grain What is Palynology?

Palynology is the study of pollen grains or other “palynomorphs” (= resistant microscopic structures derived from various organisms), e.g., phytoliths (= silica bodies from plant leaf cuticles). Palynomorphs regularly stay preserved in sediments as microfossils. These microfossils have been of great importance in palaeobotanical reconstruction of Quaternary and older environments worldwide, by indicating the past vegetation and climatic conditions during different times like the Late Pleistocene, Holocene etc. For general definitions in connection with palynology, see:

Borehole cores in lake or swamp sediments provide sample sequences for palynology. However, swamps and lakes are scarce in arid areas. Alternative sources for pollen include cave deposits. In Southern Africa, fossil dung of hyenas, hyraxes, dassie-rats and porcupines proved to be useful. Generally, we date pollen-bearing sediments by radiocarbon dating. Pollen extraction from sediments is by means of chemical digestion of minerals and organics and physical separation (floatation) of chemically resistant organics from minerals.

Different plant communities provide distinctive pollen assemblages. Reference pollen types from modern plant species make comparisons between modern and past conditions possible. The African Pollen Database (APD: compiles modern and fossil pollen data for the whole of Africa with the aim of modelling environmental change on the continent in terms of global change processes.


Palynology in southern Africa

Numerous publications on Southern African Quaternary palynology exist and the following are some of the pioneering papers from the University of the Free State:

Van Zinderen Bakker, E. M. 1957. A pollen analytical investigation of the Florisbad deposits (South Africa), In: Clarke J.D. (ed) Proceedings of the Third-Pan-African Congress on Prehistory, Livingstone, 1955, 56-67. London: Chatto and Windus

Coetzee, J. A. 1967. Pollen analytical studies in east and southern Africa. Palaeoecology of Africa 3, 1-146.

Scott, L. 1982. A Late Quaternary pollen record from the Transvaal bushveld, South Africa. Quaternary Research 17, 339-370.


Prof. E.M. van Zinderen Bakker and Dr. J.A. Coetzee, ca. 1985 (Photo L. Scott)

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