Transforming our understanding of Africa's past

Transforming our understanding of Africa's past

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Professor Paul Lane, the Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer Professor of the Deep History and Archaeology of Africa, is helping to shape a dynamic future for the continent, built upon Africa’s unique history, cultural heritage and achievements.

Endowed through the generosity of the Jonathan and Jennifer Oppenheimer Foundation, the establishment of this professorship has provided a powerful focal point for Cambridge’s already extensive network of researchers across all periods of Africa’s past. Applying new technologies to the study of the deep past, Professor Lane’s research aims to expand our understanding of Africa’s history.

Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia are key sites for Professor Lane’s current research. He is exploring Africa’s adaptation and resilience to climate change; water management and well digging; and ancient technologies, from the first lithics to indigenous ironworking. His research collaborations include partners from institutions in the UK, Tanzania and Sweden, and he is actively seeking to build new partnerships with local teaching and research institutions across Africa

Professor Lane observes that archaeology can play an important role when working with local partners:

“Our community archaeology project on the biocultural heritage of extant and abandoned wells aims to bring together stakeholders with diverse knowledge, skills, and experience to exchange understandings of pastoralist self-organisation and sustainable development in these arid but resilient landscapes. We hope to help mitigate intercommunity violence through dialogue about the shared past and promoting cultural heritage as pathways to security, identity, and dignity are key goals.”

Professor Paul Lane

In his first year at Cambridge, Professor Lane has taught a survey course on the archaeology of Africa, with particular reference to sub-Saharan Africa, and he is planning more modules that can integrate the deep history of Africa throughout undergraduate and postgraduate archaeology courses. His students also benefit from hands-on experience through lectures and practical sessions in Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where they gain insight into the enormous diversity of the archaeology of the continent, some of the major academic debates, current issues and challenges.

Professor Lane has also been involved in a range of local activities to engage wider audiences, introducing African archaeology to secondary school students through taster days and masterclasses, and participating in a panel discussion at the 2019 Cambridge Science Festival on archaeology and colonial encounters.

Since Professor Lane’s arrival in Cambridge, the Department has attracted additional support for expanding research into African archaeology. Two new research fellowships in African archaeology have received philanthropic funding, and further research projects are being planned to focus on heritage training in western Sudan and monitoring threats to heritage sites in sub-Saharan Africa.

As well as holding the Oppenheimer Professorship, Paul Lane is also the Mandela Magdalene Memorial Fellow at Magdalene College. Since joining Magdalene, his presence has helped strengthen historic ties between the College and Africa.

This post was established to celebrate my late wife, Jennifer. She was intensely passionate about the deep history and archaeology of Africa, and was actively involved with many organisations in this field such as the Turkana Basin Institute, Lee R. Berger Foundation for Exploration, Paleontological Scientific Trust (PAST), and the University of Witwatersrand (Wits): Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI).

Jennifer would have delighted in intellectually engaging with Professor Lane, his work and his plans. Her vision was for the post to be broad in time, reaching back in deep history to palaeoanthropology; multidisciplinary in its approach; and collaborative across African and global institutions. Professor Lane appears to have settled well into this professorship and is on track to uphold Jennifer’s vision.

Jonathan Oppenheimer

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