School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Delegates visiting Cape Vidal during the SASQUA mid-conference field excursion.

UKZN Hosts Quaternary Research Conference in St Lucia’s Wetlands

UKZN hosted the 23rd Southern African Society for Quaternary Research (SASQUA) biennial conference in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal’s iSimangaliso World Heritage Site.

About 60 delegates from China, Germany, France, Israel, Spain, the United States, Madagascar, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa attended the event at the St Lucia Ecolodge. A significant number of the participants were women and early career researchers.

SASQUA was formed in the 1960s to create a forum for Quaternary research, a field of study that examines the environmental conditions and prehistory during the Quaternary period of the last 2.6 million years to better understand global change problems and the processes that will influence the planet’s future. The society encourages and advances southern African Quaternary research through meetings, publications, promotion of the field to young scientists, assisting research funding organisations, engaging with universities and museums, and supporting authorities on salvage and conservation operations.

UKZN’s Dr Jemma Finch of the Discipline of Geography was the organising chair and co-host, assisting SASQUA president Dr Lynne Quick of the Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

‘It was a privilege for our lab to host the SASQUA community here in KwaZulu-Natal, and particularly in the St Lucia area, where we were shown geological evidence of Quaternary processes such as sea level fluctuation, dune formation, and discussed the evolution of the lake itself,’ said Finch.

The programme boasted a line-up of plenary speakers including Dr Tyler Faith of the University of Utah in the United States, the South African Research Chair in Stable Isotopes, Archaeology and Palaeoenvironmental Studies Professor Judith Sealy of the University of Cape Town, and the South African Council for Geoscience’s Dr Hayley Cawthra.

Faith spoke about the Last Glacial Maximum at the Western Cape’s Boomplaas Cave. The cave is an archaeological site that has enabled reconstruction of palaeoenvironments to enhance understanding of human adaptations and environmental changes in southern Africa’s Cape Floristic Region.

Sealy spoke on stable isotopes and palaeoenvironments in South Africa and her research group’s work measuring naturally occurring variations in the ratios of stable light isotopes to investigate past diets and environments, while Cawthra discussed the South African ecoregion of Mpondoland, focusing on the region’s geological history and the role of seascape geology and giving insight into the Mpondoland Paleoclimate, Paleoenvironment, Paleoecology, and Paleoanthropology Project – a public participation initiative studying human adaptations to coastal environments.

In addition to informative presentations on global palaeoclimates, environments and vegetation, the programme included a hippo and croc boat cruise along the St Lucia Estuary, a conference dinner under the stars at the St Lucia Ski Boat Club, and a mid-conference tour of the eastern and western shores of Lake St Lucia in open game vehicles.

Delegates also visited geological formations at Cape Vidal and Mission Rocks, as well as the Makakatana overview under the guidance of local geologist Dr Greg Botha of the Council for Geoscience as well as enjoying several game sightings and breaching whales.

Awards for the best student oral and poster presentations went to Ms Gemma Poretti of the University of Cape Town and Ms Jean Baverstock of UKZN respectively.

Dr Manu Chevalier of the University of Bonn hosted a one-day post-conference training workshop on quantitative climate reconstruction from proxy data using the Climate REconstruction SofTware (crestr) package.

The conference received sponsorship from DLD Scientific, Separations, the South African Journal of Science, and UKZN.

Twelve early career researchers, including four students and postdoctoral researchers from UKZN, were sponsored to attend by the GENUS Centre of Excellence for Palaeosciences and the International Union for Quaternary Research’s Submerged PalaeoLandcapes of the Southern Hemisphere project.

Organisers celebrated the participation of a dynamic and engaging student body while participants complimented the conference on being interactive, diverse in its research focus, and providing a positive opportunity to share ideas with an interdisciplinary and international group of scientists.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Brian Chase