Questions and Answers for Christine Steininger

  • May 02, 2012

Christine Steininger at Cooper`s Cave. Photo taken by Brett Eloff

Christine is a palaeo-anthropologist that specializes in herbivore diets and ecology. She is involved in the excavations of Cooper`s Cave.

What is your job?

I’m a palaeo-anthropologist, but I wear many hats. I have a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, I am the team leader of the Cooper’s Cave Research Project and I’m also very involved in public communication promoting palaeosciences to schools and other public arenas.

What type of qualifications do you need to be a palaeo-anthropologist?

One must complete an undergraduate degree in one of the following: anatomy, zoology, biology, geology or archaeology. If you want to be a researcher, it’s best to have a Ph.D.

What degree do you have?

I have a Ph.D.

What drives you?

Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night with burning questions that I want to research. It can be anything from what did early humans look like, to what drives environmental change. I wish I had more time in the day. I have several research projects on the go. It would be great to have more graduate students to research some of these questions.

What was your first job?

I worked at McDonalds when I was 15. I’ve had many types of jobs to pursue my education from house cleaner to secretarial work. I worked hard to get here, and it took a lot of drive and determination.

You don’t sound South African, where are you from?

I was born in Taiwan, but lived most of my young adult life in Chicago in the United States. My father is American and my mother is Taiwanese.

How long have you been in South Africa?

I’ve been here for 14 years and loved every minute of it. This is my home.

Why did you come to South Africa?
When I was finishing my undergraduate degree I had the opportunity to come on a field trip to South Africa. I was afforded the opportunity to excavate early human fossil sites all over the country. Up until then, I had only read about these fossil sites in textbooks. I really could not believe my luck to be given such a wonderful opportunity. I was amazed at the fossil wealth of this country. I don’t think there is another place on this earth that is so rich in fossils. I returned to South Africa to pursue my graduate degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand. The university is internationally respected for it palaeosciences research and it has a large collection of fossils to work on.

When did you know you wanted to be a palaeo-anthropologist?
My passion was ignited at a young age after my father introduced me to the National Geographic magazine. I read stories about Louis and Mary Leakey finding early human fossils in East Africa and thought I’ll do that when I grow up. I was a complete tomboy growing up and loved to explore the wooded area behind our house. Some of the adults use to say that American Indians live there as late as the 19th century. Of course my imagination ran wild, so when I was eight years old, I led my first expedition looking for Indian arrowheads with my neighborhood friends, but all I found was a strange looking rock.

Have you found anything significant?

Three months after I arrived in Johannesburg to pursue my graduate degrees, I found a partial face of an early human called Paranthropus robustus from Cooper’s Cave. In addition, my team and I have found numerous animal fossils, including early humans and stone artefacts from the 1.5 million year old site. The site is extremely rich and diverse.

As the sun sets after a long day of excavations, I reflect back on my journey and I count myself extremely fortunate.

Picture: Christine Steininger at Cooper’s Cave. Photograph taken by Brett Eloff.
If you require further information, please contact Christine at

Issued for and on behalf of Maropeng by Cathy Findley Public Relations on (011) 4636372 or email

blog comments powered by Disqus