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.

Conversations with: Dr Mirriam Tawane

Today, I am delighted to introduce Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator of the Plio-Pleistocene collection at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History in South Africa! Mirriam was awarded her Bachelor of Science degree, Master of Science degree and PhD in Paleoanthropology all from the University of Witwatersrand, becoming the first black South African female to qualify as a palaeoanthropologist in 2012. She has been involved in many public engagement initiatives over the years, as she is passionate about her country’s heritage and public engagement in human evolution. She has participated in several community projects to teach the general public about the palaeosciences in South Africa, the majority of which are carried out in the language choice of the audience.

Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator of the Plio-Pleistocene collection at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History in South Africa.

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

I spent most of my studies focusing on dental morphology. I have been collaborating on research topics aligned with dentition of hominins.  I am also doing a lot of outreach focusing on teaching human evolution at schools. It is a project that has been ongoing for some time, and with it mushrooms projects that we implement to mitigate the situations we come across. These could be lack of teaching materials, or teachers and scholars needing assistance regarding the subject.

What originally drew you towards palaeoanthropology?

While in high school, I had no interest in the subject. To be honest I was not even aware of such a career choice. It was only when I did a Palaeontology course taught under Zoology third year that I became aware of such an option. I grew up in one of the villages in Taung, about 25 kilometres from Buxton Village. Buxton village is a village where the Taung skull was discovered. During one of Palaeontology lectures, I was introduced to the scientific information about the Taung skull, its discovery, and the role and significance its discovery has played in the all that we know regarding the origin of ManKind. Having only known what I could label ‘the village gossip’ regarding the skull, and realising the lack of participation (or participation in limited numbers) of people of colour in the field; I was motivated to pursue the course all the way to PhD level.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience, as the first black South African female to qualify as a paleoanthropologist?

My PhD topic was “Dental size and frequency of anomalies in the teeth of a small-bodied population of Mid-Late Holocene Micronesians, Micronesia”. I worked on dental remains of specimens Prof Lee Berger discovered in the Palau Islands. The specimens recorded very large teeth compared to their short stature and small brain. These could be attributed to diet and possibly hereditary features.

My PhD experience was exciting and scary at the very same time. As most of us will experience a lot in our lifetime, there are usually those unspoken criticism that one is subjected to, they end up making you doubt yourself, your capabilities.  Having said that I need to admit that I was my biggest critic during those years. Everything I did, I had to redo, double check; just to make sure that it is the best I could do at that particular moment. My biggest challenge was to tell myself “Relax, you have made it this far. You are going to make it”.

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

I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand for few years. I worked on several projects. One was looking at some of the remains from Sterkfontein caves. I discovered the hominin first rib of Australopithecus africanus from Member 4. Upon analysis, we determined that it falls closest to the small bodied Australopithecines (AL 288-1 and MH1).

I also worked on a stakeholder analysis of all the stakeholders involved at the Taung Skull Fossil Site. This was to determine the status of development of the site, and how all the stakeholders relate and work together towards achieving this. I also participated in outreach projects to deliver the much needed information about the site, the skull to the communities within the vicinity of the site. These targeted the scholars in a form of workshops at schools as well as the general public in the form of a heritage day celebration hosted on the 24 September. The 24th September is national Heritage day in South Africa. 

Human evolution workshops at schools in Taung.

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

I am currently working on a national project to get museums in the country curating all Humanities related collections working together for the benefits of the heritage objects in the country. This initiative is to address certain objectives necessary for the preservation and safeguarding of the collection. Collection housing institutions tend to be fragmented and isolated. What is happening on the left hand is usually not known by the right hand. Implementing best practices and common standards with regards to a museum environment, focusing mainly on humanities collections is also prioritised. The aim is to standardise collection care, although there will be exceptions here and there. I am hopeful that this project will bring curators curating humanities related collections in the country close together; and that they will be collaboration between museums; and ultimately skills transfer; and achievement of the main goal of this initiative “safeguarding and preserving of the heritage collections in the country”. 

What project or publication or achievement of yours are you most proud of?

