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Nikolaas van der Merwe

Nick van der Merwe is emeritus Professor of Natural History in the Science Faculty at UCT. His previous appointments have been at the State University of New York at Binghamton (Assistant and Associate Prof. of Anthropology, 1966-73), UCT (Prof. of Archaeology, 1974‑88), Harvard University (Landon T. Clay Prof. of Scientific Archaeology and Prof. of Earth and Planetary Sciences,1988‑2000), and UCT (Prof of Natural History, 2000‑2005). Born in Riviersonderend, Cape Province, he matriculated at Brandwag High School in Uitenhage and attended Yale University in Connecticut (BA 1962, MA. 1965, PhD 1966 in Anthropology). He holds honorary degrees from Harvard (MA 1988) and the University of Port Elizabeth (DSc 1995) and is a recipient of the John Herschel medal of the Royal Society of South Africa and the Pomerance medal of the Archaeological Institute of America.

I am a forensic scientist who applies techniques from the natural sciences to the solution of archaeological problems.  As a student in America, I developed a technique for the radiocarbon dating of iron alloys; this led me to archaeological excavations of Iron Age mines and smelting sites at Phalaborwa in the Lowveld, an ethnographic study of the last practitioners of pre-industrial iron smelting in Malawi, and the archaeology of the African Iron Age in general.

At UCT, I became involved in the development of stable isotope techniques to study the diets of prehistoric people by analysing their skeletons.  With UCT students and colleagues, I applied these techniques in dietary studies of mammal-like reptiles of 200 million years ago in the Karoo, early hominids of 2 million years ago in South Africa and Tanzania, and wildlife currently running around in our National Parks.  I have an interest in wildlife conservation and have helped to develop techniques to determine the sources of poached elephant ivory and rhino horn.  Similar techniques proved useful in tracing the manufacturing origins of glass trade beads found in Africa and the marble quarries that supplied the sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome.  So far, I have done fieldwork in 26 countries and on all the continents except Australia and Antarctica.  The adventure continues…

Selected publications:

N.J. van der Merwe. 1969.  The Carbon-14 Dating of Iron.  University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.

N.J. van der Merwe & R.T.K. Scully. 1971.  The Phalaborwa story: archaeological and ethnographic investigations of a South African Iron Age group.  World Archaeology 3:178-196.

N.J. van der Merwe & J.C. Vogel. 1978.  13C content of human collagen as a measure of prehistoric diet in Woodland North America.  Nature 276:815-6.

N.J. van der Merwe. 1982  Carbon isotopes, photosynthesis, and archaeology.  American Scientist 70:596-606.

N.J. van der Merwe & D.H. Avery. 1987.  Science and magic in African technology: Traditional iron smelting in Malawi.  Africa 57:143-172.

N.J. van der Merwe, J.A. Lee-Thorp & R.H.V. Bell.`1988.  Carbon isotopes as indicators of elephant diets and African environments.  African Journal of Ecology 26:163-172.

N.J. van der Merwe & E. Medina. 1989.  Photosynthesis and 13C/12C ratios in Amazonian rain forests. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 53:1091-1094.

N.J. van der Merwe, J.A. Lee-Thorp, J.F. Thackeray, A. Hall-Martin, F.J. Kruger, H. Coetzee, R.H.V. Bell & M. Lindeque. 1990.  Source-area determination of elephant ivory by isotopic analysis.  Nature 346:744-746.

J.F. Thackeray, N.J. van der Merwe, J.A. Lee-Thorp, A. Sillen, J.L. Lanham, R. Smith, A. Keyser & P.M.S. Monteiro. 1990.  Changes in carbon isotope ratios recorded in therapsid tooth apatite.  Nature 347:751-753.

A.J. Hall-Martin, N.J. van der Merwe, J.A. Lee-Thorp, R.A. Armstrong, C.H. Mehl, S. Struben & R. Tykot. 1993.  Determination of species and geographic origin of rhinoceros horn by isotopic analysis and its possible application to trade control.  In O. Ryder (ed.), Rhinoceros Biology and Conservation, pp. 123-135.  San Diego:  Zoological Society of San Diego.

N.J. van der Merwe, J.J. Hermann, Jr., R.H. Tykot, R. Newman, & N. Herz. 1993  Stable carbon and oxygen isotope source tracing of marble sculptures in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Sackler Museum, Harvard.  In Y. Maniatis, N. Herz, & Y. Basiakos, eds., The Study of Marble and Other Stones Used in Antiquity, ASMOSIA III, pp. 187-198.  London:  Archetype.

S.J. Saitowitz, D.L. Reid, & N.J. van der Merwe. 1996. Glass trade beads from Islamic Egypt to South Africa c. AD 900-1250.  South African Journal of Science 92:101-104.

N.J. van der Merwe & H. Tschauner. 1999.  C4 plants and the development of human societies.  In R. Sage & R.K. Monson (eds.), C4 Plant Biology, pp.509-549. Academic Press.

N.J. van der Merwe, R.H. Tykot, N.D.C. Hammond & K. Oakberg. 2000.  Diet and animal husbandry of preclassic Maya at Cuello, Belize: Isotopic and zooarchaeological evidence.  In S.H. Ambrose and M.A. Katzenberg (eds.), Biogeochemical Approaches to Paleodietary Analysis, pp.23-38. Academic Kluwer/Plenum Press.

N.J.van der Merwe, J.F.Thackeray & J.A.Lee-Thorp. The carbon isotope ecology and diet of Australopithecus africanus at Sterkfontein, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 44:581-597

N.J. van der Merwe, F.T. Masao & M.K. Bamford. 2008.Isotopic evidence for contrasting diets of early hominins Homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei of Tanzania. South African Journal of Science 104: 153‑156.

N.J. van der Merwe. 2012. Male philopatry and female dispersal amongst two species of early hominins from the Sterkfontein Valley. South African Journal of Science 107 (7/8): 13-14.

N.J.van der Merwe. Isotopic ecology and diets of fossil fauna from Olduvai Gorge at ca.1.8Ma, compared with modern fauna from Tanzania. Palaeogeography, Palaeoecology and Palaeoclimatology, in press.

N.J.van der Merwe. Oxygen isotopes and the rain on Olduvai: climatic change in Tanzania since the emergence of Homo sp. Achaeometry, in press.