The discipline of palaeoscience aims to reveal the history of life on earth over a period extending from deep time to our recent past. South Africa’s unique combination of a rich palaeontological, palaeoanthropological and archaeological heritage, together with research excellence and experience in the field, positions this country to take the lead in international research in Palaeosciences.

The enabling research environment which the CoE will create, will build on opportunities provided by the temporally diverse southern African record, and will develop new research linkages and collaborations enabling us to attain far higher levels of research accomplishment.

The interdisciplinary research that will result from this ambitious programme has the capacity to help instill in the minds of South Africans a sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for science, helping us in the long run alleviate the current scarce skills shortage in the sciences.

The South African National Research and Development Strategy (2002) prioritises areas of research that are potentially world-class and could contribute towards “leading-edge global knowledge” (section 6.2, p. 52). The palaeosciences satisfies this criterion perfectly. The DST’s Ten-Year Innovation Plan (2008) identifies palaeontology as being one of South Africa’s key Science Missions, in which it is possible to “exploit South Africa’s ‘living laboratories’ of local resources and geographic advantage.”

The research direction for the CoE comprises five themes which will address research questions relating to the South African palaeosciences heritage record. The themes are conceptually linked to serve the ambitions of four overarching key research questions, which will inform our approach:

  1. How does the South African palaeosciences record improve our understanding of the origins of species?
  2. What are the key behavioural transitions in hominid prehistory, including the origins of modern human behaviour?
  3. What are the Earth systems that drive evolution?
  4. What are the roles of extinctions and radiations in the evolutionary process?

The design of the research strategy with its four overarching questions and five themes will exploit the competitive advantage vested in the multi-disciplinary researchers of host and partner institutions, thus raising the bar on existing excellence.

In this area of research the CoE will arguably offer the best facilities in the southern Hemisphere if not the World. The synergistic benefits of the collaborations will in future raise the international competitiveness and visibility of South African research and simultaneously retain, sustain and improve scientific excellence.