Conversations with: Dr Habiba Chirchir

This week’s guest is Dr Habiba Chirchir, Assistant Professor of Biology at Marshall University. Habiba is interested in the relationship between skeletal anatomy and behaviour through the study of trabecular and cortical bone. Her work mainly focusses on comparative studies of fossil hominins, modern humans, primates and other mammals, involving data collection in museum laboratories. Prior to her position at Marshall University, Habiba worked at the Smithsonian Institution as a Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow, where she continues to be a Research Associate.

Dr Habiba Chirchir, Assistant Professor of Biology at Marshall University.

What are your research interests and your area of expertise?

My work investigates the relationship between morphology and behaviors such as locomotion and subsistence strategies. I am really interested in how our behaviour, and that of our ancestors and other mammals, influences our skeletal anatomy and the implications of this for our evolution.  

To do this, I undertake comparative studies, for example by studying mammals that have similar behaviours to us, such as those that walk and run long distances, or are closely related to us like primates. I do comparative studies to try to understand how bone morphology has changed over time. In particular, I am interested in morphological gracilisation, the ‘lightening’ of the skeleton, and how this is related to processes like domestication and behaviours such as choice of subsistence strategy.

What originally drew you towards biological anthropology and your specific area of research?

I grew up in Kenya and undertook my undergraduate degree at the University of Nairobi in Anthropology. During the course of my studies, I was most interested in biological anthropology, which grew thanks to an internship that I completed at the National Museum of Kenya in the Palaeontology, Archaeology and Osteology departments. Through this internship, I met and worked with graduate students who were interested in bone morphology, and this is how I started to develop my research interests. For my undergraduate thesis, I decided to investigate how bone morphology is influenced by subsistence strategies and after that I applied to graduate school in the US where I moved for my Masters at New York University, where I continued to study bone morphology in relation to different subsistence strategies and food resource acquisition.

For my PhD at George Washington University, I decided to focus on internal morphology, more specifically trabecular bone, as opposed to studying external bone morphology using linear measurements as I had done previously. I started with the question – what differences exist in the trabecular bone of human groups with different subsistence strategies? How do they compare to our fossil ancestors? How do they compare to our closest living relatives? One thing in particular that I noticed from my PhD research was that modern humans are particularly gracile and have low trabecular bone density. As such, my PhD opened up new questions for me, which led me onto my post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian Institution and my research projects to date. So, my research interests are really an accumulation of all these experiences and projects that I have had over the course of my academic journey so far.

Sagittal section through a human hand bone

How did you find your PhD experience?

Well, a PhD is challenging! But I was in a fantastic department at George Washington University, with wonderful supervisors and colleagues so that certainly helped. I was also very lucky that I had access to lots of resources that allowed me to study what I was interested in. Easy access to the Smithsonian collections was also very useful.

Habiba collecting data for her postdoc at the Smithsonian Institute (2015).

What current projects are you working on?  

Overall, I have three main projects that I am currently working on. The first is directly related to human evolution and it is an investigation into the process and quantification of gracilisation over the last 3 million years. Whilst the pandemic has really hindered our work, the idea is that we will be scanning a number of fossils from eastern Africa, which be analysed in comparison with some of the famous European fossils from the late Pleistocene to try and pinpoint exactly when we see this evolutionary shift towards gracile skeletons. My initial conclusion from my PhD was that this change occurred very recently during the last 10,000 years in the Holocene. However, the main problem is that there is a huge gap from around 100,000 to around 2.8 million years ago in the genus Homo where we don’t really know much about what’s going on in terms of gracilisation. We are really interested in finding out whether the ‘lightening’ of the skeleton does actually occur relatively late in human evolution, or whether there was fluctuation in the gracilisation process during this earlier period that we currently don’t know much about. One of the really interesting things we have recently seen from colleagues is that when you look at the Spanish Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antessor fossils at Sima de los Heusos, we do see a fluctuation in gracilisation over time, which is not seen in Neanderthals, as shown through cross-sectional geometry which is one of the ways of quantifying gracilisation. So, much like this work being done in Spain, our project will examine whether trabecular bone in the African and European fossils is consistently high, or whether there is a variation in cross-sectional geometry through time.

Another project I’m working on looks at the effects of domestication on the skeleton. Human self-domestication has been proposed to have been one of the primary drivers of gracilization. Whilst there are many studies that have explored this hypothesis in humans, the strongest evidence of the effects of domestication on morphology comes from carnivores, specifically dogs. There is a famous study of Siberian foxes which demonstrates that when tameness is selected for over aggression, offspring eventually become more gracile in their morphology. Recently, I explored this idea through a post-cranial comparison of dogs and wolves bone morphology, complementing and extending previous studies of crania and external morphologies such as coat colour. I found that dogs have low trabecular bone density when compared to wolves as a consequence of domestication. I also want to extent this to other wild dogs, and I have students helping with data collection and imaging of dingoes, grey hounds, jackals, African hunting dogs and coyotes. So, that is a very exciting project!

The third stream of my research is focussed on the modern human skeleton. This project looks at how different subsistence strategies leads to different bone morphologies in different populations. We have expanded our samples and have a nice collection of images of skeletons from North America, pre-agricultural and agricultural Egypt, Tierra del Fuego as well as individuals from the Upper Palaeolithic. I have an undergraduate student who will be starting to analyse this data in Autumn.

Why is your research important for understanding human evolution?

As humans, we are interested in our past, and so we want to understand what changes took place over time that led to how we look and behave today. However, in a more applied sense, I’m really curious about how the ‘lightening’ of the skeleton in modern humans made people, especially in industrialised countries, more susceptible to bone diseases like osteoporosis. Through my research, we can investigate whether gracilization occurred due to a reduction in physical movement in recent societies, or whether it was a by-product of another deep-rooted evolutionary process. In this way, by exploring what happened in our evolutionary history, we can better understand the problems of the today.

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

All of them are my babies – I can’t pick one! I think they are all interesting in their own ways. My recent paper on dog domestication is really awesome because it is the first study on the gracilisation of the post-cranial skeleton. If I think back a little bit, I wrote a paper on trabecular bone density in the human fossil record that I am proud of. However, I am really pleased about all of my work, and I feel grateful that I was able to do it.

What is your favourite memory from the field?

Sadly, I haven’t been in the field for a long time – I went to the field a few times during my PhD with my supervisor in northern Kenya which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, whilst not linked to my current research interests or projects, one of my favourite memories from the field is actually from a Roman excavation in Oxford. It was my first time abroad and my first archaeological dig on a more recent site. We were excavating a Roman settlement with multiple rooms and walls and we found a pot which we dug inside to find goat or sheep bones! That was my favourite experience, as it was all very new to me, and I enjoyed that it was very clear what we were finding, unlike excavations of much older material. I was part of a big international team which was very exciting as a young person. 

If you were not a biological anthropologist, what would you be?

Perhaps a zoologist, as that was my other option as an undergraduate if I did not get onto the anthropology course. If I was not in academia at all, I would probably be a gardener as I love gardening and being in nature. 

What features do you most admire in your colleagues?

Hard work, dedication, and curiosity. However, I also admire people that can balance this with having fun. Academia has its ups and downs, and each one of us needs to be able to prioritise what matters most to us. Being able to work hard whilst not overwhelming yourself is very important, such as knowing when to stop and leave work for the next day. I think that I may have found this balance (although I think a lot of my colleagues work harder than me!), and I enjoy seeing my colleagues do the same. 

Habiba in front of a pQCT scanner, holding a cast of Lucy’s femur alongside a modern human example, demonstrating the difference in size and morphology (2020).

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?

Because of my research, I think I would go back to the Plio-Pleistocene and see how Australopiths were behaving. Were they climbing trees or were they walking, or both? The morphological traits of Australopiths are intriguingly ambiguous, so I would really like to know exactly how they moved around. Thinking about it, I would also really like to go back to that Roman settlement we were excavating in Oxford. Our conclusion about the pot was that it represented a ritual offering, but I would love to find out what was really going on there.

Conversations with: Dr Bernhard Zipfel

I am delighted to introduce the next guest, Dr Bernhard Zipfel of the University of Witwatersrand. Bernhard is primarily interest in the the origins of hominin bipedalism and the biomechanics and evolution of the human foot, having originally trained and practised in clinical podiatry. He was formerly the Head of the Department of Podiatry at the University of Johannesburg (1990-2006), completing his PhD in paleoanthropology at the University of Witwatersrand in 2004. Bernhard has held the position of Curator of the Fossil and Rock collections housed at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, since 2007. He has published a number of papers on South African hominin discoveries, as well numerous articles on human foot evolution.

Bernhard Zipfel (photo: Brett Eloff) 

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

From my background in podiatry, I have developed research interests in human and primate evolution, the origin and evolution of human bipedalism, foot and ankle biomechanics and palaeopathology. I also still have a keen interest in podiatric medicine. As Curator of Fossil and Rock Collections, I also research conservation and preservation of natural history collections. Beyond my formal research activities, I also have a keen interest in hoplology (study of human combative behaviour and performance), in particular those from southeast Asia, China, Okinawa and Japan.

What originally drew you towards human evolution? 

As a clinician in podiatric medicine for 17 years, I took a keen interest in the natural history of the foot and its associated structures. I did my PhD on human foot bones, which included archaeological and fossil hominin material. I initially intended to remain in the health sciences after my PhD, but at the time, it was a difficult place to work and did not allow me to carry out the research I wished to. As a result, I applied for the curator position at the University of the Witwatersrand, and through the extensive collections I am responsible for, including one of the largest fossil hominin collections, I was able to pursue my passion.

Bernhard Zipfel, Department of Podiatry, University of Johannesburg.

Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience? Would you change anything?

I only started my PhD later in life, and as a mature part-time student (I was Head of the Department of Podiatry at the University of Johannesburg at that time), so it was quite challenging. The field of physical anthropology was new to me, so it was also a steep learning curve. If I could change anything, I would perhaps have taken more time to collect my own great ape comparative data. This would have been a helpful resource for future studies.

