleaning and reconstruction of a nearly complete Australopithecus skeleton and skull known as Little Foot. This work has received much support from PAST, and he is one of the founder members of Scatterlings and a member of the OLAPP team conducting research at Olduvai Gorge.

From 1963 to 1969, he was employed as assistant to Dr Louis Leakey in Nairobi, with the responsibility for cleaning, reconstructing and casting fossils, including hominids, from Olduvai and other East African sites, as well as conducting archaeological excavations. He was for a time Warden of Prehistoric Sites of Kenya. He excavated and cast the 3.6 million year old Laetoli hominid footprint trail in Tanzania and has also been involved in research in Eritrea, Italy and China.

On Clarke’s research at Olduvai:

Clarke has published the first-ever full description of a complete Homo habilis upper dentition in maxilla in this special issue. The maxilla (Olduvai Hominid 65) was uncovered during excavations of an Oldowan stone tool site at Naisiusiu, in Bed I of Olduvai Gorge. It has been dated to 1.8 million years ago.

Clarke, who cleaned, reconstructed and cast the fossil, demonstrates its strong morphological similarity to the Kenyan cranium of KNM-ER 1470, which in turn has parietal bones that match in size and shape the type specimen of Homo habilis, that is Olduvai Hominid 7.

Clarke concludes that OH 65 and KNM-ER 1470 (which has no tooth crowns preserved) group with OH 7 as representatives of Homo habilis, whilst other Olduvai specimens previously classified as Homo habilis, such as OH 13 and OH 24, have more in common in morphology and brain size with Australopithecus africanus.

He thus contends that, during Bed I times at Olduvai Gorge, there were three contemporary genera of hominid that is Homo habilis, Australopithecus, and Paranthropus boisei. Eight other tooth fossils found by OLAPP researchers in various parts of Olduvai Gorge are also illustrated and described for the first time and include the right second molar of the Homo habilis type specimen mandible found on the surface 46 years after the original excavation.

Professor Marion Bamford:

Marion Bamford

Professor Marion Bamford, deputy director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

A palaeobotanist, Bamford has done research ranging from the Permian Glossopteris flora, the Lower Cretaceous flora from the Kirkwood Formation in the Eastern Cape Province, and the Middle Cretaceous angiosperm flora from Orapa in Botswana. Her main emphasis now is on fossil woods from southern Africa, including their taxonomy, palaeoecology and dating. Fossil woods from the Karoo deposits (Permian and Triassic) are being studied in order to establish a biostratigraphic scheme. Cretaceous and Tertiary woods are studied for dating, palaeoecology and palaeobiogeography.

She has also studied fossil woods from a Pliocene hominid cave deposit, Sterkfontein, for palaeoclimatic interpretations as well as other East African hominid sites. She gives classes to Geology and Botany students on palaeobotany, as part of the general Palaeontology courses.

On Bamford’s research at Olduvai:

The novel approach that OLAPP has to the reconstruction of the palaeoenvironment at selected time intervals (such is the “Zinj” land surface – the short period of time and locale that is directly associated with the fossil hominid Paranthropus (Zinjanthropus) boisei; or the Homo habilis land surface) is to determine the vegetation and local setting.

The researchers use the geology (lake and river sediments, and volcanic tuffs) together with the plant macrofossils and microfossils (silicified wood, leaf impressions, sedge and grass culms; as well as phytoliths, the tiny silica bodies that form inside plant cells and preserve well after the plant has died and disintegrated) to reconstruct among others the rivers, marshes and wooded areas on a very fine scale of a few meters.

From this they can predict what fresh water and food resources there would have been for animals and hominids in a particular spot; what groups of animals would have lived or died there; what safe refuges there were such as open areas with good visibility or trees for shade and to climb; and what dangers there were such as bushes for ambush or crocodiles lurking in the water.

From this information the behavior of the hominids can be discussed such as rare or frequent visits; stone tool making; or butchery sites.


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Surprise find in rock will lead to world first in Live Sciences Mon, 13 Aug 2012 12:52:54 +0000 South African scientists will share the country’s latest fossil discovery with the world using live virtual technology.

