Conversations with: Dr Briana Pobiner

This week, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Briana Pobiner, a palaeoanthropologist and the Education and Outreach lead at the Smithsonian Institution Human Origins Program!  Briana joined the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in 2005 to help establish the Hall of Human Origins, where her role now includes the management of public programs, website content, social media, and exhibition volunteer training. Briana is also an Associate Research Professor of Anthropology in the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at the George Washington University. Her research is focussed on the evolution of the human diet, though she has studied topics as diverse as human cannibalism and chimpanzee carnivory.

Briana in the field at Olorgesailie, Kenya

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

My research focuses on the evolution of human diet, particularly surrounding meat-eating in our evolutionary history. I’m most interested in the earlier part of this dietary shift, between about 3 and 1 million years ago, documenting and trying to understand how meat became a more important part of ancient human diets. I do this by studying fossil animal bones that have butchery marks (cut marks from slicing off meat and percussion marks from breaking bones to access marrow) left by ancient humans. I also study the chewing patterns left by non-human predators on the bones they ate, so I can understand what parts of prey animals both humans and other predators were getting access to in the past.

Briana studying hominin fossils at the National Museums of Kenya

What originally drew you towards human evolution?

I started my undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr without a strong interest in science – I was planning to be an English major and possibly pursue a career in creative writing. As I was looking for a fourth class to round out my first semester, my advisor, a dean who was a former Anthropology professor, suggested I take an Anthropology class called ‘Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology’. I had never heard of anthropology, but it sounded interesting, so I signed up. I really enjoyed it, and then during the next semester I took a Primate Evolution and Behavior class with the professor who would become my main advisor (Dr. Janet Monge). I spent that summer doing a paleontology internship at the American Museum of Natural History, including fieldwork collecting invertebrate fossils, and loved it – but I was still really drawn to our own evolutionary history. I ended up creating an independent major called “Evolutionary Studies” which included classes in biological anthropology, biology, ecology, geology, and paleontology. After my third year of college I attended a field school in South Africa through the University of the Witwatersrand run by Lee Berger, got fully hooked on paleoanthropology, and I never looked back!

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My PhD research included two separate components. The first one was collecting and studying bones chewed on by free-ranging carnivores at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, to try to document predator taxon-specific tooth marks and chewing damage patterns, with an aim to eventually look for similar patterns in fossil assemblages. The second one was studying collections of fossils with butchery marks and carnivore tooth marks from Koobi Fora, Kenya and Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania – I did multiple years of excavations with larger teams working at both locations while I was a PhD student. I really loved doing both aspects of my PhD research. I remember my PhD advisor – Rob Blumenschine – telling me as I finished classes and started doing my PhD research full time that I would never have the same kind of opportunity again, to be solely focused on research (with no other professional obligations) – and to make sure to savour and enjoy it!

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I was invited by Rick Potts, the Director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, to become a predoctoral fellow even before my PhD was finished – and I have been working here ever since! My predoc fellowship became a postdoc fellowship once I finished my PhD, and during my postdoc I spent a lot of my time as a member of the core team that developed the permanent Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. I got very interested in public engagement with science during the exhibition development process, and after my postdoc ended I got a unique permanent position at the museum that includes both research and public engagement. I lead the education and outreach efforts of the Human Origins Program, which includes content development for our website, managing social media (Facebook and Twitter) accounts, training and helping to manage volunteers in the exhibit, facilitating public programs, and participating in museum-wide education and outreach teams. I’ve also started an additional research program in the teaching and learning of evolution in high school biology classrooms! In addition to all that, I am an Associate Research Professor in the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at the George Washington University, where I regularly teach classes in both zooarchaeology and science communication.

 Briana talking to students during a Smithsonian outreach program

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I have several current projects! I’m not technically finished with my postdoc project, which is collecting data on the fossil animal bones excavated from the oldest layers of the excavations at Olorgesailie, Kenya. I directed the field camp there for several years under the leadership of Rick Potts (who is also my supervisor), until my son was born – over 8 years ago now – and I decided that three months in the field every summer was too long to be away from my family. (You can read about how I attempt to balance motherhood with a career in paleoanthropology, including bringing my son to Kenya with me to do research in 2018, in this blog post). Hopefully the Olorgesailie research will be all wrapped up in the next few years and will result in a comprehensive monograph.

