Resolving the timescale of south-central African palaeoenvironments and their impact on human behaviour and evolution

This project  will expand the recent innovations in amino acid dating of biominerals to Zambia, a region of south-central Africa with a rich but understudied Pleistocene palaeoclimatic record.

The studentship is part of the ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2019.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply through the University of York's online application service.

Application deadline: 9 January 2019


Timing is everything: accurate dating of the geological record is essential to understand our planet’s history, but beyond the limit of radiocarbon dating (~50,000 years) material becomes difficult to date.

The Quaternary period (the last ~2.6 million years) provides a rich palaeoenvironmental record vital for testing the usefulness of climate models to predict future climate change. However it is severely underused because of a lack of chronology; recent advances in amino acid dating can overcome this impasse. 

Amino acid geochronology uses the time-dependent breakdown of proteins in biominerals (e.g. shells, teeth). Our recent breakthrough has been to isolate entrapped proteins, which behave as a closed system, neither losing products nor gaining reactants over >30 million years. This provides an extremely powerful dating tool for terrestrial deposits.

By focusing on a range of different biominerals (molluscs, ostracods, enamel etc.), this PhD will exploit these advances to develop a chronology for southern Africa, a region with a rich but understudied Pleistocene palaeoclimate record and a critical area for a full understanding of human evolution. Stretching beyond the range of the other dating methods available, this will enable the palaeoenvironmental record to be constrained, also allowing us to study the interactions between humans and the changing environment. 

Supervision and training

The project (based in the NERC-recognised amino acid facility at the University of York) offers an enviable range of multidisciplinary training; the student will gain hands-on expertise in state-of-the-art techniques for analytical method development as well as experience of fieldwork and sampling approaches.

The supervisory team combines expertise in geochronology and analytical chemistry (Penkman, York), southern African Palaeolithic archaeology and palaeoenvironments (Barham, Liverpool) & palaeoecological reconstructions using multiple fossil proxies (White, Natural History Museum).

Depending on existing expertise, the successful applicant will receive training in chromatography, dating methods, palaeoclimate, malacology and Palaeolithic archaeology. The student will join a vibrant research grouping with expertise in geochemistry, geochronology and climate change.

The preparative and analytical techniques will be a great strength in any field of chemistry, but due to the inter-disciplinary nature of this research, the Chemistry-based student will benefit from additional training in palaeoenvironmental techniques. The student will be fully supported by the project team in archaeological, geological and geochemical aspects of the project. 

Additionally, all Chemistry research students have access to our innovative Doctoral Training in Chemistry (iDTC): cohort-based training to support the development of scientific, transferable and employability skills.


The project is open to students with at least a 2.i degree (and ideally a Masters) in Chemistry, Earth/Environmental Sciences or a closely-related subject. For informal discussion please contact the main supervisor Dr Kirsty Penkman

ACCE studentships are available to UK and EU applicants only.

Residency rules apply. UK and EU students with qualifying residence in the UK are eligible for full-cost awards. Non-UK students from the EU who do not have qualifying residence are eligible for fees-only awards, which covers the tuition fees and Research Training Support Grant (RTSG), but not stipend. 

All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed though the University of York's online application service. More information the application process and the documents you need to provide can be found on the university's Chemistry department pages.

The deadline for applications is 9 January 2019. 

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Kirsty Penkman

ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

Funded by 

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