This week, I am delighted to introduce Professor Chris Stringer, a physical anthropologist and the research leader of Human Origins at the Natural History Museum in London. You may know Chris as one of the leading proponents of the ‘Out of Africa’ or ‘Recent African Origins’ hypothesis, which is currently the most widely accepted model for the origin of our species. He has excavated at sites in Britain and abroad, and currently is co-director of the Pathways to Ancient Britain project, working alongside Dr Rob Davis from the British Museum, who has previously featured on this blog! Chris has published extensively in academic journals and has written numerous books, such as ‘The Origin of Our Species’ and ‘Our Human Story’.
What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise within human evolutionary studies?
My interests now are focussed on reconstructing the last half million years or so of human evolution, collaborating with a range of colleagues in palaeoanthropology, archaeology, genetics, geochronology and palaeoclimates. I’ve also been particularly involved with the British part of the story over the last 20 years or so, first of all directing the Leverhulme-funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain projects, and then co-directing the Calleva Foundation-funded Pathways to Ancient Britain projects, with Nick Ashton at the BM. These latter projects came out of a long-term interest in the British Quaternary, fuelled by fieldwork with people like Tony Sutcliffe, Andy Currant and Peter Andrews, starting in the 1970s.
What originally drew you towards human evolutionary studies?
My interest in human evolution started at primary school – I was fascinated by fossils, and at the age of about 9 I did a school project on Neanderthals, having heard a BBC radio programme for schools. I wish I still had that project! My interest grew through my school years, but I had no idea that I could actually study in this area (I was from a working-class background and only looking at the career choices offered by teachers and the school library). So I planned to do medicine, with a place at medical school lined up. Then by chance I was given University College London’s prospectus – it was arranged alphabetically, and Anthropology was at the beginning. The course offered archaeology, human evolution, genetics and social anthropology. Suddenly medicine seemed less appealing. So I phoned UCL (this was long before the internet!), was invited for an interview, and they offered me a place. Much to the amazement of my teachers and parents, I dropped medicine at the last minute and took up this study subject, which I had only just learnt existed.
Where did you study for your PhD, what was your topic and who was your supervisor? How did you choose these things?
1969 was a bad year to start post-grad studies following the student riots of 1968, and I was lucky to find a temporary job at the Natural History Museum while 3 mentors tried to find me PhD funding – Don Brothwell at the Natural History Museum, Michael Day at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, and Bob Martin at UCL. In the end my PhD chose me in 1970 when Jonathan Musgrave, newly arrived in Anatomy at Bristol Medical School, was offered spare funding for a PhD student by his Head of Department, and asked around for likely candidates to study something on Neanderthals (he had studied their hand bones). I opted for the project Don and I had put together – ‘A Multivariate Study of Cranial Variation in Middle and Upper Pleistocene Human Populations’.
What were the findings from your PhD?
Testing the (then) mainstream view that Neanderthals were likely ancestors for Upper Palaeolithic humans, based on comparisons of skull shape, was an important part of my PhD. I concluded that they were not, and noted that African fossils like Omo 1 (from Ethiopia) looked a better candidate for that ancestry. But the evidence was too thin at that time to build a convincing alternative scenario of where modern humans had evolved.
What projects are you currently working on at the Natural History Museum? Have you got any exciting results from these so far?
I’m working on a number of different projects involving fossils from Europe, Africa, the Levant, China and Indonesia. Comparing the fragmentary fossil evidence from Boxgrove with the larger samples from the Sima de los Huesos at Atapuerca is one of them. And I was really pleased to see the Broken Hill dating project finally completed and published after more than 20 years!
Are you currently working on any upcoming exhibitions or public engagement projects at the Natural History Museum?
We’ve just added the reconstructed head of ‘Cheddar Man’ to our Human Evolution exhibition. But our current exhibition is already 5 years old, and it would be great to see an even more ambitious presentation of the evidence, with fuller treatment of the early African story and the contributions of palaeogenetics.
What has been the highlight of your career? Which project or publication are you most proud of?
Well, the 1988 Science paper “Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans” with Peter Andrews is probably the one I’m most proud of, and it came at a crucial time in the debate about our African origins. But the 2005 and 2010 AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) papers on Pakefield and Happisburgh 3 that pushed back the earliest-known occupations in Britain were great team achievements.
What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in human evolutionary studies over the last 5 years?
There have been so many, particularly on the ancient DNA side, but I’ll go for Homo naledi. It came from an area and time period where many of us assumed we knew at least roughly what was happening, and it reminded us that we really didn’t. That something so strange and relatively late in time could be found in a supposedly well-explored cave system near Johannesburg shows that our picture of human evolution is still so incomplete, with no doubt many more surprises to come, and not just from Africa.
If you were not an academic in human evolutionary studies, what career would you follow and why?
Well, if I hadn’t switched to Anthropology, I might well have been a doctor called out of retirement to help fight Coronavirus now! And I was lined up to train as a Biology teacher if my PhD place hadn’t come through in 1970. On an alternative path, I’d have loved to be an Astrobiologist