The PEOPLE project addresses human dispersal and adaptation to changing environments during the Pleistocene in South Africa. Considering that freshwater availability is one key factor in these processes, the project will search for archaeological deposits at rivers, springs, and dry lakes to determine how and when modern humans settled in the interior of the subcontinent.

Homo sapiens emerged in Africa in the Middle Pleistocene, and their appearance broadly overlaps with the onset of the Middle Stone Age (MSA). This period saw a persistent population expansion into a wide range of ecosystems, including deserts, rainforests, and mountains. To develop such ecological flexibility, early humans had to adapt their subsistence strategies to markedly different and dynamic environments that dramatically affected their lifeways. However, we know surprisingly little about the timing and modes of H. sapiens dispersal within Africa.

To address this issue at subcontinental scale, PEOPLE will look at South African ecosystems that offer ways of assessing human response to climate change. One key factor affecting this response is freshwater availability. Water played a crucial role in human adaptation since it determined the foraging activities of people across the open landscape and thus had pervasive influence over their expansion on the continent. In the interior of South Africa, which features a mosaic of diverse grasslands and arid shrublands dissected by sporadic rivers, ancient water courses and wetlands provided early humans with favourable conditions and possible dispersal routes. To understand how and when humans settled on the subcontinent, PEOPLE will search geological deposits at rivers, springs, and dry lakes in the interior of South Africa, which offer long records of climate change.

The aim is twofold: determine the role of changing environments in the adaptive strategies of MSA people, and establish a chronology for human palaeoecology based on absolute dating of palaeoenvironments and technological organisation. To achieve these goals, PEOPLE will adopt a multi-scalar geoarchaeological approach led by an interdisciplinary research team. The results of this project will change our understanding of human dynamics in southern Africa and have the potential to piece together how humans eventually dispersed throughout Africa and beyond.