While working at Taung, together with a colleague at Wits, we sourced out funding to present human evolution workshops at schools. The aim of these workshops was to present the Palaeosciences as a career choice and to bridge a gap that existed regarding evolution and related subjects that exists among communities living a stone throw away from the site. We compiled worksheets and human evolution teaching packs to donate to schools.

Evolution is a complex subject to learn. We introduced a form of edutainment to the project. Participating schools were tasked to create songs using the site, its discoveries as a focus point. That was very successful, as we ended up recording 9 songs that are both educational and very entertaining. The scholars took the challenge very seriously.

Human evolution workshops at schools in Taung.

What do you think is the most revolutionary discovery in human evolution research over the last 5 years?

I might be biased and focus on those that are perhaps close to home. I will have to mention the discovery of Homo naledi in 2015. Little foot might have been discovered in 1994, but it was in 2017 that it was unveiled for the world to see. The near completeness of the specimen is remarkable. I believe those discoveries and the continuous research on the specimens will add on to the knowledge we have regarding human evolution.

One need to acknowledge that technological advancement in the field is allowing for ground-breaking research to be undertaken in materials that are somewhat difficult to study.

I work in a museum environment, where we curate thousands of pieces of specimens or rather heritage objects, as they are mostly called in the museum environment; collected a long time ago. These pieces should be regarded as active chess pieces with the potential to contribute immensely to the active discussions and discoveries currently taking place.

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

The best thing about my job is teaching. I do lectures and tours of the collections to scholars and the general public. When you present a tour of the collection to scholars with little knowledge about evolution; and you start to observe them grasping the concept; and the confusion slowly disappears from their faces; that comes with some form of contentment.  The one thing I could change, not entirely do away with is the amount of administration that one has to do. Yes administration is a significant role of any position; and it should be taken very seriously. I could streamline reporting in a way that few reports needs to be put together; and they will be suitable to be submitted to different departments or line managers.

Conversations with: Dr Jennifer French

After a brief break, I am very pleased to introduce my next guest Dr Jennifer French, who is currently heading to the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool to take up her new position as a Lecturer of Palaeolithic Archaeology! She has just finished the writing a monograph titled “Palaeolithic Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory” (which has been submitted to the Cambridge University Press for publication in their World Archaeology Series). This will be the first comprehensive synthesis of the population history of the European Palaeolithic combining archaeological data with osteological, genetic, and ethnographic data. 

Dr Jennifer French, now of the University of Liverpool (credit: Lisa Daniel).

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

I’m a Palaeolithic archaeologist with particular expertise in the European Middle and Upper Palaeolithic (Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens in Europe). Within Palaeolithic archaeology, I’m very much a generalist, and my research is centred around key themes, rather than focused on the analysis of any one particular class of material. These themes are: archaeological demography, the theoretical and methodological challenges of the archaeology of archaic hominins, and the integration of Palaeolithic archaeology with the wider anthropological sub-field of hunter-gatherer studies. I like to think that my research programme bridges divisions between the scientific nature of human evolutionary studies and the humanistic focus of prehistory.

What first inspired your interest in archaeology? Did you always want to be an archaeologist and/or academic?

I am not one of those archaeologists whose career is the realisation of a long-held childhood ambition. I was, however, lucky enough to take my A-Levels at a large FE college- one of the few in the UK that offered the (sadly, now discontinued) Archaeology A-Level. I was uncertain what to choose for my fourth A Level subject (to study alongside German, English Literature, and Theatre Studies), and selected Archaeology because of the breadth of the subject. Within one week of classes, I was absolutely hooked, and haven’t looked back since.

I was even later in realising that I wanted to be an academic, mostly because I didn’t know that ‘academic’ was a career until towards the end of my undergraduate studies. I was the first in my family to attend university, and honestly hadn’t thought much about what I would do once I graduated beyond probably continuing in my job at a supermarket while I assessed my options. I had surprised myself by how well I had done in my undergraduate studies and how well received my work had been, so I decided that my preferred next step was graduate study. I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship from St John’s College, Cambridge to study for my Masters’ degree in Archaeological Research. It was then that I decided to pursue a career as an academic as long as academia would have me!

Excavating in Bulgaria in 2006 as an undergraduate at Durham University.