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

I completed my PhD at the end of 2004, and continued to work as Head of Department of Podiatry at the University of Johannesburg until 2007, when I took the position of Curator of University of Fossil and Rock Collections at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Bernhard Zipfel with casts and original foot fossils of Australopithecus sediba, published in Science (photo: Brett Eloff) 

What current projects are you working on?

I am currently working on an extensive review paper on the podiatric implications of the evolution of the foot which is part of a series of papers published with international colleagues over the past four years. I am involved in ongoing research into fossils from Kromdraai, on which I am a co-permit holder, and some exciting new discoveries of foot bones in the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg. I have recently been invited by a team of scientists exploring the South African southern Cape Coast for Middle Stone Age human footprints.

Sorting the numerous skeletal elements of Homo naledi (photo courtesy of National Geographic).

Has COVID19 affected your research plans?

Yes, COVID-19 has prevented international travel, both of collaborators visiting South Africa and my own plans to collect data abroad. However, COVID has also provided an opportunity to reflect, and do some writing. It even gave me the opportunity to deviate a little and do a short paper on COVID and the South African podiatrist. Not having to travel to the office every day saves time, and on some levels, I have found that I have been even more productive.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

In my past career, I am extremely proud of my contribution to the development of podiatric medicine in South Africa. In my current career, I am proud to be able to serve the palaeontology community worldwide with facilitating access to fossil and associated materials. Of course, as a scientist, I am proud to have published in some of the most prestigious scientific journals.

What is your favourite memory from your career?

My favourite memory is the first time I handled the famous Taung skull, the holotype of Australopithecus africanus. I have the privilege of being the curator of this famous and iconic fossil representing the first early hominin discovery, and the first evidence of the origins of our lineage in Africa. 

The Taung Skull, holotype of Australopithecus africanus (photo: Bernhard Zipfel).

What would you be if you were not a scientist?

I would perhaps go back to being a clinically active podiatrist.

Why do you think studying human evolution is important?

As a member of the human species, we are naturally curious as to where we came from. The study of human evolution is essential in understanding how and why we became what we are. It has the potential to help us understand our physical make up, as well as our behaviour. It also gives us perspective on our place in the natural world.  

Bernhard Zipfel (photo: Brett Eloff) 

Conversations with: Professor Adam Brumm

This conversation is with Adam Brumm, an Australian professor of archaeology at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Adam has wide-ranging research interests, but his main focus is on the story of early humans in Island Southeast Asia and the wider Australasian region. Since 2003, he has conducted extensive field research in the Wallacean archipelago of central and eastern Indonesia, the myriad of biogeographically distinct oceanic islands lying between Asia and Australia. Some of his team’s recent findings appear in NaturePNAS, and Science Advances; highlights include the discovery of Late Pleistocene cave art in Sulawesi and early Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils in central Flores. Adam is a former Australian Research Council Future Fellow and a founding member of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE). 

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

I am interested in all aspects of our evolutionary past, but my particular area of expertise is the early human story in Wallacea, the biogeographically distinct zone of oceanic islands located between the continental landmasses of Asia and Australia-New Guinea. I began my career as a specialist in lithic analysis. Now, however, I mostly ‘just dig holes’, as a colleague said of me rather facetiously. That is, I’m a field director, a primary producer of stone artefacts, fossils, and other empirical data excavated from archaeological sites. In this role I develop and lead major multidisciplinary fieldwork projects in various parts of Indonesia, collaborate with specialists from numerous fields to analyse and date the finds, and spearhead the publication of results. It’s not ‘just digging holes’, though I enjoy doing that. 

What originally drew you towards studying human evolution? 

I think I’m being honest when I say that I was led to this path by my early interest in how (and why) things began. As a kid I was obsessed with ‘Why’ questions. I was also fascinated by history, but above all I loved thinking about why things are the way they are – how our world came to be as it. As I got older these interests deepened, with a good dose of embarrassing teenage angst thrown in. For example, when I was 14 we had to do a class presentation on a topic of our choice; whereas the other kids all talked about how awesome rugby is, or why Pearl Jam ruled (it was the early ’90s), I gave a fulminating oration that questioned the existence of God. I didn’t think much about human evolution per se until I studied undergraduate anthropology and became enthralled by hunter-gatherers. This spilled over into Palaeolithic archaeology, and, from there, to human evolution studies.

Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience? Would you do anything differently if you could do it again? 

I did my PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra between 2003 and 2007. My research focused on early Middle Pleistocene stone technology in the So’a Basin of Flores, Indonesia, with a wider consideration of the tool-making behaviour of the Homo floresiensis lineage. I should note, however, that at the very beginning of my PhD experience the only ‘Hobbits’ were in Tolkien’s stories – Homo floresiensis had not yet been discovered.  

I had originally intended to do my PhD on early stone technology in Myanmar as part of an ANU team that was applying to do field research there. Just before I was due to move to Canberra to start, however, I accepted an invitation to join Mike Morwood’s excavations at Liang Bua cave in western Flores. So I volunteered for a fortnight on the Liang Bua dig in August 2003 (though I was mostly working on terrace sites outside the cave). Few people in the world had even heard of Liang Bua at this time, or Flores, though that would shortly change. Soon after I returned home, I heard that our Indonesian colleagues who had continued the dig discovered something truly amazing: the partial skeleton of an unknown human species, Homo floresiensis! Swept up in the excitement, I jumped ship to the Flores team where I studied the much older stone artefacts from the So’a Basin. Meanwhile, the Myanmar team from ANU never managed to do any serious fieldwork in that country, so joining the ‘Hobbit’ project, though a treachery on my part, was the best thing I ever did.

Adam Brumm (L) in Flores in August 2003, shortly before the discovery 
of Homo floresiensis. The picture was taken at the Liang Bua team’s basecamp,  
the Hotel Sindha in Ruteng. Middle: Carol Lentfer. Right: Bridget Walker. 

I enjoyed aspects of my PhD experience immensely, especially the fieldwork in Flores and the time spent reading quietly in the wonderful libraries at ANU. But a lot of it was a struggle to overcome a general lack of confidence, and the last six months was hell. If I could do it again, I possibly would do a PhD by publication rather than producing a monograph style thesis. My thesis is thicker than an old-fashioned telephone book. Apart from the examiners and me, I don’t think it has been read by anyone. On the other hand, writing this tome was a scholarly rite of passage and I certainly learned a great deal from the process.  

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

The year before graduation I began applying for fellowships in Australia and overseas. I was fortunate in that I managed to secure a three year fellowship from the Australian Research Council (ARC), as well as a two year post at the University of Cambridge. I was able to defer the start of the former until I had completed the latter position in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (under the stewardship of Professor Graeme Barker). I have since held two more ARC fellowships: an early career research award known as a DECRA, and a Future Fellowship (a mid-career researcher award). For a time I was based at the University of Wollongong with Morwood, who died of cancer in 2013. I am now a professor of archaeology at Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution. 

What current projects are you working on? 

I have just received ARC funding to initiate a new project in Sulawesi that is focused on a unique population of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, the ‘Toalean’ people. These foragers appeared rather mysteriously in South Sulawesi around 8000 years ago and vanish from the island about 1500 years ago, not long after Neolithic farmers established themselves in the region.

The Toaleans made distinctive, beautifully crafted stone projectile points with pressure-flaked serrations, and some scholars have even suggested they were long distance seafarers who introduced dingoes to Australia. We have found a new cave with the richest Toalean deposits uncovered thus far. Once we can get back to Indonesia, we will start major excavations there in an effort to throw light on the history and lives of these people. I’m especially interested in exploring the relationship between the Toaleans and the hunter-gatherers who made rock art inside the same caves and shelters at a much earlier time. 

How has the COVID19 pandemic affected your work? 

We were unable to go into the field in Indonesia in 2020. This year is also a write-off. This has been very frustrating. It has, however, given me more time to catch up on writing. I have also been able to spent so much more time with my family (I have two daughters, aged 8 and 5), as I have not been disappearing into the field for several months each year, and we have experienced intermittent lockdowns (though nothing compared with the UK). This has been wonderful and life changing – for me, and, I hope, for my kids. So it is not all bad. But I will start to get a bit worried if we are unable to make it back into the field next year. 

What career achievement are you most proud of? 

There are two: first, the discovery of the earliest archaeological evidence for hominins in Flores (and in Wallacea); and second, the discovery, with Max Aubert and Indonesian colleagues, of extremely old rock art on the island of Sulawesi. I am proud of both of these career achievements; not in the least because, for me, they underline the importance both of serendipity – dumb luck – and curiosity-driven research in archaeological discovery. 

In 2005, when I was still a PhD student, I was excavating at Mata Menge, an open site in the vast expanse of tropical grasslands and blind gullies that is the So’a Basin. One day, while nursing an appalling hangover (the previous night I had attended a local village ceremony and dutifully consumed all the many palm wine toasts on offer), I wandered off from the dig site and got thoroughly lost. Whilst stumbling about in the sweltering heat, in a bewildered state, I found some heavily patinated stone tools eroding out from a fluvial conglomerate exposed at the base of a gully. Eventually I found my way back to Mata Menge (no one had even noticed I was gone). Thus ended the ‘archaeological survey’ described in the subsequent Nature paper. Soon afterwards I returned to the new site, Wolo Sege, where my excavations revealed stone tools beneath a one-million-year-old ignimbrite deposit. At the time, we thought hominins got to Flores around 840,000 years ago, so the Wolo Sege tools show that the story of ‘Hobbits’ on the island was even older still. I have since tried to make major archaeological discoveries while hungover, but it only worked that one time.

Adam Brumm (L) and Gerrit van den Bergh (R) at Wolo Sege (2010), an open site in the So’a Basin of Flores.

The Sulawesi rock art was first reported by archaeologists in the 1950s. Most authorities assumed that Neolithic people had made these cave paintings, but no had ever tried to date them. In 2014, we published the results of our Uranium-series dating of calcite that had formed on the art, showing that a hand stencil at one cave was at least 39,900 years old, and was thus compatible in age with the earliest cave art in Europe. We have since dated several more ‘ice age’ cave paintings in Sulawesi (and Borneo). Our findings include what seems to be the earliest narrative representation (a hunting scene), dating back at least 44,000 years, and a spectacular painting of a warty pig that is a trifle older at 45,500 years. These are minimum ages, however, as we have only been able to date the calcite growths on top of the rock art rather than the rock art itself, which could be much older. It is not overstating the case to say that these discoveries are seriously challenging – some would say changing – our understanding of when and where the first cave art traditions emerged. 

