Conversations with: Dr Emma Pomeroy

This week, I am very happy to introduce Dr Emma Pomeroy, a biological anthropologist and osteoarchaeologist! I first met Emma last year during my MPhil at the University of Cambridge, where she currently holds a lectureship in Department of Archaeology in the Evolution of Health, Diet and Disease. Her research considers how both past and present variation in human health, growth and morphology is shaped by evolutionary processes and interactions with natural and social environments. Previously, Emma has also held a Junior Research Fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge, as well as a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at Liverpool John Moores University, where she lectured in Biological Anthropology.

Dr Emma Pomeroy, taken at Shanidar Cave (photo by Graeme Barker)

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

I am a biological anthropologist who trained in human osteoarchaeology (the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites), but my research interests span work with contemporary populations, archaeological remains and our fossil relatives. What really fascinates me is how our bodies are shaped by our evolutionary past and the social, cultural and natural environments we live in, and so how we can learn about our past through studying the skeleton, as well as how our evolutionary history affects health and quality of life today. The potential for gaining new insights into life in past populations by studying the drivers variation in living populations, and equally studying past populations to better understand our modern health challenges, particularly excite me.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I was interested in the past from a very young age, and especially bones and skeletons. One of my favourite toys at primary school was a rubber skeleton (which is sitting on my desk right now) and my parents say I used to go and look for bones in the garden. I grew up near Canterbury in Kent which has fabulous medieval city walls, a ruined castle, beautiful cathedral and ancient churches, as well as Roman remains beneath the city which really captured my imagination. I was fascinated by how people lived in the past, and what they were like. As an undergraduate I planned to study Archaeology, but got introduced to Biological Anthropology. Reading books in preparation for my admissions interview (I particularly remember Rob Foley’s ‘Another Unique Species’) opened up a whole new world I had barely heard about – human evolution. My fascination grew through my undergraduate course and I was drawn into Biological Anthropology. My interests broadened into understanding human variation in the past and present in light of our evolutionary heritage and how our biology interacts with our environment to generate the huge diversity we see in humans, past and present.

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? 

My full PhD title was ‘The Bioarchaeology of Adaptation to Andean Environments: A combined osteometric and anthropometric approach’. I wanted to understand how humans have adapted to the incredible, varied, and challenging environments of the South American Andes, and how biological and cultural adaptations interact and changed across space and time. Originally, it was going to be an osteoarchaeological study, but as is so often the case with research there were unexpected challenges which disrupted my original plans, but also unexpected opportunities, which I grabbed and ran with. These opportunities saw me working with contemporary populations in Peru to understand the impact of the environment on morphology as a way of giving more insight into the causes of skeletal variation in the past. I studied with Jay Stock at Cambridge (now Professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada), and through Jay came to work with Professor Jonathan Wells at UCL during my PhD as well. They were the best supervisors I could have hoped for – immensely supportive and generous with their time and advice, and constantly challenging me to explore new ideas, learn new methods, and push myself beyond what I thought I could do. I still work with them a lot now, and still learn from them constantly!

Emma conducting lab work in Argentina (2007)

What current projects are you working at the University of Cambridge? Where would you like these projects to go in the future?

One of the major projects I am currently involved in is the Shanidar Cave Project led by Professor Graeme Barker, which is conducting new excavations at this famous Neanderthal site in collaboration with the Kurdistan Regional Directorate of Antiquities. Although the project was never intended to find new Neanderthal remains, I was asked to get involved when some Neanderthal bones unexpectedly came to light. Over the last couple of years we have been working to recover remarkable new articulated Neanderthal remains found right next to the famous ‘Flower Burial’ discovered by Ralph Solecki’s team in 1960. This discovery is a rare opportunity to tackle questions around how Neanderthals treated their dead, whether this had a symbolic or ritual component, and how this varied over space and time, using an array of modern archaeological techniques (e.g., soil micromorphology, pollen and starch analysis, eDNA). There is also great potential for various analyses of the skeleton itself, including aDNA, diet and origins through stable isotopes and calculus, and assessments of age at death, health status and morphology etc. With my colleague Dr Lucy Farr, I have also been working on Ralph Solecki’s Shanidar Cave archive at the Smithsonian Institution to revisit some of the original evidence, interpretations and debates concerning the site. All in all I hope that the Shanidar Cave Project, through making use of new and archive data, will help advance our understanding of our close evolutionary relatives in multiple ways, and add to the already major contributions that have emerged from discoveries at this site.