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

I stayed at Cambridge for my PhD, completing a thesis entitled “Populating the Palaeolithic: a Palaeodemographic Analysis of the Upper Palaeolithic Hunter-Gatherer Populations of Southwestern France” funded by the AHRC under the supervision of Prof. Paul Mellars, who continues to be a close friend and mentor. This thesis was a continuation of my Masters’ research into population changes across the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition in the same region, the results of which I published with Prof. Mellars in Science in 2011. Both of these projects looked at how a range of archaeological data can be used as proxies for relative changes in past population size and density in Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer communities, and the relationship(s) between these documented demographic changes and changes in other (environmental, social) domains.

Visiting the famous “Lion Man/ Löwenmensch” in Southwest Germany while a PhD student at the University in Cambridge.

What were the main findings from your PhD? Have you done any further work on this since you completed your PhD?

From the perspective of understanding the Upper Palaeolithic of Southwestern France, the main result of my PhD was the construction of a temporal sequence of fluctuation in relative population size across the Upper Palaeolithic spanning the Aurignacian-Azilian technocomplexes. Some of these fluctuations I didn’t see the relevance of at the time- for example, it took my colleague Andreas Maier finding a similar demographic trough in the Late Gravettian of Europe more widely  for me to realise that this hadn’t really been documented before, and goes against prevailing narratives that it was during the LGM ‘proper’ that the Palaeolithic population of Europe was at its smallest. From the perspective of archaeological demography, my PhD research also tested the robustness of palaeodemographic proxies. Along with Christina Collins, I demonstrated that the proxies of archaeological site counts and summed probability distributions of 14C dates produce similar demographic patterns for the French Upper Palaeolithic record- a finding that has since been replicated elsewhere and increases our confidence in the demographic signature produced by these proxies.

I recommend that those particularly interested in the results of my PhD check out the three papers that resulted from this research in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science and Journal of Archaeological Theory and Method.

As I discuss further below, demography has continued to be the focus of my post-PhD research. In addition to my main projects, I co-lead a working group on “Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Prehistoric Demography” (CROSSDEM) with colleagues at the universities of Bournemouth, Barcelona, and Alicante. Collectively, we have hosted several international workshops, and we are putting the finishing touches to a CROSSDEM Special Issue of “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B”, which brings together a series of ‘state of the art’ papers at the forefront of research in prehistoric demography. I’ve also developed an approach that integrates the study of demography with the study of women and of gender in prehistoric contexts.

Where have you worked since completing your PhD? On what projects?

I was very lucky in that my first post-doctoral position overlapped with my PhD. I took up a Research Fellowship in Archaeology and Anthropology at Peterhouse, Cambridge in 2012, and spent the first 6 months of that post completing my PhD thesis. I remained at Peterhouse until 2016 publishing the results of my doctoral research as discussed above and planning for my next major project which I carried out at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, first as a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow and then as a Wenner-Gren Hunt Postdoctoral Fellow.

This project “Palaeolithic Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory” weaved together archaeological, palaeoanthropological, and genetic data, alongside ethnographic data on recent foragers and demographic models of extant small-scale societies, to develop a demographic prehistory of European Palaeolithic populations ~1.8 million to 15,000 years ago. The results of this project are presented in my monograph of the same name, which I have just submitted to my editor at Cambridge University Press for publication in their World Archaeology Series. This book advances a novel structure for examining the European Palaeolithic based around four demographic stages; 1) visitation; 2) residency; 3) expansion, and; 4) intensification. By combining evolutionary frameworks (Human Behavioural Ecology, Life History Theory) with a social and gender-aware approach to investigating Palaeolithic societies, this book addresses both the biological and social drivers of demographic change within and between hominin species and populations, refuting long-standing ideas about the stability of the demographic regimes of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.

You are just starting your new position as a Lecturer in Palaeolithic Archaeology at the University of Liverpool. -Please tell us a little bit about what you are hoping to bring to our department and what you have planned for this role.   