Max Aubert (L) and Adam Brumm (R) at a Sulawesi cave art site named Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. The hunting scene on the wall behind them is dated to at least 44,000 years ago. Credit: Endra.

If you could use a time machine, when would you go back to visit and why? 

I would go back a million years in order to see how on earth whatever creature it was that gave rise to Homo floresiensis got across the Wallace Line to Flores, and who it was. I would then drop in on the ‘Hobbits’ every hundred millennia or so to see evolution at work on these hominins. I would also like to see how this long island story, as Churchill might have put it, came to an end. I suspect it involved the arrival of our species and it was not pretty.  

Why should people be interested in human evolution? 

Whenever I’m asked this, I trot out the amnesic patient analogy. Imagine that you woke up in a strange room with no memory of who you are. You are able to talk and walk and read, and do all the other things everyone else can do, but you have no idea where you come from, and you never again come face to face with anyone from your past. Your best option at this point would probably be to start from scratch and build a new life. In this endeavour you may be quite successful. As time went on, however, wouldn’t you want to try to figure out who you really were? Would your new life, however long and fulfilling, truly have meaning if your old self thereafter remained a mystery? Wouldn’t even the most fleeting memories you were able to salvage from the abyss – the face of a loved one, your mother’s name – be worth more to you than anything that came afterwards? I think most people in this situation would be more than merely ‘interested’ in their origins. Indeed, I don’t believe they could ever be at peace until they found out who they were and where they came from.  

Similarly, it is imperative for us as a species to try to piece together our evolutionary story as a species. Humanity is in a collective state of amnesia. Our written history only spans the last 5000 years or so. This is a blink of an eye when you consider that the earliest creatures we might call human lived in Africa around 2.5 million years ago, while human-like primates from which we can most likely trace our immediate ancestry date back to 5 million years ago. Despite decades of research, there are still many gaps in our knowledge of the vast time span of human evolutionary history. In fact, the gaps are more like chasms. But future research will reveal findings that will change our understanding of our origins in ways we cannot presently imagine. Homo floresiensis shows us that. That’s why human evolution research is so exciting, and so important for humanity itself: every new scrap of evidence is like a shining memory dredged up from the deep and unfathomable darkness of our past.  

Conversations with: Professor Anthony Sinclair

Today’s conversation is with Anthony Sinclair, Professor of Archaeological Theory and Method in the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool. Anthony specialises in Palaeolithic archaeology, and has conducted field research in Western Europe, southern Africa and Saudi Arabia. He is also interested in archaeology as a discipline and is currently working on ‘The Atlas of Archaeology: a Scientometric Study of Discipline Growth‘, a Leverhulme Trust funded project which uses bibliometric data to explore how the field has developed over the last 60 years. At the University of Liverpool, Anthony teaches several undergraduate and masters courses which cover Palaeolithic archaeology, especially the Upper Palaeolithic and Palaeolithic art, archaeological theory and issues in interpretation, ethical and political issues in archaeological practice, material culture and technology and archaeological field skills.

Professor Anthony Sinclair, University of Liverpool

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

I am interested in craft, people making and doing things, how and why they chose to become good at some activity whilst having to invest, sometimes, considerable time in doing so.  Craft is not just temporal, in terms of the manufacture of items or the careers of makers; it is also spatial – distributed across landscapes that are both geographical and socially structured and material.  As a palaeolithic archaeologist I explore this primarily through the analysis of lithic assemblages recovered from sites sometimes identified through landscape survey undertaken in Western Europe, South Africa and most recently Saudi Arabia.  My other interest is in the nature of the discipline of archaeology, its history, theoretical developments, production of literature and the challenges we face in attempting to pass on an effective knowledge of this changing discipline to our students.  This is, in part, research for teaching.  Binding the two together is expertise: the learning and practice of a skill, in the past and in the present.

What originally drew you towards studying human evolution?

I wanted to be an archaeologist from my early teens. I thought then that archaeology was a study of the Greek and Roman Worlds and perhaps something medieval as well; so, I chose Latin and Ancient History as A-levels along with Maths. However, when I started my undergraduate degree in Archaeology & Anthropology, archaeology was taught chronologically from the beginning, and roughly in proportion to a period’s duration. We did lots of human evolution and later prehistory to begin with, followed by the origins of the early states: in Egypt, the Near East, the Americas and China.  At the end, there was just one lecture on the Greek World and two on the Roman.  My other archaeology course was on the theory, method and history of the discipline. I also chose to study physical anthropology – the primates and hominin bones side of human evolution then and the social anthropology of small-scale societies, along with anthropological theory (gift exchange and politics, symbolism, and so forth). The anthropology of complex societies (states and empires) was taught in social and political sciences.  When it came to specialise, I wanted to keep up my social anthropology and I had developed a taste for the theoretical side of archaeology. Choosing to specialise in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic or later prehistory (Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age) seemed the way to go; I had been persuaded that the important developments in human life occurred early on and these were the periods of archaeology that were most theoretically engaged – debates between Processual and Post-Processual approaches to archaeological interpretation, as personified in the form of Colin Renfew and Ian Hodder, were in full swing at this time.  A new interest in primates and physical anthropology was the final pull towards the study of human evolution. 

Anthony in the field in Saudi Arabia.

Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience?

I did my PhD in the 1980s.  I originally started researching whether we could determine the origins of human language through a study of the lithic evidence.  However, within a few months I read the first papers using experimental methods to study animal communication, especially play-back recordings of sounds that animals made to see how they react – for example, the famous study by Cheney and Seyfarth in 1985 about the warning calls of vervet monkeys. It struck me that this research would very quickly change all we knew about communication in other animals and my own research would probably be irrelevant in the 4 years in would take to complete. Ironically, these studies are still not common, though I have just seen reports of playback studies amongst humpback whales also revealing the complexity of their communication. And, of course, the work on symbol systems with chimpanzees and bonobos has demonstrated that the communication we observe in a natural setting is not the same as what these animals are capable of. 

So, I chose to change direction to follow a different interest: whether the investment in time and skill required to make the most elaborate stone tools of the Upper Palaeolithic – the Solutrean – could be explained in purely utilitarian terms or, as I thought more likely, through social, stylistic and symbolic reasons.  This was in effect the application of postprocessual ideas to a data set, stone tools, that was almost exclusively considered through processual approaches.  Using a chaîne-opératoire approach, along with a study of raw materials, I examined the manufacture of a range of tools in assemblages excavated from 8 sites – chosen as examples of ‘home-base’ / ‘specialised site’ pairings across southern France, northern Spain and southeastern Spain.  The conclusion was that whilst many tools could be interpreted in utilitarian terms, there was consistent evidence of great technological skill particularly in the most elaborate Solutrean tools requiring time and ‘apprenticeship’ even though working edges of the same quality could be made more simply. Solutrean techniques of stone tool retouching were symbols of expertiseWhen used as butchery knives, as the largest Solutrean points are most likely to have been, such technological symbols could work to emphasise the moment of food sharing creating social obligations at a time when mass hunting and food storage might separate the moment of distribution from hunting when such obligations are commonly seen to be made amongst contemporary hunter-gatherers.  This is a time period and a problem that I still return to as new ideas come to mind such as the problem of finding experts to learn rare skills from when living in mobile societies at a low population density.

Like most students I think, my experience of doing a PhD was great fun, challenging and stressful towards the end.  Collecting my data in France and Spain meant moving often from place to place such that I never spent long enough in one location to get to know people. However, I learned Spanish and improved my poor French and this has been of great use since.   Back in the UK, I was a member of a large and active postgraduate community in a big department.  I attended and chaired research seminars and often met visiting archaeologists from abroad.  I got involved with the student journal, the Archaeological Review from Cambridge, editing two issues on ‘Technology in the Humanities’ and ‘Writing Archaeology’ as well as being production manager for several others.  I wrote articles and book reviews for other issues and each year I aimed to give a paper at the annual conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group.  I did some non-PhD research, examining lithic sourcing in an island setting for the Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project directed by Steve Mithen and Bill Finlayson, along with episodes of excavation work for a professional archaeological unit as my grant ran out.  I believe that involvement in these other things made the difference when it came to getting my first permanent academic post.

Attending a workshop on agency and lithics at the University of Boulder, Colorado, 2002.

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

I was employed as a part-time lecturer in the last year of research to replace a colleague on research leave and at the same time became Curator at Ely Museum in Cambridgeshire. This gave me some funding to finish my PhD.  From 1990, and with my PhD complete, there were very few academic posts advertised and at that time there were no Post-Doc positions in archaeology.  Inspired by discussions with visiting Japanese archaeologists, I applied for a two-year Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship to learn Japanese and to study Japanese Palaeolithic archaeology in Tokyo. When that ended, and still without a job, I worked as a guide taking tourists from USA, Australia and, to my surprise, many from Israel around the sites of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in coaches.  Amongst many other things, I attended three traditional Burns Night Suppers in Edinburgh across consecutive weeks in August, several Welsh Medieval Banquets in the dungeons of Cardiff Castle – for the paying guests these were described as ‘the original dining halls’ of the Castle, and endless numbers of Irish Ceilidhs.  Whilst this might seem like a step off the academic path, it taught me about the commercial use of the past and has informed my teaching on heritage ever since – and how not to lose people on field trips.  After still more unsuccessful applications, including one in which I tried to persuade a university that they did not really want a Lecturer in Roman Archaeology because the Palaeolithic and human evolution was more interesting, I was finally appointed to a Lectureship in Archaeological Theory and Method at Liverpool. This turned out to be the last job for which I could make a genuine application for the next few years. Indeed, I thought it would be my last application to an academic post before moving on to try something else.