Scientists from the Wits Institute for Human Evolution based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg today announced the discovery of a large rock containing significant parts of a skeleton of an early human ancestor. The skeleton is believed to be the remains of ‘Karabo’, the type skeleton of Australopithecus sediba, discovered at the Malapa Site in the Cradle of Humankind in 2009.

Professor Lee Berger, a Reader in Palaeoanthropology and the Public Understanding of Science at the Wits Institute for Human Evolution, will make the announcement at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in Shanghai, China on Friday, 13 July 2012 at 09:00 South African standard time. Prof Berger is visiting China as part of a South African delegation promoting trade, business and tourism relations between the two competitive city regions, Gauteng and Shanghai.

New discovery

Justin Mukanku from the Wits Institute of Human Evolution spotted the tooth.

“We have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body including what appear to be a complete femur (thigh bone), ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements, some never before seen in such completeness in the human fossil record,” says Berger. “This discovery will almost certainly make Karabo the most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered. We are obviously quite excited as it appears that we now have some of the most critical and complete remains of the skeleton, albeit encased in solid rock. It’s a big day for us as a team and for our field as a whole.”

The remains are invisible to the casual observer and are entrenched in a large rock about one metre in diameter. It was discovered almost three years ago, but lay unnoticed in the Wits laboratories until early last month. Prof. Berger and his wife Jackie Smilg, a radiologist at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, who is conducting her PhD on the CT scanning of fossil material embedded in rock, scanned the large rock in a state of the art CT scanner.

A world first – Live Science!

In an unprecedented gesture of open access to science and public participation, the University of the Witwatersrand, the Gauteng Provincial Government and the South African national government announced that for the first time in history, the process of exploring and uncovering these fossil remains would be conducted live, captured on video, and conveyed to the world in real time. This will allow members of the public and the scientific community to share in the unfolding discovery in an unprecedented way.

A laboratory studio, designed in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, will be built at the Maropeng Visitor Centre in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. It will allow the public to view the preparation of this skeleton live if they visit Maropeng, or live on the internet. “The public will be able to participate fully in Live Science and future discoveries as they occur in real time – an unprecedented moment in palaeoanthropology,” explains Berger. “The laboratory studio will be also linked to laboratories at Wits University and the Malapa site.”

“We are excited to have helped make this cutting-edge facility possible for the University of the Witwatersrand,” says National Geographic Executive Vice President Terry Garcia. “We can’t wait to watch palaeontology happening in real time.”

Gauteng MEC for Economic Development, Qedani Mahlangu, said: “We are proud to be part of this programme which proves that Gauteng is indeed a world-class City-Region at the forefront of scientific discovery and technological development. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world.”

Virtual outposts

Mahlangu also indicated that access to the laboratory studio would not be limited only to visitors to the Cradle of Humankind and the internet.

“We intend to create virtual ‘outposts’ in major partner museums around the world,” says Mahlangu. “These outposts will allow visitors to these partner museums the chance to interact with scientists in real time in a way we simply could not conceive of a few years ago. It is anticipated that the laboratory and virtual infrastructure will be built within a year, expanding our ambitious tourism and smart province infrastructure programme.”

Berger added that negotiations had begun with the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom and the Smithsonian in Washington. “We have already donated casts of Australopithecus sediba to these three institutions, amongst others,” says Berger. “It has also just been confirmed that one of the virtual outposts will be hosted in the new Shanghai Natural History Museum due to open later this year.”

The excitement generated by the latest discovery is also shared by the National Department of Arts and Culture. The Department has hailed it as an important addition to the drive to educate South Africans, especially the youth, about their history and heritage.

Paul Mashatile, South African Minister of Arts and Culture, says: “Maropeng means the place of origin. South Africans are prepared to share this information about our history and heritage with the rest of the world, with the help of modern technology. This is history in the making, with the added dimension of being relayed live to the world as it is made.”

Berger concludes: “It’s breath-taking to actually ‘see the future’ using technology. It unlocks the potential for us to make ambitious plans to share this find with other scientists and with the public. Such an endeavour is quite literally changing the way we conduct science, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to share this magnificent discovery with the world. But, truthfully, my colleagues and I just can’t wait to get our hands on the fossils in that rock!”

For more information, click here

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