The Late Quaternary palaeoecology of south-western Africa


Duinefontein eland

South Africa has a wealth of archaeological, palaeoanthropological and palaeontological material, of regional, national and international importance.

My research on understanding past animal and human life in their environmental contexts in the Western Cape” focuses on the past million years. The aim is to create greater understanding of how Stone Age people interacted with the animals around them and how they and other animals adapted to the changing environments and seasons in which they lived over the millennia.

Bird and mammal bones from archaeological and palaeontological sites provide the primary source of the information I seek.

Beach survey

Interpreting the bones can be complex, however, since they may have been brought to a site by any one (or more) of a range of mammalian carnivores and scavengers and birds of prey. To help unravel such puzzles, the ancient material is compared with samples of bones I have collected from modern hyaenas, jackals and porcupines and the nests of eagles, hawks and owls. This type of study, known as taphonomy, helps us to identify the accumulator of the ancient material and to gain a clearer picture, for instance, of whether the samples we are studying resulted from human behaviour or that (in itself of interest) of another accumulator or accumulators.

Monthly surveys for beached seabirds and marine mammals have thrown light on how and at which time of year ancient people exploited seabirds. The surveys, covering 29 years, also monitor seabird and marine mammal mortality in response to biological and physical oceanic conditions and human interventions.1Current projects

hyaena reconstruction

  • Middle and Upper Pleistocene birds in the Western Cape.
  • A new species of Pliocene Arctocephalus (Pinnipedea: Otariidae) from the west coast of South Africa.
  • Taphonomy of spotted hyaena bone accumulating habits in southern Africa and France (with P. Fosse, CNRS, Université de Toulouse Mirail).
  • Spreeuwalle: a Late Pleistocene Wetland on the Western Cape Coast, South Africa, and its Implications for the Pleistocene History of the Fynbos (with R.G. Klein, Stanford University; USA).
  • Interpreting the environment of human development in eastern Africa (with D.M. Avery, iziko SA Museum and F.K. Manthi and S. Musila, National Museums of Kenya).
  • Phytoliths as proxies for large mammal diets and palaeoenvironments in the Western Cape (with C. Cordova, Oklahoma State University).

Elandsfontein rhino limb

Graham Avery

Ph.D. University of Cape Town (1990)


Natural History Department
Iziko South African Museum
PO Box 61
Cape Town 8000
South Africa

Elandsfontein lion mandible

Tel: +27 (0)21 481 3895
Fax: +27 (0)21 481 3993

Research interests

  • Archaeozoological studies of mammals and birds as indicators of South Africa’s palaeoecological and human history.
  • Taphonomy of human and non-human bone accumulation, including hyaenas, jackals, leopards, porcupines, seabirds, eagles and owls.
  • Applications of archaeozoological and palaeontological research to modern issues of global change, conservation, heritage resource management and education.

The goal is to contribute to knowledge about past faunas and environments and the development of human behaviour.

Research for exhibitions and displays

Elandsfontein plotting

Darwin and the Cape (Iziko SA Museum, launched 2010)

Australopithecus sediba(Iziko SA Museum, in preparation with Colin Payne for September launch)

Science Liaison

Member, Council of Royal Society of South Africa

Member, Scientific Advisory Board, Cape Town Sciencentre


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