Animals and archaeology – Deano Stynder’s journey

04 November 2021 | Story Robert Morrell. Photo Supplied. Read time 7 min.
Deano Stynder leading students on a dig near Koeberg.
Deano Stynder leading students on a dig near Koeberg.

Deano Stynder is the interim head of the Department of Archaeology and was recently promoted to associate professor. He describes how he got interested in animals as a child, how schooling disappointed him but how, surprisingly, he finds himself as an academic archaeologist.

Deano traces the origins of his interest back to his childhood and particularly his grandparents. “I spent large chunks of my childhood on my grandparents’ smallholding among an assortment of domestic and wild animals. My grandparents (from my mother’s side) had originally moved down to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape town of Cradock in the mid-1960s and brought a menagerie of animals with them, including blue cranes, vervet monkeys, leguans and leopard tortoises. I found growing up on a smallholding, in the company of animals, immensely stimulating.”

Deano developed an interest in the natural world, particularly animals. He specialised in “endless questions” which often frustrated the people around him. “As a child, I never thought about becoming an academic or working at a university. However, I was a curious child and knew that my growing intellectual curiosity about the world and its occupants could only be sated by attending a university.”

School was not the place that fueled Deano’s interests and ambitions. In the 1980s “there were very few good schools for coloured kids”. His family couldn’t afford the top schools, “so school was a drag!”. Teachers didn’t make much effort. “I felt misunderstood by my teachers and classmates and my love for the natural world was often ridiculed.” His salvation lay outside of school, mostly in library books.


“I never thought that I’d be an archaeologist one day, but here I am, and I love the discipline. The field has defined me as a person and constantly challenges me to this day. It has given me a perspective on humanity that transcends the present. Maybe this is why I have quite a holistic view on life. There is little in human nature that surprises me!”

Deano started studying archaeology at UCT in 1991 and by 2006 had completed his undergraduate degree, honours, master’s and a PhD. He developed a research interest in hominin palaeoecology. This involves trying to better understand the ecological opportunities and challenges our ancestors may have faced, and how these influenced their biological and cultural evolution. While his research interests span the African continent, he works mainly on the South African west coast, where unique climatic and environmental conditions created a challenging setting for our local ancestors.

Academic promotion

Before joining the Department of Archaeology at UCT in 2010, Deano worked as a curator of Cenozoic palaeontology at Iziko South African Museum. Prior to that he had taken up a postdoctoral role at the Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, France.

Deano has methodically climbed the promotion ladder, from lecturer to senior lecturer and then from senior lecturer to associate professor. “I was patient and only applied when I built a strong enough case to basically guarantee success.” Part of his preparation included successfully applying for National Research Foundation (NRF) rating, which he received in 2016.

“It’s my fear of failure that drives my patient approach”, he says. But he adds by way of advice, “One should have a complete grasp of the criteria of your Faculty and work towards fulfilling the requirements of each to the maximum. If you apply too soon, you are likely to fail, particularly in the Faculty of Science”. His approach to research and publication contains a similar mix of patience and precision: “I’ve focused my research on quality, not quantity. I publish a few papers a year, primarily in international professional journals, mainly in collaboration with international colleagues”.

Deano joined the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) when he was promoted to senior lecturer. “Being part of the NGP gave me a sense of belonging, since I was surrounded by people who were ‘in the same boat’ as me.” He has appreciated expert advice from somebody outside his field, an “outsider’s perspective”. “I also needed someone to provide a guiding hand. I might not have been as active a member as I could have been, but Rob gave me the space to be myself and to progress at my own pace.”

Leadership and lockdown

Deano has participated readily in administration and management within his department and the faculty. He serves on three faculty level committees, one university level committee, and Senate. He is now interim HoD of the Department of Archaeology. “I’ve made a concerted effort to get onto committees and into leadership positions. You need to be willing to serve in whichever capacity comes up, particularly at faculty level.”

What are Deano’s reflections on COVID-19 and the lockdowns? The short answer is “challenging”!

“Archaeology is very much a field-based discipline; however, I’ve not been in the field with students since the middle of 2019. I’ve also not been to a face-to-face professional conference during this period. Nevertheless, my situation is not unique, and we’ve all had to adapt as best we could. If anything, COVID-19 has given me a new appreciation of my job and what it used to be. I particularly miss face-to-face interactions with undergraduate students and look forward to standing in front of a class in the not-too-distant future.”

Final reflections? “I am not in a rush to climb the academic ladder at any cost. I believe in living a well-rounded life, and in addition to my academic work, I have many other interests, including farming. I live on a little farm in the Swartland wheat-growing area, near the town of Philadelphia. My family is also very important to me, and I will not put my academic work above them. After all this is done and the university has replaced you, you’ll still have your family!”.

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