Nikolaas van der Merwe 1995


Nikolaas Johannes van der Merwe was born at Riviersonderend and received his high school training at Templeton High School, Bedford, and Brandwag High School, Uitenhage.

He obtained his first degree with distinction at Yale College in 1962 and subsequently an MA in Archaeology (1965) and a PhD in Archaeology (1966), both at Yale University, USA.

Since 1974 he has been Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town and during the period 1976-1980 was Director of African Studies at that University. In addition, he has since 1988 simultaneously with his position at the University of Cape Town also occupied the position of Professor of Earth and Planetary Science as well as that of Clay Professor of Scientific Archaeology at Harvard University. As a true academic world commuter he spends a semester each year at each of the Universities of Cape Town and Harvard!

He has in the past been attached to the Yale Peabody Museum, the Yale Radiocarbon Laboratory and the State University of New York at Binghamton.

As a scientist in South Africa he is regarded as at the very highest international level by the Foundation for Research Development and his research work is funded at a very high level. He is the leader of a world-renowned archaeological research group at the University of Cape Town.

He gained personal acclaim for his research into the technological developments in iron-working technology amongst the primeval peoples of Africa, including those in areas such as the Eastern Transvaal, Zimbabwe, Malawi and West Africa. He specialises in stable isotope studies and his recent research emphasises aspects of the diet of primitive man as well as animals, and the implications regarding the regional ecological and climatic changes of the Earth. This stable isotope research has now extended to research on the plankton food chain in the Benguela Current, the food chain in the forests of the Amazon, the trade in glass beads in the Early Zulu Kingdom, the effects of changes in water temperature on the isotopic composition of mussel shells along the West Coast and numerous other topics.

This particular expertise in stable isotope techniques has led to methods being developed by him and his team to determine accu­rately the regional origin of ivory (and also rhinoceros horn). The sen­sational article in Nature (1990) by Professor Van der Merwe and his team attracted worldwide attention owing to important forensic impli­cations in tracing illegally smuggled ivory. For this work he and his team received the Telemechanique Award for Conservation Research (1991).

He is also one of only live people to have been honoured as a Distinguished Scholar of the University of Rhode Island Foundation. He is the author of over 60 scientific papers in international journals. According to the internationally authoritative Science Citation Index his works were cited by other scientists 219 times in the live-yea; period from 1986 - 1990. He is the author of a book (The Carbon-14 Dating of Iron. University of Chicago Press, 1969) and editor of two others. In the past ten years he has read over 35 papers at inter­national conferences. He has already promoted six masters and doc­toral students and a further six are currently studying under his supervision at the University of Cape Town.

Nikolaas Johannes van der Merwe is a scientist and academic of stature and someone of whom the whole of South Africa can be proud. His early association with the Eastern Cape is also a thread that binds him inevitably to UPE. We share in his success as a sci­entist of international stature by conferring upon him the degree of Doctor Scientiae, honoris causa.