Conversations with: Professor Eleanor Scerri

Today, I am very pleased to introduce Professor Eleanor Scerri, an archaeological scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena! Eleanor is Lise Meitner Professor in Archaeology and leader of the Pan-African Evolution research group, where she directs a suite of multidisciplinary projects and fieldwork programmes based in Africa and southwest Asia. She also has recently initiated fieldwork projects on the island of Malta, where she is from! Eleanor’s research aims to establish how and to what extent archaeological, genetic and biogeographical data are related in order to develop new theories and methods for understanding human evolution. This led to her leading the publication that introduced the new ‘African structured metapopulations model’ for the evolution of Homo sapiens, proposing that it took place across Africa in interacting subpopulations as opposed to just in East or South Africa, as traditionally assumed.

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

At a broad level, I’m interested in where humans came from and how we got to this point. I’m particularly interested in the early periods of the prehistory of our own species, Homo sapiens, from earliest glimmerings up to the beginnings of settled societies who developed and practiced agriculture. I’m also really interested in developing methods to answer the sorts of questions we are interested in – methods that are capable of dealing with partial and often problematic archaeological data

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

As a child I was given a book about prehistory, which had wonderful illustrations by the Czech artist, Zneděk Burian. I quickly became fascinated by the dioramas of what I perceived as different past worlds within our world and wanted to understand the major differences and why they were there. This interest came back to me as an undergraduate, after attending an optional module on Physical Anthropology at the University of Malta where I was a student. I left the first lecture knowing that this was an area of science I had to pursue. The problem was that back in 90s Malta, we simply didn’t have the teaching and learning resources for anybody to major in this area. With the support of my professors and almost all my extended family, I managed to visit the Natural History Museum in London, and studied the collections there. The scientific staff in the Human Origins programme were amazing – they would take photo copies of journal papers and post them to me back in Malta to help me. Apart from giving me the literature I needed to develop as a scholar, it really helped foster faith in myself and believe that a girl from a small village in Malta could aspire to study this stuff on an international stage. If they believed in me, and helped me, then it helped me to believe in myself. I think that drew me to study human evolution as much as a personal passion for it. I think these sorts of actions from leading scholars are so important to ensure participation from young researchers coming from countries where – for a variety of reasons – opportunities are limited.

Eleanor (middle left) with her colleagues

Where did you completed your PhD and what was your PhD topic? What were the findings from your PhD?

I completed my PhD at the University of Southampton in 2013. My doctoral research ‘The Aterian and its place in the North African Middle Stone Age (MSA)’, defined the diversity of Aterian ‘tang’ hafted Palaeolithic stone tool assemblages. Aterian assemblages are associated with some of the earliest examples of symbolically mediated culture, and several sites evidence the use of shell bead ornaments and bone tool industries. The Aterian is therefore thought to represent one of the first examples of identity and ethnicity. Although related factors such as subsistence strategies and social organisation are also reflected in the use and organisation of lithic technology, there have been few comparative technological studies of Aterian stone tools to support or refine hypotheses invoking identity/ethnicity. One of the most significant outcomes of my doctoral research was the recognition that the Aterian shares many key technological features with other, poorly defined, stone tool industries in the same spatiotemporal bracket. The similarities and differences did not correlate with the names of these assemblage groups, but rather with distance and the spatial organisation of palaeohydrological networks in that region and timeframe. This suggested that groups of people often fell back into ecological bottlenecks, while others appeared to move around more easily. The key point is that they appeared to have a spatial structure which may have shaped the way groups of early humans interacted (or not) in North Africa between 145-70,000 years ago. The identification of aggregation sites indicates that some of these populations may have formed social networks.

After your PhD, where have you worked and in what positions?

After my PhD, I worked for 6 months on a short research contract at the University of Oxford working on the analysis of data for a paper that was subsequently published in Journal of Human Evolution. During this time, I learned I was successful in obtaining a Fondation Fyssen postdoctoral fellowship, hosted at the PACEA lab at the University of Bordeaux. While I was there, I worked on developing my experimental analytical approached to lithics more while setting up a new fieldwork project in Senegal. Following this position, I returned to Oxford with a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. For this work, I primarily focused on the Middle Stone Age of North Africa and the Middle Palaeolithic of Arabia, but I also continued my pilot work in Senegal, conducting about three fieldwork seasons there during this time, as well as fieldwork in Arabia. I only stopped fieldwork to have my baby, but luckily I had a backlog of analyses to conduct then that meant I didn’t have to travel. I was also fortunate to obtain a Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (MCSA) Fellowship to follow straight on from my British Academy Fellowship.  For the MCSA position, I moved to Germany at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. This position was a bit of a departure from my previous work, because West Africa became the primary focus. I only held this position for seven months, because I was successful in obtaining my current position. However, that time was critical for pulling together a research network in West Africa and setting up joint investigations with partners in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria. Most of my fieldwork now focuses on sites in these countries and trying to understand human evolutionary processes in West Africa.

Eleanor in the field!

What current projects are you working at the Pan African Evolution Lab? Where do you hope these go in the future?

We have two main projects. The first is a fieldwork project across West Africa in the countries described above. This has already generated data for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, a range of archaeological analyses and a range of biological analyses, including ancient DNA. We have some phenomenal sites to work on and we hope to be able to return to the field as soon as the global pandemic is brought under complete control. We also have modelling and simulation projects that we are using to test a range of scenarios about human evolution in Africa, some using data and others purely simulating data and then comparing generated patterns to the record. We hope to have papers with some initial results on both these projects this year. In addition to this, I am also conducting fieldwork and related analyses in Malta, across a range of time periods, but I can’t say much more about that yet! There are a couple of new projects on the horizon too, one involving methods, and another involving fieldwork in a new African region. That’s all I can really say for now. We hope that these projects will soon yield important new insights on human evolution, and we’re excited, even if we’re not able to give much away yet!

Why is your work important for understanding hominin behaviour and evolution?

I think the main importance lies in trying to understand hominin behaviour and evolution from the perspective of regions that have historically been left off the human origins map, rather than continuing to extrapolate from small, well-researched regions. Back when I started my PhD, nobody seemed to be very interested in North Africa or Arabia and our work there helped to highlight how important these regions are. I think it’s going to be the same with West Africa. Whenever we look in regions that have not been considered important or considered to have been ‘empty’ until relatively recently, we find things that can totally change our understanding of the human story.

I also really believe in funding investment of new methods, and I think the work we are doing there is important. It takes time to develop new methods, but when they become available they really underpin the ability to make new inferences and new discoveries from the wealth of data we already have

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last five years?

There have been many revolutionary discoveries and so I have to pick the ones that most affect the area that I am interested in. Finding extremely early Homo sapiens fossils at Jebel Irhoud in northwestern Morocco has to be up there for me. I was also thrilled by our own discovery of the oldest directly dated H. sapiens fossils in Eurasia, east of the Levant, which was also the oldest human fossil to be discovered in Arabia.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Probably our work on an African structured metapopulation model for human evolution. It took a lot of patience and hard work across radically different fields of research, but it really demonstrated how communication and integration are key to advancing science.

Eleanor leading the ‘Human evolution in structured populations’ conference at the University of Oxford in 2016

What advice would you give to a student interested in archaeology?

I would advise them to love quantification! No matter how fascinated we might be by certain questions, or how in love we are with certain artefacts or fossils, to really get answers and/or understand what they represent, we need to be able to do the analyses. It’s amazing seeing quantaphobes turn into quantaphiles when they apply numbers and coding to something that interests them.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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