Firstly, I would like to say how thrilled I am to be joining the Department of Archaeology, Classics, and Egyptology, and especially the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool. I’m particularly excited to join a department with such a strong emphasis on teaching Palaeolithic Archaeology and Evolutionary Anthropology at the undergraduate level, and one of the things I hope to bring to the department is a continued commitment to sharing the latest research and ideas with students. I also have lots of potential undergraduate and masters’ dissertation projects that derive from my recent book research, so if you are a student at Liverpool interested in Middle-Upper Palaeolithic archaeology, hunter-gatherer studies, or archaeological demography, please get in touch!

My research plans for the next few years are varied and given the lottery-nature of many funding schemes, I don’t want to jinx them! Nonetheless, I hope to collaborate with some of my more quantitatively-minded new colleagues on some demographic questions that have been vexing me for years, as well as continuing my work with Prof. April Nowell at the University of Victoria on adolescence in the Palaeolithic. I’ll also be continuing my fieldwork at several Palaeolithic cave sites in the UK with my colleague, Dr Rob Dinnis of the University of Aberdeen.

With the excavation team at Kents Cavern, Devon (credit: Rob Dinnis).

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in Palaeolithic archaeology over the past 5 years?

I’m a big advocate for the position that ‘archaeology is not about what you find, it’s about what you find out’ but there’s no denying that there have been some pretty spectacular discoveries in Palaeolithic archaeology over the last 5 years! As someone whose research focuses on the dynamics of European Palaeolithic populations, the possibility that Homo sapiens were present on the continent as early as ~210,000 years ago really throws a spanner into our models and assumptions about the correlation between hominins and different lithic industries in the European Palaeolithic. The finding of a child with a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father is also incredibly exciting from a demographic perspective-the notion that we now have direct evidence for this sort of interaction during early prehistory is mind-blowing.

What are your favourite things about being an academic? What would you change?

There are many things that I love about being an academic: the freedom to pursue interesting research questions, to work with great colleagues and teach students, and to feel that you are contributing to a global knowledge base. The bad things and the things I would change are well-documented: the increasing casualisation of the academic work force and associated structural problem in terms of the opportunities afforded to people of different genders, nationalities and ethnicities. These issues are obviously not unique to academia and academic settings, but I do think we have a greater responsibility within the academy to be a force for positive change in these areas. I have a long track-record of public engagement endeavours and initiatives to get more young people into both higher education and archaeology (see for example, my work on the National University Archaeology Day with colleagues from the UCL Institute of Archaeology), but there is much, much, more to do here.

Teaching field techniques at Ffynnon Beuno, Wales (credit: Rob Dinnis).

Conversations with: Dr Trish Biers

This week, I am very pleased to introduce Dr Trish Biers, Collections Manager of the Duckworth Laboratory in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Department of Archaeology, at the University of Cambridge! As well as curating and managing the human remains collections housed in the Duckworth Laboratory, Trish also teaches about treatment of the dead, ethics, and decolonisation for the Department of Archaeology and runs courses at the Institute for Continuing Education at Cambridge. Her research interests include the bioarchaeology of death and burial, paleopathology and diet, mortuary archaeology of the Americas, museum studies focusing on human remains, repatriation and indigenous visibility and more! Previously, she has held positions in osteology and outreach at the Repatriation Osteology Laboratory in the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, and San Diego Museum of Man in California. She currently serves asMuseum representative on the Board of Trustees for the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology and cofounded MorsMortisMuseum – a website dedicated to the role of human remains in museums.

Dr Trish Biers

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

My research interests revolve around death and human remains, decolonising the dead, and ethical issues about displaying the dead in museums. I’m also interested in Andean archaeology, gender, cemetery and graveyard research, and folklore studies in witchcraft and magic and material culture. My areas of expertise are osteology and paleopathology, museum curation and conservation, scientific investigations of human tissues, ethics and repatriation.

What first inspired your interest in osteology and paleopathology? 

As a teenager I went to the San Diego Museum of Man (soon to be the Museum of Us) all the time. I was always interested in death, skeletal structures, mummified remains and burials, and forensics. At 19 I got an internship with the Physical Anthropology collections under Rose Tyson, a phenomenal osteologist and palaeopathologist and she trained me. I got a job there at 21 and worked my way up from ‘shop girl’ to Associate Curator. I also volunteered with a forensic entomologist named Dave Faulkner who helped me develop my academic trajectory. At the Museum, we hosted incredible scholars from all over the world including the late, great, Dr Don Ortner whose knowledge of pathology was remarkable, I learned so much. I worked on collections and exhibitions while doing my Undergraduate and Master’s degrees, I was there for 11 years!