I have also been fortunate to be able to get involved in contemporary national developments in academic work whilst still employed at Liverpool.  From 2005, I worked for the Higher Education Academy in the Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology, originally as the Lead for Archaeology, and then Director of the Subject Centre as a whole.  With the Centre staff, I spent several years travelling to departments around the country, organising workshops, conferences, and projects to support the teaching of Archaeology and later Classics, with a big focus on supporting postgraduates as teachers.  I worked with the Institute for Archaeology, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage and the Archaeology Training Forum looking at ways to bridge the gap between the professional and academic worlds of archaeology. The Centre conducted the first research on the employability of archaeology graduates in the UK and provided an opportunity to write about the teaching of archaeology in general and start thinking again about the specific conceptual problems of teaching a multi-disciplinary field like Palaeolithic archaeology. Funding cuts led to the dissolution of the Subject Centre Network in 2012 and I returned full time to a teaching portfolio that was mostly in human origins for the first time in my academic career.

What current projects are you working on?

I have just started working on The Atlas of Archaeology: a Scientometric Study of Discipline Growth for the Leverhulme Trust.  This project uses bibliometric data from Scopus and the Web of Science to explore how archaeology has grown as a discipline and how its social structures and cognitive frameworks have developed across the last sixty years using the techniques of network analysis and science mapping.  Large sets of bibliometric data will allow me to explore the relationships within and between disciplines, national and international collaboration and conceptual developments from 1960 to 2021. The evolution of Palaeoanthropology as a research field will be a significant case study for The Atlas.  The genesis for this project was my experience of coming back to teach Palaeolithic archaeology after many years teaching other courses.  The quantity of published documents and the range of concepts and disciplines involved was so much more than when I was a student and a subject that I thought would be straightforward to teach was incredibly difficult. I started looking at the journal outputs, and reading in the broader literature about conceptual growth, interdisciplinarity and threshold concepts. I encountered scientometrics, bibliometrics and science mapping along the way and an idea was born.

In terms of fieldwork, I am in the middle of a programme of work in Saudi Arabia looking at the evidence of hominin dispersal into the continent along the Red Sea coast.  With colleagues I am also planning a return to South Africa to start continue around the World Heritage Site of Makapansgat following up on earlier work conducted around the millennium.  In comparison to the other sites in the Cradle of Humankind (Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdrai, etc.) that are close to Johannesburg, Makapansgat and the Cave of Hearths located nearby are off the beaten track and seem forgotten to tourists.  We hope to enhance the resources available to support local communities trying to gain a greater benefit from their heritage by using biographies to map people, places, ideas and evidence in the past and present. “2001” and its Dawn of Man sequence will be somewhere in the middle.

Anthony’s first field school season for Liverpool at Carden Park in 1996.

Finally, I have been boring my colleagues with plans to build a mammoth bone house. These are the first permanent human dwellings, enabling communities to live in perhaps the most hostile environments of the Pleistocene. And yet we don’t really know how they were constructed, or how they worked as thermal, illuminated or human environments.  Contemporary climate data is detailed enough to be useful, architectural software exists to model the flows of air and light inside and out, and there is even research now available on Palaeolithic clothing.  Additive printing, or CNC milling might allow the construction of artificial mammoth bones.  I imagine half-size replicas packed like giant Lego in the back of vans on the way to schools for children to make and stimulate their interest in human evolution and environmental change.

How has the COVID19 pandemic affected your work?

Fieldwork in Saudi Arabia and South Africa has stopped and will probably continue to be difficult or impossible for another 18 months.  Otherwise – and quite by chance, in The Atlas of Archaeology I have a research project that is digital, internet-based and essentially COVID-19 resilient.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

I think everyone feels a great sense of accomplishment when they see their first article in print.  For me this was an examination of changes in style through time and across apprenticeship networks in 18th century English silverware as revealed through an attribute analysis and a study of hallmarks.  Since then, I am usually most proud of what has just been published, or in anticipation of what I am currently working on and hope will be distinctive.  As a committed teacher, however, I am most proud of my students, the excitement gained from research that we might do together and then, the careers they move on to. At Makapansgat, for example, this included an exploration of the hominin experience of landscape using ideas derived from environmental psychology and the data capture techniques of sports science. Seeing and helping students develop as scholars and individuals is one of the genuine pleasures of an academic life.

If you could use a time machine, when would you go back to visit and why?

The sensible thing would be to go back in time to look at some aspect of life in the Palaeolithic – perhaps in those mammoth bone houses.  But I am not sure I really want to be able to see this in reality, since the challenge and fun of the job is to try and discover this.  Instead, I would use a time machine to see my musical heroes in action. 

Much to my children’s dismay, I listen to jazz, specifically modern jazz – which like modernism in design is now many years old.  Modern jazz is probably better known as Bebop and Hard Bop, the first distinctive styles of jazz created after World War II.  The great Jazz performers display an extraordinary mixture of technical virtuosity and cognitive flexibility as they improvise on a tune.  A bit like making a Solutrean point perhaps ….  I have two dates in mind.  The first is 15th May 1953, to see Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach playing at Massey Hall in Montreal.  This is sometimes called the greatest jazz concert in history.  It was the last time the two great innovators of Bebop (Parker and Gillespie) played together; Parker died the following year at just 34 years old. For human evolution specialists by the way, Charles Mingus recorded one of only two musical tracks I know of named after a hominin species – Pithecanthropus Erectus. The other date would be 8th October 1963 to see the John Coltrane quartet (Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) play at Birdland in New York.  I heard a recording of this concert for the first time whilst drinking too much whiskey with archaeological friends in a jazz coffee shop in Japan. It combines an interest and a fond memory. If, one could stop off between the two, I would love to spend the morning of 12th August 1958 on East 126th Street in New York.  Look it up – “A Great Day in Harlem”.

What advice would you give students interested in human evolution?

“Enjoy every minute, you have made a great choice.  Human evolution can take you anywhere and everywhere and although the evidence may seem slight, your interest is only limited by how you can think about a problem.”

For someone serious about an academic career in human evolution, I would say don’t focus all your energies keeping up with papers published in your research area right now. Take the time to read outside your topic and ideally the discipline; many great developments are inspired by or come from applications of ideas seen elsewhere.  And in the same vein, don’t be afraid to hold on to a broader set of research interests and move around them from time to time; the juxtaposition of different things stimulates new ways to look at old problems.  As my colleague Matt Grove has shown, extreme specialists are a step away from extinction…..

Anthony introducing a practical on Upper Palaeolithic typologies at Liverpool in 2010.

Conversations with Dr Simon Greenhill

Today’s conversation is with Dr Simon Greenhill, Senior Scientist in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at Australian National University. Simon’s research primarily focuses on the evolution of languages and linguistic diversity, and what this can tell about about human prehistory. His research mainly uses Bayesian phylogenetic methods and he has helped build a number of large-scale linguistic and cultural databases. He is also one of the editors of Language Dynamics and Change, and he is on the editorial board of the Journal of Language Evolution.

Dr Simon Greenhill, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

Broadly speaking, my research has focused on three main areas.

First, I think the biggest unsolved question we have in human evolution is why and how we generated such massive diversity of languages and cultures. Why do we have more than 7000 very different languages instead of just a few? why do we have so many ways of building a human society? where do we see the most diversity? how is this diversity linked to, or generated by, social, cultural, and environmental factors? And conversely; how is this diversity constrained, what configurations are rare, and why. For example, I’ve been involved in studies quantifying global and regional linguistic diversity and how this is generated. Another recent focus has been testing hypotheses about how factors like population size or cultural contact can affect the evolutionary dynamics of language change.

Second, how did the current distribution of human societies get the way it is? My first publication was on “Testing Population Dispersal Hypotheses”and since then I’ve worked to test hypotheses about human prehistory. For example, I used computational phylogenetic methods to identify the relationships between the languages of large Austronesian family that stretches from Taiwan to Madagascar, Hawaii, Rapanui (Easter Island), and New Zealand. I used this phylogeny to pinpoint the homeland of the languages (and their speakers!) in Taiwan around 5200 years ago and their dispersal since. I’ve subsequently been involved in ongoing projects attempting to shed light on the histories of the Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, and Uzo-Aztecan language families.

Third, you can’t answer interesting questions without good methods and good data. In terms of data, a major component of my work has been building large-scale, open access databases of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural data. I have built and released two of the world’s largest cross-linguistic databases, the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database and TransNewGuinea.org, and am involved in many other database projects including POLLEX-Online, Pulotu, D-PLACE, and number of forthcoming projects (Lexibank, Numeralbank, Parabank, Glottobank). Using these data, I have worked to evaluate how well computational and phylogenetic methods for languages and cultures work.

What originally drew you towards human evolution, and specifically language evolution?

I’ve always been fascinated by languages, my father learnt Russian, German and Maori and had many dictionaries scattered around the house (Dad collected books, amongst many other things, and decided he liked the Collins ‘Gem’ dictionaries). I remember paging through these old dictionaries comparing words and looking up different meanings on rainy afternoons. I later went on to take German and French at school.

However, I ended up going to university to take computer science. I quickly decided I didn’t want to spend my life programming CRMs or doing IT tech support, so I dropped out of that and then did a year or so doing the undergraduate ‘sampler’ taking papers in biology, psychology, anthropology, German literature, political studies, and philosophy.

At the same time I was reading a lot of popular science books and came across three books which enthralled me: Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (which had just been published a year or so earlier). With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that these works are flawed in various ways but at the time they were life changing, for me at least, and I soon converted to a biology/psychology double major.

A few years later, when I came across a course “Evolution, Behavior, and Cognition” taught by Russell Gray, Mike Corballis, and Fiona Jordan. This course had a major language evolution component and I was immediately hooked and loved every minute of it.

Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience?

I did my PhD in the department of Psychology at the University of Auckland. My supervisor was Russell Gray – I badgered him until he took me on as a student. I titled my PhD thesis “The Archives of History: A phylogenetic approach to the study of language,” and it contains a loosely connected set of chapters that all were eventually published as papers: a description of the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database, a computational phylogenetic test of hypotheses about Pacific Settlement, an evaluation of how robust phylogenetic methods were to horizontal transmission/borrowing between lineages, and an exploration of rates of change in grammatical features.

