Very small mammals and the background to human evolution


Bam owl pellet residue

The study of the background to evolution in Africa has a long history, with the notion that environment plays a pre-eminent role in shaping the culture of subsistence-level peoples. Because the environment comprises a complex interlocking set of aspects it is essential to study and integrate as many of these aspects as possible to understand the overall picture. Since the mid-1960s the challenge has been taken up by a wide range of experts, including palaeontologists, palaeobotanists, geologists and dating experts, who have studied the environmental setting of early human development in Africa. Understanding this setting is important because technologies and ways of life do not develop in a vacuum. Without understanding the conditions that our ancestors faced, we cannot understand why they chose to lead their lives as and where they did.

South Africa plays a particularly important role in our understanding of the physical aspects of human evolution because the sites in this country lie near the southern margin of the Savanna Biome. This is significant first because humans are thought to have developed in tandem with, or in response to, the development of savanna vegetation. Second, any species, animal or plant, is most vulnerable near the boundaries of its distribution so that the ideal place to study changes and adaptations in the species is along those boundaries. Indications are that Pleistocene humans occupied savanna areas in South Africa and migrated or retreated into other areas during the coldest (glacial) periods, presumably when conditions ceased to be suitable for their preferred habitat. Such movements will be most detectable near the limits of the human range, which included South Africa in the Pleistocene. Therefore South Africa is a particularly significant location in which to seek understanding of early human history.

Micromammals are very good environmental indicators. Apart from the fact that large numbers are often found in archaeological sites, the small size of the animals has various advantages. These include quick response to change due to short life spans, inability to migrate in the face of adverse conditions and relatively or absolutely restricted environmental requirements. Each species can represent a suite of environmental conditions such as vegetation, climate and location in the landscape. Once the predator is identified, the size of its hunting territory will determine the area to which the micromammalian evidence relates. Given that the predator will not be large, the implication is that the micromammals have the added advantage of providing environmental evidence related directly to the neighbourhood of archaeological and palaeontological sites.

Current projects

Bam owl reconstruction

  • Micromammals from the Holocene site of Varsrivier in the Knersvlakte, Western Cape Province, South Africa.
  • New micromammals from Sterkfontein Member 4.
  • Micromammals from the Tsavo West National Park, Kenya; the contribution of barn owls to the palaeoecology of Kenya. (with F.K. Manthi, G. Avery and S. Musila).
  • Micromammals past and present in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. (with G. Avery).

D. Margaret Avery FRSSAf

D.Phil. University of Stellenbosch (1979)

Honorary Researcher

Natural History Department
IzikoSouth AfricanMuseum
PO Box 61
Cape Town 8000
South Africa


Tel/Fax: +27 (0)21 4656455
Mobile: +27 (0)83 4410027

Research interests

Micromammals, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, background to human physical and technological development, modern and historical micromammalian distribution. 


Download publications: D. Margaret Avery

Postgraduate supervision

T. Matthews (co-supervisor with J.E. Parkington) of Hons and Masters.

F.K.  Manthi (co-supervisor with J.E. Parkington) of MSc, PhD.

C.J. Van Niekerk (co-supervisor with J.A.J. Nel).

Science Liaison

X-ray owl pellet contents


  • Vice President of the International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA).
  • Editor-in-Chief of the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa.
  • Editor,Quaternary Perspectives [space added](INQUA newsletter).
  • Member, Editorial Advisory Board, Journal of Quaternary Science.
  • Member, Scientific Advisory Committee, [space added]Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST).
  • Member, Council, Royal Society of South Africa.
  • Member, Scientific Advisory Committee, Cape Town ScienCentre.


  • Member of the International Scientific Committees for the 1st WAQUA workshop, Ibadan, Nigeria, 2009, 2nd EAQUA meeting, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2009, the 2nd WAQUA workshop, Cotonou, Benin, 2010 and the 3rd EAQUA meeting, Zanzibar, in 2011.
  • Reviewer of manuscripts, books, grant applications and rating of scientists for a range of scientific bodies and journals. Most recently these include the National Research Foundation; National Geographic Society; Journal of Human Evolution; South African Journal of Science; The Ostrich; Journal of Archaeological Science; Quaternary Science Reviews; Boreas; Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa; Communications of the Geological Survey of Namibia; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology; African Zoology; Earth Science Reviews; Palaeoworld.