What was your PhD topic and who was your supervisor? What were the findings from your PhD?

My PhD was titled, ‘Investigating the Relationship between Labour and Gender, Material Culture, and Identity at an Inka Period Cemetery: a regional analysis of provincial burials from Lima, Peru.’ It combined human skeletal data, burial deposition, and documentary sources to assess identity of artisans under Inka (AD1400-1532) provincial control. My supervisor was Dr Elizabeth DeMarrais and my advisor was Dr John Robb here at Cambridge. I found some really interesting patterns in burial style (six types of mummy bundles), grave associations and gender. In particular those associated with older women, and women’s labour under Inka rule. They were very skilled artisans!

Trish with her colleague Bertha excavating a Peruvian mummy bundle in Lima.

What projects are you currently involved with? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

I have a few things happening at the moment as well as just surviving this crazy pandemic!  I’m working on a proteomics/genomics project with colleagues from Peru and the US that has had a successful pilot project so we will write a grant to do more in-depth osteobiographies. I’ve just submitted a book proposal with my colleague about museums, heritage and death, so fingers crossed. I’m thrilled to be involved in the Legacies of Empire research group via the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) and am excited to see how we can dismantle the colonial collecting practices of the past associated with Cambridge collections. And finally, I’m having fun with new research about witchcraft, human remains, and material culture.

Trish engaging with the public at the ‘Plague Late’ evening event at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.

What does your role as Collections Manager of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge involve? 

Well, I research and conserve the collections and archive on a daily basis. This means I check environmental conditions across the Duckworth spaces, re-box and catalogue remains, photograph remains for the database, prepare remains for repatriation, do archival research, and facilitate researcher access to the collections. I build protective structures for more fragile collections and document conservation work. I’m trying to make the collections more accessible with up-to-date information to eventually be put online. I also consult about human remains collections with other institutions in Cambridge offering advice and collaborative strategies.

What type of research is done on the collections in the Duckworth Laboratory?

We host all sorts of people in the Duckworth including visiting researchers, undergraduate and Mphil students, PhDs and PostDocs, and individuals doing archival research. The scope is broad, from non-human primate anatomy to hominin development to dental morphology. It’s mostly dissertations about human skeletal remains and a lot of researchers use micro-CT and various types of photogrammetry for 3D modelling. Applications for destructive sampling are on the rise as well.

Trish presenting on trephination and cranial modification with skeletal casts at the Cambridge Science Festival.

You have also worked at the Smithsonian Institute in their Repatriation Osteology Laboratory. Are there many differences between the UK and the USA in terms of protocols, ethics etc. when dealing with human remains? 

Yes and no. In regards to ethics, those are pretty standard across the biological anthropology and archaeology communities whether university/museum or commercial units, as professional organisations have codes of ethics that we are supposed to follow and these are very similar internationally, i.e. dignity and respect of human remains.

What’s different is legislation, and the US has the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Enacted in 1990, Federal law provides for the repatriation and disposition of Native American/First Nations human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. It is a robust programme and is now often used as a model for repatriation discourse and strategy globally. In the UK repatriation is much less structured and there are national guidelines but institutions have more options in compliance. This is changing with a national movement to “provide new guidance for the UK museum sector on the restitution and repatriation of cultural objects

What is the best thing about your job? What is the most challenging? 

I’m lucky that I get to teach on ethics, treatment of the dead, osteology, and repatriation for the Department of Archaeology. One of my favourite parts of the job is working with students and helping them with their projects. I’m thrilled to be advising a PhD student on her work with human remains abroad and we are having so much fun together (and being serious academics of course). In August I usually have several students helping me with re-boxing remains and it is enjoyable to see them get invested in the care of the collections. On the other hand, I also like disappearing into the collections and archives and having a quiet space for research and reflection.

Trish, alongside colleague Sarah-Jane Harknett from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), presenting at the Death, Dying, and Disposal Conference in Bath 2019.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in a career working with human remains?