I really enjoyed my PhD. It was a lot of hard work but I was in an amazing department and community at Auckland, surrounded by world-leading researchers in psychology, biology, linguistics, anthropology, and computer science. The late, great Pacific Archaeologist, Roger Green, took a particular interest in my career – often popping by my office to give me a paper on a topic he thought I should be educated about and returning the following week to quiz me relentlessly.

I made many good friends and started collaborations with some of them that are still generating new projects a decade later. And I even got to meet both Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins when they visited the university during my time there (but I chickened out asking them to sign my copies of their books).

Simon and colleagues at the Evolution of Language Symposium at the Evolution meeting in 2007 (featuring Mark Pagel, Quentin Atkinson, Michael Dunn, Fiona Jordan, Simon Greenhill and Russel Gray).
After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I received my PhD in 2009 and immediately started a postdoc in Alexei Drummond’s Computational Evolution Group in the Computer Science department at Auckland. There I got to spend a lot of quality time learning Bayesian phylogenetic methods while exploring grammatical data from languages. This position lead to a series of papers on the rates of change in language structures.

In 2012 I was awarded a Discovery Early Career Research Fellowship and moved to the Department of Linguistics in the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University in Canberra. Being in one of the world’s best field linguistics departments was quite an eye opener for me (I was literally the only person who did not do fieldwork and colleagues used to joke that I was the honorary indoors-linguist). At ANU my goal was to focus on the relationships between the languages of New Guinea. New Guinea is one of the most linguistically diverse parts of the world (>900 languages!), as well as one of the least-studied parts. This project resulted in a large-scale language database, and a series of papers on linguistic diversity and potential explanations for this diversity.

In 2014 we successfully bid for a major project which became the “ARC Centre of Excellence of the Dynamics of Language.” I was the named director of the language evolution component (one of four). One of the main things started there was a project testing a long-standing hypothesis about rates of change in languages being linked to population size (our answer was “sort of,” and “sometimes”).

A few years later I was offered a permanent Senior Scientist position at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. I started there in 2016. Since then I’ve been involved in far too many projects to keep track of.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m involved in a lot of projects at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, but a major one that we’re just wrapping up is a phylogeny of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Uto-Aztecan is one of the biggest language families in North America with between 50 to 70 languages that were spoken from Wyoming and Idaho down to El Salvador. Despite a few hundred years of study there is still ongoing debate about whether they came from the Nevada region almost 9000 years ago, or from California 3000 years ago, or from Mesoamerica 3000 years ago. Our results clearly point to a 3000 year origin in what is now California, which neatly meshes with a lot of the ethnohistorical and ethnobotanical arguments out there. It is also the first time we’ve had a robustly dated language group in North America so I’m hoping it can help shed light on the rest of the Americas as there’s a lot of very interesting language groups there that have important stories to be told (Mayan, Oto-Manguean, Athapaskan, and many more!).

One project that I’ve just started is aiming to further explore the evolutionary dynamics of languages and cultures on a global scale. We’re hoping to use the rates at which different aspects are changing over time to tackle a series of related questions. For example, do the most distinct cultures have the most distinct languages? Or do rates correlate in different parts of the world such that certain aspects of language and culture are more stable over time everywhere? Or does this vary across the globe? I’m looking forward to finding out what this tells in the bigger picture.

Has COVID19 affected your research plans?

Yes and no. In general most of my work requires only a laptop (and computer-cluster), so in that sense I’m far luckier than my colleagues who have had their fieldwork or project plans thrown into complete disarray.

However, I deeply miss meeting colleagues and chatting with them. Many of the most fun projects I’ve been involved in were started by a conversation down the corridor. I’m a little worried by all the great projects that will never be started because the initiating conversation didn’t happen.

I was on paternity leave for the first few months of the pandemic as my wife and I apparently thought bringing another child into the world during a global crisis was a good idea. Since then it’s been a bit of a juggling act to get work done at home with two children, but in the grand scheme of things we’re all healthy and safe so I can’t complain.

Simon presenting at the International conference on Historical Linguistics in Kyoto, 2011.
What achievement are you most proud of?

If I had to rank things then I think my proudest achievement is the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (ABVD). As part of my PhD project I needed language data from many Austronesian languages and while there was lots of data out there it was generally scatted in the primary literature (journal articles, dictionaries, etc), and more was available in the ‘gray’ literature hidden in people’s filing cabinets or private hobby databases. To collect all these data into one location I built a web interface and collated the data.

We started with about 200 languages collected by Bob Blust, but since then the database has grown in size to have more than 300,000 lexical items from more than 1600 language varieties. The ABVD is therefore one of the world’s largest comparative linguistic databases.

My PhD supervisor Russell and I decided very early on (~2005?) to put all these data online and make them open access. Nowadays the open science and open data movement has really reshaped the playing field making it common for all data to be online and reusable. But it was a different story back then (“data are available from the authors on request”), and I think younger academics often don’t realise how unusual that was. At the time the ABVD was unique. Because of this, the ABVD has been cited as leading the way for open databases of comparative linguistic data and the general structure and framework has been copied by a number of major linguistic and cultural databases.

The database also gets used frequently: the website gets about 800 visitors a week, there are links to it all over the web (especially places like Wikipedia), and the paper we wrote describing the database has about 250 citations. I’m always amazed at the new and innovative ways the ABVD has been used by researchers from cutting-edge computational studies to traditional linguistic and anthropological studies. Even more gratifyingly I get a few emails a year from speakers of a language in the database thanking me for helping make their language more widely known. One person even told me they were using the wordlist to teach his son some words from his grandparents language. Very humbling.

Why do you think studying the evolution of languages is important?

If we want to understand humans, we need to understand language. Language is the strangest thing that people do: We spend a lot of time forcing air through a hole in our heads to send messages to other members of our species. As infants, we come equipped to rapidly learn this trick and as adults we usually spend many hours every day doing this. With a few phonemes we can tell immediately if someone shares our accent, and have powerful clues to where they’re from, their gender, their age, and their social groups.

Language is the best example of a cultural evolutionary system. Language is inextricably tied to culture. Each language is in itself an intricate cultural product that has co-evolved with its speakers to carry priceless information between speakers and across generations (which is why we can use languages to trace history).

More practically, a lot of work on cultural evolution rests on small scale inter-individual studies or rather abstract simulations. Along with these studies I feel we also need to look at the larger macro patterns over thousands of years. It would be great to do that on cultures but this is hard as we don’t really know how to carve culture at her joints so that our units of comparison are consistent across many cultures. Anthropology also largely turned away from large-scale comparison in the 60s and 70s so there’s no real ongoing tradition of comparative data collection on a global scale after that. Linguists, however, have collected vast amounts of comparative data that can be readily used to look at big picture macro-questions. In short, human evolution and cultural evolution needs more linguistics!

What would you be if you were not a scientist?

I’m not sure – I’ve wanted to be a scientist for a few decades now and really enjoy it. If I were looking for a job I’d probably try sell myself as a data scientist (whatever they are). However, one thing I always enjoyed was web development and I did a bit as a sideline when I was doing my PhD. Web development mixes the fun technical side of programming (I used to make spend hours making sure my websites were XHTML 1.0 compliant) with a more creative component designing and styling interfaces.

However now I have two daughters, a 6 year old (Zoë) and a 10 month old (Maya), so realistically I’d probably be a stay-at-home dad.

Conversations with: Dr Lauren Schroeder

Today’s conversation is with Dr Lauren Schroeder, Assistant Professor in Biological Anthropology at the University of Toronto! Lauren received her PhD in Palaeoanthropology from the University of Cape Town in 2015. Prior to forming the Schroeder Lab at the University of Toronto in 2017, she joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Buffalo as a Postdoctoral researcher in the Buffalo Human Evolutionary Morphology Lab. Her lab’s work focusses on evolutionary processes and variability in hominin morphological evolution through applying innovative quantitative methods and theory from evolutionary biology. Lauren also engages in decolonisation initiatives aimed to transform the field of biological anthropology.

Dr. Lauren Schroeder, an Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Image courtesy of Douglas Levere.

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

I am a palaeoanthropologist, originally from South Africa, but now in Canada, studying the “how” and “why” of hominin morphology. Specifically, I tackle questions related to evolutionary process and variability in human and primate evolution. My expertise are in quantitative genetic approaches, statistical methods, geometric morphometrics, and the early evolution of the genus Homo.

What originally drew you towards palaeoanthropology?

When I was very young, I was really into dinosaurs. LIKE REALLY into them. Similarly, my parents also purchased a series of books for me called “how my body works”, which got me really fascinated with the human body. I think the combination of the two must have somehow piqued my interest in questions why we look the way we do, which, of course, I later learned was a question about evolution. A funny story actually – when I was 9 years old, our class at school was asked the common question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. In response I said, “I want to be a famous archaeologist.” My parents didn’t even know what an archaeologist was! If we set the differences between archaeology and palaeoanthropology aside, I think I knew from a young age that I wanted to work on the fossil past.

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

I completed my PhD at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015. My PhD topic focused on the evolution of the genus Homo, specifically the evolutionary processes underlying skull diversity in our lineage.

My PhD experience had its ups and downs. Some ups – I received a Baldwin Fellowship from the Leakey Foundation, which really helped with my finances throughout my degree. Thanks to this funding I was fortunate enough to travel quite extensively during my PhD to collect data, including to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nairobi, Kenya, Johannesburg, South Africa, Frankfurt, Germany, and Cleveland, USA. Not only did I get to analyse many precious and amazing fossil hominin specimens, I also met wonderful people on these travels that I have kept in contact with, continuing to grow collaborations. I also had the opportunity to work on both the Malapa (Australopithecus sediba) and Rising Star projects (Homo naledi). As both of these are South African finds, and as a South African myself (not biased at all!), it was definitely special to be able to contribute to the already rich palaeoanthropological history in the country. However, given that these new discoveries happened during my PhD (!), it definitely forced me to rethink some of my initial ideas!

Lauren and colleagues at the Rising Stars Workshop 2014.
Lauren with the Taung Child, Department of Anatomical Sciences at the University of Witwatersrand, 2009.

