Archaeology is first science department with black staff majority

12 Apr 2021 - 15:15

Following the appointments of Dr Vuyiswa Lupuwana (left) and Dr Yonatan Sahle, the Department of Archaeology has become the first majority black department in the Faculty of Science at UCT.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Archaeology has marked a major milestone by becoming the first department in the Faculty of Science with a black staff majority. This follows the appointments of alumni Dr Vuyiswa Lupuwana and Dr Yonatan Sahle.

Dr Lupuwana and Dr Sahle, an Ethiopian national, are also new members of the Human Evolution Research Institute (HERI).

Professor Loretta Feris, the former deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, welcomed the news.

“The importance of this cannot be underestimated,” she said. “One of our biggest transformation challenges is that of academic staff transformation and it is particularly important that we have critical diversity in areas of teaching and research that look at our past. It is through diverse views, informed by diverse contexts and cultures, that we strike a balance in teaching and research.”

The faculty’s deputy dean for transformation, Professor Rebecca Ackermann, a member of the Department of Archaeology and the deputy director of HERI, added, “This achievement is especially notable in a discipline that researches the deep past and heritage of Africa, yet has been dominated historically by white, mostly male, academics.”

Dr Deano Stynder, the new interim head of the Department of Archaeology and also a black staff member, endorsed the importance of diversity to innovation – the lifeblood of universities and research.

“Archaeology is a notoriously untransformed field and over the years this has stymied progress. With the appointment of these two outstanding young academics, we have not only managed to consolidate our position as one of the leading archaeology departments on the continent, but also to strengthen the field in general.”

Professor Ackermann asked her new colleagues about their work and aspirations.

Rebecca Ackermann (RA): Welcome colleagues! I want to start by asking you to briefly describe your research.

Vuyiswa Lupuwana (VL): I am a historical archaeologist. Broadly speaking, this means that I focus on the archaeology of the last 500 years. I am interested in how indigenous communities in southern Africa experienced and negotiated the processes of contact, interaction and colonialisation. My research has largely been based in the Northern Cape, a region of South Africa [where the] frontier interactions provide fertile ground to explore issues of interaction, and the change and continuity of belief, cosmologies and society. Consequently, I’ve focused primarily on frontier communities such as the Khoekhoe, San, Xhosa and Trekboers [nomadic pastoralists; forerunners of the Voortrekkers].


“Historical archaeology is a powerful tool that enables one to interrogate micro-historical processes.”

My work is further situated around the period of industrialisation and the spread of capitalist monopolies in southern Africa. The period of industrialisation is key to understanding contemporary South Africa, in terms of race and identity politics and the construction of our modern society. This kind of research is necessary to the processes of nation building. Historical archaeology is a powerful tool that enables one to interrogate micro-historical processes – and accessing and interrogating these processes offers a platform to address issues around social justice.

As an undergrad, I majored in film and media production in addition to archaeology, and I’ve had a number of opportunities to combine these interests. One of my passions is to make sure that my archaeological research is actively available to the communities I work with and society as a whole, and so I work on documentaries around heritage and identity, as well as projects focused on bringing communities into the heritage storytelling process through digital film-making workshops.

Yonatan Sahle (YS): I am a broadly trained archaeologist with research interests spanning different time periods and topics. My main research, however, revolves around understanding evolutionary contexts across the origin of our species. Specifically, my current research seeks to address the following questions: What role did environmental change have in the development of nuanced technologies and behaviours – and anatomical features recognised as uniquely Homo sapiens – across the later Middle Pleistocene? What do the trajectories of such technological, behavioural and anatomical shifts look like locally, sub-regionally and regionally?


“With these ongoing collaborative research efforts, we will soon be able to make major contributions to addressing important outstanding questions about the origins and evolution of our species.”

I believe that the strength of our answers to these and related questions lies in our ability to closely study sites that sample the critical period dating to 500 000 to 300 000 years ago. Such sites are extremely sparse on the continent. Thanks to my focused surveying efforts over the past several years, we have recently discovered new sedimentary contexts that sample this period of interest. Our initial works there have already yielded exciting hominin, faunal and archaeological discoveries that are currently being closely studied. With these ongoing collaborative research efforts, we will soon be able to make major contributions to addressing important outstanding questions about the origins and evolution of our species and associated behaviours. 

Dr Vuyiswa Lupuwana

RA: Why did you choose to come to UCT?

VL: It is perhaps over-emphasised, but UCT is a great institution. Having studied at UCT, I was immediately drawn by the opportunities for development and growth within the institution. As a young black woman, it is very important for me to align myself with an institution that is conducting rigorous research and that is part of an exciting and engaging teaching portfolio as well as an institution that is continuously engaging with itself and how it can improve itself. UCT represents that space for me – a space for continuous self-reflection and growth, which I think will shape and mould me into an engaged and impactful researcher. I want to make a positive impact in society and UCT is a powerful platform for me to do that. 

While our world is changing and there are more opportunities for black academics, there are very few spaces that give you an active voice. Since my undergraduate studies, I have been greatly supported by teachers and mentors who have advocated for my unique combination of majors and my voice. As such, I also want to be a pillar of support to the next generation of thinkers and researchers who decide to combine majors that seem incongruous. I want to empower curious and questioning minds and affirm the future of our country’s next generation of researchers.


“Coming to UCT was not only an exciting opportunity, but also very timely.” 

YS: As a UCT alumnus who had enjoyed a very productive study stay and healthy relationships with the faculty, coming to UCT meant coming back to a very familiar place. And this has been a thrilling experience, just as I had expected! Second, and more important, was the fact that UCT is an African institution with a world-class reputation. After graduating with a PhD from UCT in 2013, I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and later a research-group leader at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Neither gave me the sense of pride and belonging in terms of the thematic and geographical focus of my research. And with this came frustration and dissatisfaction, which together were making me contemplate returning to Ethiopia, a difficult move considering the bureaucratic and political problems plaguing the country. Coming to UCT was not only an exciting opportunity, but also very timely. 

Dr Yonatan Sahle

RA: How do you feel about being part of transforming the department and your discipline?

VL: It is both exciting and daunting. I feel that, at times, there is weight that comes with being a representative figure of transformation because it matters. And so, I am excited, but I also carry an awareness of the weight of responsibility. My actions and those of my peers at this point in history have the potential to fundamentally change my discipline and being a part of this is something I consider as an immense privilege. I am therefore very aware that transformation is not an easy task, however, I am encouraged by the direction of my department and faculty as there is a focused effort towards transformation. I can say that I look forward to what my discipline will look like in the next 10 years, because it will be radically different, and representative, and it will be doing even more exciting work because of the diversity of thinkers that will be allowed to flourish in the discipline.


“As professionals who aspire to understand the history of our species, we need to learn to celebrate diversity and create a more inclusive space.” 

YS: I believe that there are several areas that require correcting in our discipline, including preconceptions about students and colleagues. I have experienced such prejudices based simply on the colour of my skin or cultural heritage, in one form or another, as a graduate student as well as a colleague. I think that as professionals who aspire to understand the history of our species, we need to learn to celebrate diversity and create a more inclusive space, in line with the recent encouraging trends that recognise equality and fair representation. I have yet to learn a lot about the current strengths and weaknesses of my department, but am ready to commit myself to contributing to exciting transformations towards more inclusive and decolonised spaces where the study of African archaeology – which for the most part represents the universal human heritage – is conducted in a way that contributes to the capacity-building of stakeholders, mainly the immediate guardians of this heritage and as yet largely overlooked descendant populations.

Story:  Rebecca Ackermann and Helen Swinger

Photos:  Je'nine May