This summer we will be initiating a brand new series of interviews with early-career researchers to highlight the dynamism of the SASQUA research community! From pollen to isotopes to digital landscapes, we’ve got it covered!

Irene with family, in traditional Valencian attire

Dr Irene Esteban: Serious about silica

This series kicks off with Dr Irene Esteban of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits. Originally, hailing from Spain, Irene has made Jo’burg her home, and is making exciting new contributions to southern African phytolith studies.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about your discipline?

Excavations at Waterfall Bluff

Some researchers believe that phytoliths have very low palaeobotanical resolution, and are therefore less important than other sub-disciplines like pollen and charcoal. Whether this is true or not, and to what extent, is up for debate. However, I find that: 1) some researchers use phytoliths in a very simplistic way, and consider one group e.g. grasses to be more important while ignoring the rest of the assemblage; and 2) the full potential of phytoliths for archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research is often not exploited.  Both of these are possible reasons for this line of thinking, and the associated underestimation of the usefulness of phytoliths in interpreting palaeoenvironments and the archaeological record. What is unquestionable is the usefulness of phytoliths and infrared spectroscopy in archaeology for understanding taphonomical patterns and to shed light on plant use, pyrotechnology and site occupation patterns.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? How did you come to focus on phytoliths?

Irene with her familiar, Blackie

I was an archaeology graduate student when I met Rosa María Albert from the University of Barcelona. She was involved in an international archaeological project focusing on the South African Middle Stone Age and was looking for a PhD student. After doing some research and finding out more about what phytoliths were, and how useful they can be for archaeology, I decided to accept the offer! Since then I have been learning about archaeobotany, phytoliths, and Mediterranean vegetation, with special attention on the Cape flora of South Africa and African archaeology. Currently, my postdoctoral research builds on my PhD project, and aims at understanding plant foraging strategies in relation to habitat settings and its coupled response to climate changes during the South African Late Pleistocene. For this, I use phytoliths and, increasingly, other bio-silica microfossils like diatoms and sponge spicules.

You’re a great advocate for Johannesburg, it seems like you’ve really made it your home – what was your path to your current position?

In 2015, I received a European scholarship of 6 months for a mobility doctoral program at the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) of Wits University.  I met very nice people upon my arrival in Johannesburg; and I found the ESI to be an international, dynamic, scientifically diverse, and socially active institute. These two main aspects made me love Joburg. After I came back to Spain, and finished my PhD dissertation, I decided to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship to come back to the ESI.

You’re co-leading an exciting new archaeological project in the Eastern Cape – can you tell us a bit about it?

The beauty of Pondoland

The Pondoland Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology, and Palaeoanthropology Project (P5) synergizes researchers from several international universities and disciplines to answer questions about the evolution of human behavioural variability in persistent coastal environments. The results of the archaeological work we are conducting in the Pondoland coast (Eastern Cape) will provide insight into the variability of hunter-gatherer behaviour in a persistent coastal context across a glacial/interglacial cycle. Our project, “Human occupation and adaptation in a persistent coastal environment” recently received funding from the US National Science Foundation and we are excited about renewing the excavations at Waterfall Bluff rock shelter during May/June 2019. 

What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any recommendations for newbies to Joburg?


My philosophy is: work hard, play hard; and against laziness, diligence :). After long working days, I free up my mind and reload my energy by jogando (playing) capoeira and dancing salsa. I also always have time over the weekends for meeting up with friends and loved ones for cooking, braaing and drinks!

I would recommend downloading Uber or Bolt, and moving around! Go to 7th Street in Melville; go to Maboneng on a Sunday; walk around Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and Emmarentia Dam; look for the numerous farm and organic markets; visit the Origins Centre and Apartheid museums, and many others. Joburg is a cosmopolitan and dynamic city, with a great cultural, leisure and business offer.

Updated ECR Blog Page

This page will (soon) present a new series of interviews with ECR members of SASQUA – coming soon for launch in early July. Watch this space!!

We would also love to host posts by SASQUA members on topics relevant to the ECR community, related to career development, job searches, work/life balance, etc. Please get in touch with the ECR rep, Emma Loftus (; @emma_j_loftus), if you have any suggestions or would like to write a post for the community.

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