I also had a wonderful PhD advisor – Prof. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann. Becky was not only supportive and knowledgeable with regards to research, she also played a pivotal role in my life when dealing with difficult issues during the Ph.D. process, especially helping me navigate the more negative sides of the palaeoanthropological field, including instances of harassment and bullying.

What current projects are you working on?

I am involved in several projects at the moment related to evolutionary process in hominin and primate evolution. These include ancestor-descendent relationships at the emergence of our genus Homo, the evolution of the human chin, evolutionary processes across the Old World Monkey lineage, as well as morphological effects of hybridization. Find out what myself and my students are working on here: www.laurenschroederlab.com.

Lauren with Karabo, the juvenile Australopithecus sediba cranium, The Fossil Vault in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand, 2019.

What do you hope to work on in the future post COVID-19?

Fieldwork, fieldwork, fieldwork! Together with colleagues from the University of Cape Town, and the National Museums of Kenya, we are hoping to conduct further explorations at the Gondolin hominin-bearing site in the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa. We are currently working on the permit for submission to the relevant heritage bodies. In addition to this, I am involved in a collaborative project, led by Dr. Yonatan Sahle, to describe new hominin remains from the Megenta site in the Lower Awash basin, Ethiopia. Really excited to travel again!

Vrba section, Gondolin Palaeocave, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.

What do you think has been the most interesting/revolutionary discovery in palaeoanthropology over the last 5 years?

Three topics stick out for me. First, the broader appreciation of the complexity of human evolution, specifically the extent of gene flow, effect of population structure, as well as the recognition of the importance of genetic drift. Second, the exciting advances made in the field of palaeoproteomics, especially its relevance to sites where ancient DNA retrieval is limited. And third, the fact that (finally) conversations related to decolonization and transformation are now at the forefront of the field. I write about these developments, and more, in my recent American Anthropologist piece.

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?

Hopefully this time machine can make two trips! I think first I would probably want to hang around the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, perhaps around the Koobi Fora area in what is Kenya today, 3 million years ago to observe interactions between hominins, and also how many species there were! Then I would go to what is the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa today to do the same thing around 2 million years ago.

Lauren in the Koobi Fora region in 2007. Image courtesy of Jenna Lavin.

What advice would you give to someone interested in studying palaeoanthropology?

This is a hard one, because when I think of my journey into palaeoanthropology, I was fortunate in getting the funding I needed to pursue this degree, and probably wouldn’t have been able to carry on down this path without it. But, my advice would be that this really needs to be your passion; it needs to make you happy. Palaeoanthropology is a tough space to be in at times, and certainly my experience as a black woman in the field has shown me that there is a power dynamic that is not easy to negotiate. Also, apply to field schools. I was a graduate of the Koobi Fora Field School, an experience that really solidified my interest in the subject. Finally, the best advice I have received for my career choice is to surround yourself with good mentors.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the paper I published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2017 which represented the first assessment of the evolutionary processes acting to diversify hominin skull morphology in the genus Homo. The main finding of this study is that genetic drift, i.e. random evolutionary processes, played a larger role in our evolution than previously thought. I am also proud of the work that all of my graduate and undergraduate students are producing.

What would you be if you were not a palaeoanthropologist?

An astrophysicist. In high school, I became really obsessed with astronomy and cosmology (basically, I wanted to work for NASA!), and received an entrance scholarship to study astrophysics in my undergraduate. However, my path shifted after I took an elective second year introductory course in human evolution… The rest is history!

View over the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Conversations with: Professor Greger Larson

Today’s guest is Professor Greger Larson, Director of the Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network (Palaeo BARN) and Professor of Archaeology at the University of Oxford! Greger completed his BA in Environment, Economics and Politics at Claremont McKenna College, California in 1996. He then went on to study at the University of Oxford and the University of Colorado before receiving his PhD in Zoology in 2006. Greger’s research interests include evolutionary genomics, ancient DNA, domestication, human and animal dispersals and phylogenetics. He has published widely in high-impact journals such as Nature and Science, and his group’s research is often featured in the popular media.

Professor Greger Larson

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

I’m a big fan of large scale change. My lab looks primarily, but not exclusively, into domestication as a model of large-scale evolutionary and cultural change that’s had a massive impact on our species. And, now, every other species on earth.

A picture (taken by coauthor and colleague David Meltzer) taken in November 2018 of Greger next to his whiteboard covered in human archaeological detail in blue and the dog record in orange, with northeast Asia on the left and North America on the right.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?

TV! First a series of programs by James Burke called ‘The Day the Universe Changed’ and ‘Connections’, and then a TV program about the origin of dogs which essentially said, we know nothing!  

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

My PhD used ancient DNA to investigate animal domestication. I completed it at the University of Oxford and my PhD supervisor was Alan Cooper. For the most part my PhD was as highly enjoyable and rewarding experience. I learned how much I love research and how amazing the people who do this for a living are.

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

I was an EMBO Postdoctoral Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden for two years, then an RCUK Fellow in Durham for 6 years, and I’m now a Professor at Oxford and the Director of the ancient DNA labs.

What current projects are you working on?

Lots of animals and ancient DNA. Dogs, pigs, chickens, rabbits, hares, rats and others besides. Plus, some pathogens and lots of additional projects that explore time and change and human relationships with other taxa.

Where do you hope these go in the future?

Answers! We want answers! And we’re keen to develop multidisciplinary perspectives on the history of our species and how we got to where we are now.

An illustration by Ettore Mazza for David Ian Howe’s Ethnocynology website (https://www.davidianhowe.com/ethnocynology) depicting Howe’s dog, Strider, with a human as the last ice age waned.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

That’s a tough question. I am proud of so many of them for different reasons, many of which are about the people and progression of the data and analysis and publication. We published a paper last year about how a mitochondrial locus can be used to assess the likelihood that any two species can hybridise and produce fertile offspring. It was a crazy idea and it took nearly 7 years from the initial idea to the published paper. It’s simple and counterintuitive and powerful. And a lot of great friendships and collaborations have been borne of the process.

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

The ubiquity of gene flow between just about everything. Species are often pretty constrained phenotypically, but man, that’s clearly not stopping tons of individuals from having sex with lots of individuals beyond those species constraints. 

What would you be if you were not a scientist?

A stand up comic who is assured of his own superiority, but who has yet to convince a single other person.

Conversations with: Dr Danny Longman

Today’s conversation is with Dr Danny Longman, Lecturer in Physiology at Loughborough University. Danny graduated from the University of Cambridge with a BA (Hons) in Natural Sciences, as well as a MPhil and PhD in Human Evolution. Before joining Loughborough University in 2019, he also held a position as a Post-Doctoral researcher at Cambridge. His research considers human adaptability and function in the context of human evolution, and has recently helped defined the sub-discipline of Human Athletic Palaeobiology. This involves using contemporary sports as a model to study evolutionary theory. Away from work, Danny is a keen sportsman, with a passion for ultra-endurance sport, exploration and travel.

Dr Danny Longman during the 2017 Polar Row expedition.

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

I’m a biological anthropologist and my research focusses primarily on human adaptability and function. I’m particularly interested in understanding our capacity for adaptation, and the underlying biological mechanisms that make this possible.

The majority of my work has investigated our physiological response to energetic stress, using life history theory as a theoretical framework. With my collaborators and previous supervisors Jay Stock (now Professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada) and Jonathan Wells (UCL), I have developed a model recruiting ultra-endurance athletes to study this.  I really enjoy this work, as it combines my passion for evolution with my alternate, non-academic life as an ultra-endurance athlete.

What originally drew you towards human evolution and, in particular, extreme environment physiology?

I ‘discovered’ human evolution as a Masters student, and was immediately attracted to the holistic physiological perspective of evolutionary theory. I loved how areas such as life history theory explained the world around me, and just seemed to make sense.

That year, I was part of a team attempting to row across the Atlantic Ocean.  I spoke to my incredible supervisors Jay Stock and Jonathan Wells about this, and they encouraged me to design a project that would collect data during the row itself. It was this row that set my research trajectory for the next 10 years (and counting).

For the first 3 days the intense seasickness, coupled with the intense 2-hours-on 2-hours-off shift pattern, meant that I didn’t manage to eat or sleep at all. Constantly being sick, I was growing weaker at the oars, and I couldn’t even comprehend the fact that we still had another 30 days or so to go. Then, somethings began to change.  I could take a bite of a mars bar without being sick, I drank a little, I slept for 20 minutes.  This then became a full mars bar, a litre of electrolyte drink, a 60-minute sleep. By day 6 I was able to drink freely and accumulate 3 hours of sleep and eat a couple of rehydrated meals each day. My strength came back, and I could think clearly again.  I was still losing weight, but something had happened in my body to reallocate the little energy I was consuming and allow me to adapt to the pressures of my new environment. I came back from this trip feeling amazed by the body’s incredible ability to adapt, and said to Jay that we’ve gotta study this! I was lucky enough to be able to do just that going forward.

Danny during his 2017 during the 2017 Polar Row expedition. This was a 1000-mile ocean row across the Arctic Ocean from Svalbard to Jan Mayan. During the row, he collected samples as pilot work to study energy expenditure in energetically stressful environments.  They also broke 7 Guinness world records! You can read more about the Polar row expedition here.

Why did you want to do a PhD?

Two things really.  I came back from the row full of excitement to learn more about humans’ adaptive capabilities. A PhD was the next logical step in this regard. The thing that really clinched it for me was the opportunity to work with Jay and Jonathan again.  Their enthusiasm is infectious, and I was excited to spend at least another couple of years working with and learning from them.

Tell us a bit about your PhD research. What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

I really enjoyed my PhD. Although my subject area was in quite different from the rest of the department at Cambridge, Jay’s research group provided a friendly and supportive environment where I could discuss new ideas, and receive constructive feedback. I enjoyed the wider experience of the PhD too. I was part of the University’s rowing programme, and while this did take up far too much time (about 30 hours a week), it totally immersive and was a great break from my studies.

What current projects are you working on?