Briana doing fieldwork at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya, in 2011 while 7 months pregnant

I’m leading a long-term taphonomy and ecology research project on modern bones at Ol Pejeta Conservancy that I began during my PhD research there (BONES: Bones of Ol Pejeta, Neotaphonomic and Ecological Survey) together with wonderful research collaborators Fire Kovarovic, Kari Lintulaakso, and Ogeti Mwebi. I even did one field season there when I was very pregnant with my son! More recently, I’ve also been invited to work with a research team led by Claire Terhune and Sabrina Curran restudying previously excavated Pleistocene fossils from the Oltet River Valley in Romania to look for possible butchery marks, and I’m working with Michael Pante on some potential early evidence for human cannibalism (in the form of butchery marks on a Pleistocene early human fossil from Kenya).

Since I can’t currently travel for research due to COVID-19, I’m also making progress on a few data-based research projects with various other collaborators.

What project or publication or discovery are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of all of my research projects and publications, but I’m currently still basking in the glow of having a sole author review paper “The zooarchaeology and paleoecology of early hominin scavenging” published in Evolutionary Anthropology. Ever since graduate school I’ve really enjoyed the mix of comprehensiveness and accessibility of the review papers in that journal, and it feels like a real accomplishment to have now written one myself. Since I’m not in a traditional tenure-track faculty position I don’t directly supervise graduate students, but I regularly take on undergraduate and graduate students as interns. I am always so proud to see them going on to do exciting and fulfilling careers, either in paleoanthropology, science education, or whatever makes them happy!

What is your favourite memory from the field?

Wow, I have so many, because I’ve spent so much time in the field and had so many field adventures that it’s hard to choose just one! Here’s a good one: I pride myself on being a skilled field driver who can maneuver a vehicle out of almost any situation – although my old Kenyan Land Cruiser was not always in the best shape (I can just hear some of my colleagues who have driven in it snickering right now). Once, when I drove it from Kenya to Tanzania to participate in fieldwork at a Pleistocene human footprints site called Engare Sero, several things went very awry while I was driving several of my collaborators out to the field site in a place where the word ‘road’ is a loose interpretation. One was that the rear axle – well, one of the half shafts – snapped, so I had to drive in low range, and whenever we leaned too far to that side one of my colleagues had to stick himself out the window to bang the half shaft back in with a shovel so it wouldn’t slide out entirely. Then, my brakes failed – but I decided to see how long I could drive without any brakes and not have the passengers figure out what was happening, just by downshifting to slow down. After about 20 kilometers I came to a part of the road where the lack of brakes became very apparent, and when they asked me why the vehicle was rolling backwards back down the hill we were on, it took me a while to stop laughing so I could explain the situation!

Briana’s Kenyan Land Cruiser temporarily stuck in a hole at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya

If you were not a palaeoanthropologist, what would you be?

I loved my field ecology class in college and so much enjoy the field seasons at Ol Pejeta Conservancy – I think I’d probably be a field biologist. Or maybe a teacher, since I also get really jazzed seeing other people’s faces light up when they understand something for the first time or make a new connection.

If you had a time machine, how far would you ask to go back, where would you go, and what would you want to see?

I love this question! I was a member of the team who studied the butchery-marked fossils from Kanjera South, Kenya, where the earliest evidence of repeated transporting to the same location for butchery has been documented at about 2 million years ago. I’d want to watch those early humans, or really any early humans from around this time period, when this important behavioral shift happened. How were they cooperating? How did they communicate? How did they decide which animals to transport and butcher, and what parts to process for meat and marrow? How important were animal foods to them within the rest of their dietary choices – and what else were they eating? And who decided that already dead animals might make a good meal – who were those early scavengers? Basically, I’d want to see what was on the paleo-menu, and how the early humans made those decisions!

Briana standing next to a replica of the “Lucy” skeleton in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins

Published by lucyjt96

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

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