Death is such a deep, philosophical entity. How you perceive death and a dead body whether it’s skeletonised, fleshed, ancient or new, can influence how you work with say, archaeological human remains, or rather how you perceive them. Are they biomatter? Are they ancestors? Who really cares if they are dead? It’s all tied up into ideology really despite a background in the scientific method (it’s fascinating to see how different the views are amongst my friends/colleagues). I personally think it is important to be mindful of death practices globally in the past and the present because there is SO much variation in how humans treat dead bodies both physically and spiritually. This can help you build your professional narrative during your skeletal biology and anatomy studies in addition to field and lab methods. If you are more ‘museumy’ in nature then be prepared for the emotional and troubling information you can come across if you are working with collections that stem from colonial/imperial collecting practices. Be curious but be thoughtful!

Trish enjoying a motorcycle show (one of her hobbies) in Llandudno, North Wales.

Conversations with: Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes

It is my pleasure to introduce today Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Palaeolithic archaeologist and author of new popular science book: Kindred! Rebecca is primarily interested in the Middle Palaeolithic, specifically in the material and symbolic life of Neanderthals. Following her PhD at the University of Sheffield where she worked on analysing the evidence for late Neanderthals in Britain, in 2013 she won a prestigious Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship at the Université de Bordeaux to study Neanderthal landscapes in the Massif Central mountains. Following that, she has been working largely outside of scientific research, nurturing projects in creative heritage consultancy and popular science writing as well as co-coordinating TrowelBlazers as part of her advocacy work to improve equality in archaeology. Her most recent project has been the writing of her first book titled Kindred: Neanderthal Life Love Death and Art, published yesterday by Bloomsbury Sigma, which explores our ever-evolving understanding of Neanderthals and their culture. Kindred has been listed as one of the ‘Best Books of 2020’ by the Times and is listed as the #1 Prehistoric Archaeology book on Amazon, with outstanding reviews from the likes of Nature, Professor Lee Berger,  Professor Brian Cox and Professor Alice Roberts. 

Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes

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

I’m interested in all of the Palaeolithic, however I’ve honed in specifically on the Middle Palaeolithic and Neanderthals. Funnily enough, what had originally attracted me to the University of Bristol for my undergraduate degree was that they had an Upper Palaeolithic rock art course, but my research ended up going back further in time. Whilst the Upper Palaeolithic is abundant and interesting, I like the challenge of the Middle Palaeolithic as you have less evidence to deal with. Plus, assemblages with tiny bladelets scare me…! 

I’m primarily a stone tool person and I’m trained in lithic analysis. During my masters at Southampton, there was an awesome teaching collection based on 19th century sites  which fostered my interest in Middle Palaeolithic stone tools. I decided to study the Middle Palaeolithic of Kents Cavern for my masters project. But, although I love lithics, I’m interested in all aspects of Neanderthal life. The quality and breadth of the data that we now have allows us to explore the interconnections between these different aspects to really understand our not-so-distant relatives. I really like looking at interconnections – something I learned from my supervisor at Southampton, Professor Clive Gamble!

What originally sparked your interest in human evolution studies? 

I have always been interested in the past. I am one of those cliché archaeologists who dug up pot-shards in their back garden and collected dead creatures as a child! As a family, we went on many holidays to historic sites so my desire to imagine the past was always there. Ultimately, I had to choose between going to art college or to do archaeology at university and, though neither of them had great career prospects, I thought I might have a slightly better chance at making a living as an archaeologist!

In terms of prehistory, like many people, I was somewhat attracted to the mystery and that deep-time connection to our ancient human past. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a fan of The Clan of the Cave Bear books when I was a teenager; people can critique the story but I was totally absorbed by Jean Auel’s descriptions of the environment and how prehistoric people lived. I didn’t understand what she meant by “striking platform” at first but I eventually worked that one out! As I have found in writing Kindred, describing lithic technology to a lay-audience is really hard without a lot of visuals. Considering that, her books are very impressive and she took a lot of time to research them, so they’re definitely something that has stayed with me.