Currently, I have two strands of work on the go. Firstly, I’m continuing to study resource allocation during energetic stress by analysing data collected during my Post-Doc on Jay Stock’s ADaPt Project. We collected this data at a range of multiday ultramarathons and ocean rows around the world, and I can’t wait to see what the results tell us.  Related to this, I’m also developing a project with my PhD student, Yvanna, looking at the interplay between life history theory and nutritional ecology.

In addition to this, I’m developing a project considering the effect of natural and urban environments on human physiology. There’s a growing body of knowledge suggesting that natural environments such as forests promote mental and physical wellbeing when compared to built-up areas such as cities.  I’m finding this area fascinating, and the rationale seems to be strongly linked to the natural ancestral environments in which we evolved as a species.

Processing athlete saliva samples with his colleague Dr Ali Macintosh in Cusco Peru.
Processing athlete saliva samples with his colleague Dr Eliot Ross in Spain.

What do you hope to work on in the future? Has the COVID19 pandemic affected your plans?

I’ve been very fortunate in that COVID19 hasn’t affected my plans too much.  I’m currently in a writing phase, having collected a lot of data during my Post-Doc.  I have had to cancel a couple of fun trips to meet collaborators in Japan, as well as a conference in LA, but on the whole I’ve been incredibly lucky compared to a lot of colleagues.

Going forward, I’m hoping to continue my work using ultra-endurance sport to study resource allocation and life history theory, potentially competing in a few more events myself. I’d also like to continue to develop my new interests in nutritional ecology, and in understanding the mechanisms underpinning the health benefits of natural environments.

What publication or project are you most proud of and why?

In 2020 I published a paper in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology with Jay Stock and Jonathan Wells entitled Human athletic palaeobiology; using sport as a model to investigate human evolutionary adaptation. In this paper, we define a new sub-discipline using sport as a conceptual framework to improve our understanding of our evolutionary trajectory, our capacity for adaptation, and the underlying biological mechanisms. There has been a growing body of work in this area by a number of researchers, and I was really happy to take on the challenge of writing a paper which in many ways was a summation of my work since Masters level. 

Does your research have any implications outside of academia?

In the years to come, I’d hope that my work with resource allocation and energetic stress will contribute to knowledge underpinning advances in areas such as evolutionary public health. More immediately, a byproduct of my research is a better understanding of the stresses athletes face when competing in ultra-endurance events.  This could help athletes and coaches better prepare for the immense strain that the events will place on their physiology.

A thermal imaging photo Danny took of an athlete during the 2018 Wadi Rum Ultra in Jordan.

What advice would you give to someone interested in studying human evolution?

I think a really important piece of advice would be to take your time in finding the right supervisor.  I was incredibly lucky in meeting Jay Stock and Jonathan Wells when I did.  They provided me with the skills I needed to follow my interests in a rigorous way, gave me the space to make my own mistakes and fuelled my passion for evolution.  I’d suggest students interested in a PhD speak to as many people as possible, and try to find the right match.

From a wider perspective, I’d advise people to take opportunities that pop up.  You never know where a chance conversation or project might lead.

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?

Haha good question! If they would have me, I’d love to go back and live with a Neanderthal group.  Although I’ve never directly worked with Neanderthal fossils, I find their culture fascinating.  It would be great to see just how similar we are.

Conversations with: Dr Berkay Dinçer

This month, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Berkay Dinçer, a Palaeolithic archaeologist of the Anthropology Department at Istanbul University. His research interests include lithic analysis and the dispersals of early hominins through Anatolia (Turkey) during Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. Berkay has participated and conducted many surveys and excavations in Turkey in the last 20 years, helping to characterise the Palaeolithic of this previously under-researched region.

Surveying at Karaburun, İzmir, 2019.

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

My main research interest is the dispersals and migrations of early hominins out of Africa to Eurasia especially during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic. Honestly speaking, I blame Homo sapiens for the current state of humanity and I don’t like Homo sapiens very much, so I concentrate on much earlier hominins. Stone tools are the most common type of evidence left from these hominins, so I mostly study lithics. I see myself as a student of human evolution.

What originally drew you towards Palaeolithic Archaeology?

Actually it is a result of a series of coincidences. I did not know the meaning of prehistory when I enrolled at the Prehistory Department of Istanbul University. At that time in Turkey, students got into university based on their exam results. My results at high school were bad and I found myself at the Prehistory programme of Istanbul University. When I was in the first grade, the first course I attended was ran by Prof. Dr. Güven Arsebük. It wasn’t about archaeology and prehistory; it was about the importance of science and scientific thought. Taking inspiration from this first course, I decided to further investigate archaeology. In order to do that, I reduced the time I spent actually in the courses and I started to visit the library of Netherlands Institute in Turkey. That library was the best place to find books about archaeology and I randomly chose and read anything I found. After spending almost two years in the Netherlands Institute library, I concluded that there was one historically neglected research area in the archaeology of Turkey; the Palaeolithic. In the summer of second grade, I discovered a Lower Palaeolithic site by accident and published it in a newsletter. That discovery changed my entire career.

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

The title of my PhD was “The Lower Paleolithic around Marmara Sea: The Earliest Hominin Dispersals”. Usually Turkey is accepted as the shortest land route, a land bridge to Europe from Africa. I think that this suggested hypothesis is very Euro-centric. My main question was the role of Turkey in the Lower Palaeolithic dispersals of hominins out of Africa. If the earliest hominins dispersed to Europe through Turkey, we should find evidence of these at the bottleneck of the continents in north-west Turkey, around Marmara Sea. To look for evidence, I did surveys both on the north and south sides of Marmara Sea. The fieldwork for my PhD was difficult, most of the days I did not see a person or speak to anybody. Also I conducted surveys with a motorcycle, it gave me freedom to go off the road however I was vulnerable to bad weather conditions in winter. At the end I documented more than 130 Palaeolithic sites. Unfortunately I did not find a strong evidence supporting the “land bridge hypothesis” since the Lower Palaeolithic sites are scarce and most of the Palaeolithic occupation took place during the Middle Palaeolithic.

Surveying in bad weather near Tekirdağ, 2013

What current projects are you working on?

In Turkey, the inventory of Palaeolithic sites is very insufficient. Surveys have great importance especially taking into account the on going construction, mining etc. projects. I collaborate with many colleagues and for that reason I am currently affiliated to many projects. In Turkey, normally researchers have to get their own permissions for field projects however I believe that the best fieldwork is the fieldwork of your friend! It saves so much time that would be spent doing bureaucratic paperwork. In a typical field season, I get in the car at the beginning of June and drive east towards to the Iranian border, do fieldwork, and then travel to reach the Greek border on the west in three and a half months. Turkey is a huge country, like 2,000 km as the crow flies in east-west direction, and my plan is to get to know every corner of it while I have energy to do. Also during the winter I analyse lithics from other fieldwork projects that I did not have the chance to participate during summer season. I am now trying to finalise most of the fieldwork projects so that I get more time to concentrate some of them.

Our one of the most important projects is Gürgürbaba, in Van province near the Iranian border. This is an obsidian outcrop with many Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in situ sites. We excavated one of the Lower Palaeolithic sites and obtained the date of 315,000 years ago for the Acheulean occupations. Dating of Palaeolithic sites in Turkey is very scarce. The other projects in the eastern Turkey are Tunceli and Malatya surveys where we have documented open-air Acheulean sites. Two years ago we started a survey at Dülük, in south-eastern Turkey, near the Syrian border. Our aim was to date more Palaeolithic sites however the pandemic did not allowed us to work in the summer of 2020. In the western parts of the country we have two on going projects, one is in Seyitömer, Kütahya. This is a large open-air coal mine and we are trying to discover and document Palaeolithic sites before their eternal destruction. This is the second salvage survey project in Kütahya province. We did the first one five years ago in a valley now inundated by a dam near Kureyşler. Those salvage projects allowed us to document the variety of Middle Palaeolithic technologies in very close areas. Another on going project is the Karaburun survey in İzmir. This is the westernmost point of Turkey near the Aegean Sea. This is a diachronic survey; our team documents everything from Lower Palaeolithic stone tools to Late Ottoman water systems.

Taking an orthophoto of a lithic scatter at Gürgürbaba, Van, 2018.
Taking cosmogenic dating sample from Dülük, Gaziantep, 2019.

What do you hope to work on in the future?

I planned my archaeological career in two phases. Both phases consist of approximately 20 years. In the first phase, I tried to get to know the whole Turkey and have a brief knowledge of Palaeolithic technologies in the different geographical regions. The first phase will end in a few years; I enjoyed travelling to the very remote areas of the country and I have learned many things. I have also improved my ability to recognise different regional technologies. This also allowed me to see and analyse thousands of archaeological artefacts from hundreds of sites.

Studying material from Manyas, Balıkesir survey in Istanbul University Prehistory laboratory with Zeynep Kelpetin, 2017.

In the second phase, I am willing to concentrate on the excavation of two or maybe three sites. In this way, it would be possible to understand the Palaeolithic of Turkey in detail. For example, we do not have absolute dates for many sites in the country and for this reason we do not understand the relationship between climate and hominin occupations. Also, hominin relations with fauna and flora are poorly understood in the country. For those reasons I think that we should start excavating some cave sites in Turkey. This might also help the understanding of the surface sites. I must say, my priority is always salvage excavations; I don’t think that we need to excavate protected sites. Also I prefer small-sized sites rather than “the oldest” and “the biggest” ones.

Continuous excavation projects facilitate the training of younger generations. In the future, I also would like to invest more in the human resources for the Palaeolithic archaeology in Turkey. I hope that we will establish a multi-disciplinary tradition of Palaeolithic archaeology in the future.

What do you think has been the most interesting/revolutionary discovery in Turkish Palaeolithic Archaeology over the last 5 years?

The numbers of Palaeolithic archaeologists and on going projects are very limited in Turkey. I must say that we are not close to any revolutionary discoveries since we mostly still apply the methods of 1960’s and we do not collaborate much with foreign colleagues who could help us with newer state of art techniques. I think that the discovery of an unknown hominin fossil species in Anatolia would be of great importance. I believe that the ecological and bio-geographical properties of Turkey would allow for the presence of various “Homo anatoliensis” types. The most positive thing in the last five years was the commencement of new survey projects focussing on the Palaeolithic in Turkey.