Excavating Shanidar 5 (photo by Graeme Barker)

I recently completed some work on the evolutionary origins of low lean mass (organ and muscle mass) in contemporary South Asian populations. Part of this project involved finding ways to estimate lean tissue and body composition from the skeleton. We were able to estimate lean mass fairly reliably, but markers of body fat and obesity in the skeleton are far less reliable. So one of the things I am starting to work on now, with colleagues from Cambridge, is how we might be able to identify body fatness more reliably from the skeleton. People often assume that most people in the past were much more active and had a poorer diet than we do today so would rarely have become fatter or obese, but various lines of evidence, such as depictions of very curvaceous women in the European Upper Palaeolithic (think of the famous Venus of WIllendorf) suggest this may not have been the case. It would be really exciting if we could study body fatness in the past, as this would enable us to investigate a whole range of questions around the evolution of human body composition (even the leanest humans have high body fat compared with our closest great ape relatives), the impacts of dietary change on body composition, and give us new insights into health in the past and the present.

I would also love to go back to working in the Andes at some point – it’s such an amazing part of the world and fascinating from the point of view of human variation and adaptation.

Does your research have any implications outside of academia?

I think trying to understand how we came to be who and what we are as a species is something that has wide popular appeal. I also believe learning about the incredible human variation we see around us and yet appreciating all the things that unite us as well has immensely important implications for how we live our lives. More practically, our evolutionary history can have important implications for our health and lives today, and that is something that interests me greatly. So for example, our recent work which investigated the evolutionary origins of low lean tissue among contemporary South Asian populations. Low lean mass is implicated in the elevated susceptibility to non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes experienced by people with South Asian ancestry today, and non-communicable diseases have become one of the biggest health burdens and killers in the modern world, so understanding what influences disease susceptibility is very important. We looked at long term trends in South Asian lean mass using the archaeological skeletal record, and were able to show low lean mass has probably characterised these populations for at least 11,000 years. Therefore it’s unlikely to change greatly in coming generations, and so planning treatments and prevention for non-communicable diseases in South Asian populations will need to take this into account.

Emma working with Dr Veena Mushrif at Deccan College (Pune, India)

What project or publication are you most proud of?

That’s so hard to answer, I have been incredibly lucky to be involved in a number of fantastic projects and work with brilliant people. The Shanidar Cave Project is yielding such exciting finds and results, and it’s an incredible privilege to follow on from the work of greats like Ralph Solecki, T. Dale Stewart and Erik Trinkaus, and to work with the brilliant current team led by Professor Graeme Barker in collaboration with Kurdistan Directorate of Antiquities. I am still very proud of some of my PhD work on limb proportions as a marker of early life environment: the data were very hard earned but showed really interesting patterns in how different parts of the body are affected by environmental challenges, and what this might tell us about the mechanisms underlying trade-offs in growth and health. I was also really proud of the work we did on the origins of low lean mass among contemporary people of South Asian ancestry, which is implicated in their elevated susceptibility to chronic conditions. As I said, using the archaeological record, we were able to show this was a characteristic dating back at least 11,000 years in South Asia, despite the challenges of small numbers of archaeological skeletons available to study (warm and wet conditions, as South Asia widely has, are not great for preserving bone) and inferring soft tissue characteristics from the skeleton. 

Sorry, that’s 3, which is cheating…

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?

Another hard question! One thing I love about human evolutionary studies is that it’s such a dynamic field, with major discoveries and new twists and turns in the human story happening all the time. The discovery of new species, both through fossils (such as Homo luzonensis, Homo naledi) and DNA (those elusive ‘ghost species’) is fleshing out our family tree to an extent we hadn’t anticipated and is fundamentally reshaping our picture of how humans evolved.

What advice would you give to a student interested in your field of research?

Do what you love, go in with your eyes open, and make the most of every opportunity. Academia is not an easy place to find long term, secure employment, and there are many more highly qualified researchers than there are long term jobs. Part of it comes down to luck, and the right job coming up at the right time. But I always took the view that even if I didn’t settle in academia long-term, I loved research and fieldwork, and would never regret the time I spent studying and in the field. So grab the opportunities that come up, and don’t be afraid to branch out and step out of your comfort zone – you never know where those opportunities will take you and some of the work I have found most exciting and productive is where I took those unexpected opportunities and ran with them. Above all, make the most of time doing what you really enjoy.

If you weren’t a biological anthropologist, what career would you pursue and why?

If I wasn’t in academia, I think I would love to be a vet (though not sure I have the stomach and natural skill for it!). I think I would have liked to be a hill shepherd and sometimes dream of doing it when I retire (if I am still fit enough!). I love being outdoors and with animals, and although I know shepherding or veterinary practice is not an easy life, the chance to be outside and working with animals appeals hugely. Plus it would also be a great excuse to observe and think about the natural world, and how different organisms have and continue to adapt to their environments. If I were to still be an academia, I have always been excited by paleontology and enjoyed chemistry…so who knows!

Published by lucyjt96

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

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