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

My PhD was the first full analysis of the British Mousterian, the lithic culture created by late Neanderthals. As part of my project, I also addressed the faunal record and landscape in relation to these lithic assemblages. Prior to my PhD, little work had been conducted over the last 20 years on this material, despite there being many shifts in the chronological frameworks adopted and how we consider and analyse stone tool assemblages. I used techno-economic methodologies in my analysis, moving away from typological assessments as has typically been done previously, as I wanted to bring a coherence and consider the assemblages as a whole, despite there not being a lot of material. Compared to continental sites, the British record is minuscule but this doesn’t make it useless. That said, we do need to be extremely careful as many British assemblages were excavated very early using entirely different excavation and recording practises; the only British late Middle Palaeolithic site that has been excavated to modern standards is Lynford Quarry. I studied the main assemblage at this site which was fascinating. 

My PhD was very data collection intensive as a result of early British excavators who had a philanthropic tendency of wanting to distribute their collections across different museums. Because of this, I had to go to a huge number of  museums across the UK, sometimes to only study three artefacts! The assemblages were so tiny so I wanted my analysis to be as comprehensive as possible, only missing a few collections in the US and Cork. I really enjoyed this aspect of my PhD, especially the independent study and getting an idea about the realities of archaeological collections. I also had a great time with my fellow PhD cohort at the University of Sheffield. I was one of two studying the Palaeolithic, but I through my other friends was exposed to ideas about later prehistoric and historical archaeology. I found this really benefited my development as an archaeologist as, before I started my PhD, I was very much a part of the scientific-positivist trend in archaeology. I found being exposed to a wider theoretical approach at Sheffield challenging but I enjoyed the broadening out a lot. During my PhD, I set up a journal discussion group at Sheffield with my fellow research students and I edited the student peer-reviewed journal Assemblage, which was great. 

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

After the PhD, I didn’t have much luck getting positions, like a lot of people. In total since my PhD  I applied to 20 positions and I got 1 interview offer, which was difficult. I was eventually awarded the Marie Curie post-doctoral fellowship in 2012, which I didn’t start until June 2013. I ranked sixth in the reserve list of the thousands of applicants and so I didn’t find out I had been awarded the fellowship until months afterwards, by which time I had already prepared myself for not getting it. It was a bit of a shock! I moved to France in 2013 and stayed there for four and a half years. The fellowship was only two years (which was super intensive) but I had a child, so my maternity leave extended the postdoc a little, plus I stayed over there for a while afterwards applying for more positions and writing Kindred. My postdoc was great because although it was really challenging moving abroad and into a completely different research culture, I had some French language ability which made it a little easier. 

Silcrete from Saint-Pierre-Eynac quarry excavations

The project was focussed on looking at landscape-scale lithic sourcing and connectivity between sources and sites. The site I was excavating was a silcrete quarry in Massif central, a material source site used throughout prehistory by Neanderthals and later populations. We surveyed the hill where the source site was believed to be and, right at the top, there was an immense spread of knapping debrief. So, we hit the jackpot right away! However, this particular silcrete is not easy to analyse as it has strange fracture plains, which makes it difficult to differentiate which rocks were modified by humans and natural processes. It took me a while to get my head around it. Also, it was clearly a mixed age quarry site, which made sampling very difficult. We took some surface samples and dug some test-pits, where lower down we found evidence for Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal presence, which was great. What was also really nice was that, although it was primarily a silcrete site, when we did the surface survey we found two tiny flint artefacts which were directly sourced from far south in Ardeche, France. [article: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.07.022]

TRACETERRE Marie Curie fieldwork team: Dr Jean Paul Raynal, Vincent Delvigne, Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Erwan Vayssié

After my postdoc I again applied for a lot of positions but, eventually I decided to stop since the thought of potentially moving to a third country was too much with a young family and Brexit on the horizon.  Our only option was to come back to the UK, where I’ve been focussing on writing my book, alongside other creative and writing projects as well research consultancy work, for the two and half years since.

Tell us a little bit about your new book ‘Kindred’ that is coming out soon. What is the book about, why did you want to write a book about this topic and how did you find the book writing process?