One of the most important discoveries over the last five years was the discovery and excavation of Sürmecik, a Middle Palaeolithic site near Banaz, Uşak, western Turkey. Here, a team led by Prof. Dr. Harun Taşkıran of Ankara University found thousands of lithics exhibiting a variability that we have not yet seen elsewhere. Another important discovery is the Gürgürbaba near Erciş, Van. The team led by Assoc. Prof. Dr. İsmail Baykara discovered more than 70 Palaeolithic sites in close relation to obsidian sources. We also excavated one of the sites and obtained the absolute date that I mentioned above.

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?

If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t enjoy archaeology that much. Usually we see ourselves as successful, victorious conquerors etc. however I do not see human beings as that for most of their history. So, I am a little nervous to use a time machine in case I witness a bad situation, like the extinction of an entire tribe. If possible I would like to visit a Neanderthal cave somewhere in the Balkans on a warm summer night (I try not to think about malaria infected mosquitoes!) where a small fire is burning in a corner, one is preparing to play a bone flute… I would like to listen the sound of a Neanderthal song of 40 thousand years ago.

What advice would you give to someone interested in studying Palaeolithic Archaeology?

In most of the world, archaeologists are hostile to each other; the ones with the power usually do not let others get funding and permissions. In the last 10 years, I have learned not to get angry about the unfair behaviour of others and do not let these interfere with my research. Not just for the Palaeolithic, but also for many other sciences, it is very important to learn not to give up. It is important to persevere, even when those in power say that you cannot do it. Palaeolithic archaeology is a very global science, so for that reason in order to follow the latest literature, I would also recommend learning as many foreign languages as possible.

Studying material from Tunceli survey at Düzce University laboratory with Göknur Karahan, 2020.

Conversations with: Professor Nena Galanidou

It is my pleasure to introduce my next guest, Nena Galanidou, Professor in Prehistoric Archaeology of the University of Crete! Nena obtained her PhD in Palaeolithic Archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 1996, where she later became a research fellow until 1999. Since 2000 she has been teaching Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Crete. She has conducted fieldwork in Greece, Croatia and Israel. She has participated in international projects studying the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of southeast Europe and directs Palaeolithic research on the island of Lesbos, excavating the Lower Palaeolithic  Lisvori-Rodafnidia, and the Inner Ionian Archipelago excavating the  Middle Palaeolithic Panthera Cave on the islet of Kythros.

Professor Nena Galanidou, University of Crete PalaeoArch Group Lab, December 2020

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

I am a Palaeolithic archaeologist currently working on three thematic areas: the Acheulean, the Middle Palaeolithic puzzle, and Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research. My early work on Spatial Archaeology and Hunter-Gatherer Ethnoarchaeology reflects two more research interests that are always alive and sparkling.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?

It was this internal need to explore the human condition. Upon making a career decision I chose to leave aside the wonders of Greek archaeology, a siren that I closed my ears to, and opt for the beauty of Palaeolithic archaeology. Also, for a while I oscillated between my penchant for maths and my passion for the past. I hold an M.Sc. in Archaeological Computing that gave me a permanent job at the Benaki Museum at the heart of my beloved city, Athens, but I gave it up to pursue around the world my true love, the archaeology of human evolution.

My point of departure was a humanistic view of world history. Through my research, I wanted to take a leap, go beyond the differences and reach our deep roots to those things that unite humans as a species, as a common heritage before today’s national, linguistic, religious, class, race or gender differences. Of all archaeological specialisations, the archaeology of human evolution offers its practitioners world views that are planetary (think globally act locally) and tolerant (we humans are diverse yet fundamentally united through a shared past and common threads such as genes, evolutionary habits, technological innovations).

In due course I came to realise the excitement that comes from Palaeolithic work in the field or the lab. Human evolution is a book that is continuously being re-written. New finds and new readings of old finds shed new, often unexpected, direct or oblique light on the old threefold question: who are we – where do we come from – how did we get here. Whether it is a submerged cave, like Cosquer, a lion pack depicted in the Chauvet Cave, a small Homo sapiens fossil bone from the Misliya Cave lady, a jaw bone belonging to a Denisovan from the Baishiya Cave on the frigid Tibetan Plateau, the hidden hearths of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov that speak eloquently of fire mastery at the onset of the Middle Pleistocene, the hibernating Atapuercans, or the Lomekwi tools that push Palaeolithic beginnings further back in deep time, all are landmarks showing that palaeoanthropological discovery and debate will never let us be bored. The canon of our field is a fast-changing one, a bit like iPhone models, there is always a new launch coming soon.

Tabun Cave excavation, lunch break above the site, February 2020

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

My topic was the Upper Palaeolithic use of space in cave sites, and my supervisor was Geoff Bailey in the Dept. of Archaeology, Cambridge University. In this work I brought together three themes I was fond of: hunter-gatherer archaeology, architecture and mathematics. Using archaeological material from Epirus and Bosnia in southeast Europe, I examined the origins of architecture: if and when some structure is identified in an otherwise unstructured space. The caves offered a natural shell for protection, which varied in the area available or in the constraints present. The study employed an array of statistical methods to map the distribution of finds and concluded that in this early use of space, hearths acted as the primary cohesive elements in the spatial organization and activities of the social group.

The social milieu at Cambridge during the 1990s was very international, certainly thought-provoking, sometimes lonely and more often exciting. Little has changed since then; it is the sort of place that begets innovation through a very stable annual routine. My tempo was as follows: long study winters in the UK (sometimes even up to June, when college heating was turned off no matter what the thermometer suggested), interspersed with short summers conducting fieldwork in Greece. This formation period endowed me with some of my lifetime friends, a taste for Scandinavian architecture and furniture, as my college, Clare Hall, was designed by Pritzker prize winner Ralph Erskine, and a preference for single malt. At Cambridge I loved the Haddon Library and its friendly staff but could not stand the freezing temperatures of the University Library stalls. I cycled everywhere no matter the weather and loved the flea markets at the town hall and the live gigs at the Corn Exchange. Beyond my archaeological formation, I am grateful to the Cambridge ecosystem, for it gave me some superior lessons in British diplomacy.

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

Between 1996 and 1999, I held a postdoctoral fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge that gave me the opportunity to do research, publish and teach without the worry of having to earn a living. During that time, I taught Quantitative Methods in Archaeology and Mesolithic Archaeology courses to the demanding audiences of Cambridge undergraduates in the Archaeology Department.

In 2000 I climbed up the professorial ladder (from assistant to full professor) at the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Crete, Greece.

…Still digging with a broken wrist (!) Panthera Cave, October 2020

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

My current projects study the archaeology of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in Greece through a common denominator Island Archaeology, targeting islands of different scale, geography and resources.

On the island of Lesbos, in the northeast Aegean Sea, my team is exploring the first extensive Acheulean settlement in southeast Europe and western Anatolia. On the banks of small rivers and the shore of what was a big palaeolake, the Kalloni Gulf, and against a volcanic setting, we are unearthing a cluster of stratified Lower Palaeolithic sites, placing Greece on the map of the Acheulean world. Our finds link the Middle Pleistocene archaeology of the Aegean with the corresponding archaeology of Africa and Eurasia, and underline the importance of volcanic geographies. The principal site of Lisvori-Rodafnidia is situated by a thermal spring, as are other Acheulean findspots on Lesbos. From our work a new scenario emerges for the early colonization of Europe: at least half a million years ago, hominins walked into Europe via the Aegean Region, during periods of low sea level stands, following tracks that certainly Early Pleistocene animals and perhaps hominins were following too. Last but not least, a new generation of Greek students is trained in Palaeolithic archaeology.

Greek student training in Palaeolithic archaeology at Acheulean Lisvori-Rodafnidia

Since 2015 I have been heading excavations in the Panthera Cave on Kythros, a small, barren island in the Ionian Sea. Our work on Kythros is yielding a rich and diverse Middle Palaeolithic record and is tied to our long-term research in the Inner Ionian Archipelago and on Lefkas. This research has a strong regional perspective and covers the coast, the islands and the seabed. Beyond the Panthera Cave, we are studying Middle Palaeolithic sea crossing, or mere swimming, in a closed and well protected sea where the destination, the next piece of dry land, was visible and required one to cover relatively small distances by sea.

Mapping the sea bed is part of a new research direction I have taken lately, due to my interest in the islands’ early record. I want to understand how Pleistocene submerged landscapes changed as the sea level changed, when terrestrial bridges were opened, creating new conditions for Pleistocene populations to settle and migrate. This field is tremendously interesting. During the glacial periods, many islands were joined to each other and to the mainland, and the islands of the Ionian Sea and the Eastern Aegean were occasionally joined to mainland Greece and the Asiatic coast respectively. Imagine the archipelagos of the East Aegean and that of the Central Ionian Sea as being like a team of swimmers holding hands under water and all we can see today are their heads above the surface.

Panthera Cave team work, on the rocky shore of Kythros islet, Ionian Sea

What has been your favourite memory from the field?

The first handaxe that came out of Lisvori-Rodafnidia trench VI and was found in situ. I remember my heart was beating like a drum; something like the thrill of one’s first kiss.

The first in situ hand-axe coming out of the Lisvori-Rodafnidia trench, August 2014

 What project or publication are you most proud of?

Palaeolithic Lesbos is my pride, not only for the stunning Large Cutting Tool collection that multiplies every field season and could illustrate any textbook on Acheulean technology, but also for its potential to make the Aegean Region visible in the Eurasian Lower Palaeolithic narrative. I am also proud of my Journal of Anthropological Archaeology paper on forager use of cave space that is still widely cited despite being twenty years old.

Lisvori-Rodafnidia, Lesbos, August 2013

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

The concept of Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research bringing the seabed into focus. It holds the promise to radically change the ways we approach hominin dispersals, not merely by its potential to increase the sample of sites and finds but also by its call to make truly interdisciplinary contributions and breath fresh air into palaeoanthropology, very much like the Neanderthal Genome Project did a decade ago.

What would you be if you were not an archaeologist?

A mathematician to engage with problem-solving or a politician to engage with building a better future.