Ayanda Mdludlu says she has always been fond of science because it does not only teach us about human origins but it also helps propel humanity forward with all the conveniences we have created. She believes strongly in the importance of STEMi saying the learning and re-learning that takes place within STEMi has formed the very fundamentals that humans conduct every day in their lives.
Human evolution course
Mdludlu has just completed her Masters’ degree in archaeology at the University of Cape Town specialising in stone tools (mostly from the Middle Stone Age). Born and raised in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, Mdludlu was schooled in [ (Grade1- 8) and Umtata High School (Grade9-12) between the late 90’s and early 2000’s. She initially studied biochemistry in her first year but she felt she was not cut for it and that is when she opted for the human evolution course.
Interacting with landscape
As an archaeologist specialising in stone tools, Mdludlu’s focus is on how hominins (groups consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all the immediate ancestors) interacted with the landscape to source various rock types to create a myriad of tools that they used in their everyday life. Such stone tools include arrowheads, spearheads, hand-axes, blades, scrapers, digging stick weights, etc. Mdludlu adds.
She says the style and design of stone stools changes over time and across geological locations which suggests that stone tools were closely tied to socio-cultural and environmental factors experienced by toolmakers. “As stone is the least degradable material that one can associate with hominin remains, we are able to learn a lot about the behaviours of our ancestors as far back as hundreds of thousands of years ago,” says Mdludlu.
Mdludlu’s current research focuses on a site in the interior region of the Eastern Cape, Grassridge Rockshelter, she says. “This has rich high-resolution stratigraphy that interchanges with hiatuses between the Late Pleistocene dated to about 43 thousand years ago, Terminal Pleistocene dated to 13 thousand years ago and the Mid-Holocene 7 thousand years ago,” Mdludlu adds. She then compared the tools from each time period to assess how they have changed and what could have influenced those changes. “I believe that my research has the potential to make a significant contribution to the archaeological record of the Eastern Cape and better our understanding of our ancestors,” says Mdludlu.
Poor women involvement in STEMi
Mdludlu worries about the small number of women who are involved in the STEMi field. She says this is based on the fact that most young women are largely brought up to believe that they are not problem-solvers. “In fact, they are the most resourceful beings to ever exist. Part of this, I believe, discourages them to enter into STEMi where fields work to discover and improve our knowledge of our way of life,” says Mdludlu.
Challenges faced by women in archaeology
She says although she is heartened by the good number of women in archaeology, she is saddened by the fact that there are still few Black women. “Often times I find myself being the only Black woman in these spaces, be it the labs, offices and out on field. It can be quite daunting and sadly a bit isolating particularly when you are being exposed to racial micro-aggressions and sexism. A lot of these experiences tend to go unspoken because the comfort of having people that look like you to confide in is not there and we unknowingly take it for granted,” says Mdludlu.
As to how these challenges can be addressed, Mdludlu believes that establishing enough work-centred workshops would go a long way. These centres, she says, afford women spaces to network, relate and offer support systems. “These have proven to be somewhat useful in my experience, though still limited. I think I have found the best support within the community that I have managed to establish with other Black and people of colour within the field, Mdludlu says. But she says she enjoys being an archaeologist as it affords her to travel to different parts of the country and the world thanks to the Provincial Heritage Resource Authority. “You learn very quickly that there are gems within our own country,” says Mdludlu.
Tips and advices
Her tips to young aspiring women who want to pursue studies in STEMi stream is “If you have an innate interest in STEMi, please pursue it”. Mdludlu adds: “We need more people exactly like you in these fields… I mean, that’s the whole idea behind science… different minds from different backgrounds offering different perspectives and ideas to world conundrums.”