Kindred is an up-to-date definitive book about the Neanderthals which is accessible to all. Whilst it is not an academic text, it draws on my academic expertise and dives deeply into selected archaeological sites. I wanted to show people how mind-blowing 21st century archaeology is, exactly what we can do and how we connect across different subdisciplines. I’ve tried to show the aspects of the archaeology that are fascinating but never seem to get into the headlines which have informed the revolution of how we understand Neanderthals over the last 30 years. Lithics aren’t easily explained by media stories! I’ve tried to make it accessible for everyone and something useful even for academics, particularly for students who have no background in Neanderthals or those who study prehistory but want an overview of the current debates, evidence, knowledge and the types of data. The book does have some narrative exploration, which of course I would never be able to put into academic papers. It has been wonderful to let the creative side of my writing flourish and develop. I really hope my colleagues find the book interesting! 

Kindred jacket

I found it very different to writing an academic paper, though the amount of literature reviewed was vast. I chose not to include a bibliography in the book as I didn’t want to put lay-people off, but I am doing an online version on my website which is so far over 120  pages long. It’s huge because everything I wrote has been informed by the literature. I went through the detail historically as well as looking deeply at individual sites, following the evidence sometimes right through to unpublished reports. This was very time consuming but I wanted to make sure I did it properly. It was also nice not to have to do in-text citations! I found the process was difficult in another way in that I had to restructure the book twice. I didn’t want it to be chronological as that has been done many times before, so for me it was always going to be thematic. However, the interconnectedness between themes made it very difficult to structure as, for example, it is hard to talk about diet without talking about social cooperation etc. So that was challenging. In terms of the creative aspects of the book, I always wanted to do that right from the beginning but I wasn’t 100% sure at first. After a while, it started really flowing nicely and I think it works well. There may even be a couple of poems in there…

Overall, it’s been a really fun experience and the response from everyone has been absolutely overwhelming! It’s incredibly gratifying that everyone seems to be responding so well to exactly the things the book intended to do, showing people the details as well as the difficulties archaeologists face when dealing with this material to make informed inferences about the deep past. I had hoped to connect and engage people emotionally with Neanderthals and their culture, and it seems to have worked, I think!

You are active in current movements to advance equality within archaeology. Please could you tell the readers about this aspect of your work and what kinds of projects you are currently working on in this regard.

Equality within archaeology has been interesting to me for a long while, but my involvement in these movements largely came about during my postdoc. I was connecting with some other early career researchers on Twitter and on there we discussed how there was a lack of open-access public- facing resources about women in archaeology, leading to the idea for TrowelBlazers. It evolved from being a Tumblr account to a professional website. Since we built the website in 2015,  it has changed a lot as more than 50% of our material is now sourced from the community. People have really responded to what TrowelBlazers represents which is amazing to see. For me personally, I love the creative side of this project. Just after finishing my postdoc in October 2015, TrowelBlazers was approached by the artist Leonora Saunders with a really cool idea to produce a photographic exhibition. I project managed this exhibition (Raising Horizons) for TrowelBlazers as I was the only one not fully employed at the time. I selected and researched all of the women included in the exhibition and, together with Leonora, we came up for the settings for some of the objects they would hold. The whole process took well over a year and required a massive CrowdFund to fund it, which was amazingly popular. Being involved with the exhibition took me back to my early days at school when I was doing art; it was so lovely to be able to be involved with something like that, which would have been impossible in a scientifically-structured full time career. 

Raising Horizons exhibition launch at The Geological Society, London, with Lenora Saunders.

Since then, I have continued to work on the advocacy side of things. We have joined forces with multiple other groups in the UK interested in improving diversity and equality, recently forming the IDEAH federation (Inclusion, Diversity and Equality in Archaeology and Heritage). We were going to start meeting and working on projects before Covid19, though hopefully we can reanimate that and restart as a group amplifying each other’s voices soon. Our aim is to look at how we can practically address issues not only in the professional sphere but also in universities, and we have a lot of ideas about how we can encourage university departments to take proactive steps in terms of equality, representation and harassment. Archaeology has a long way to go in this regard so I’m really pleased to carry on this work. 

What is the best thing about your current situation? What is one thing that you would change if you could?

The best thing about my current situation is the freedom. I do miss doing academic research and working with materials. I haven’t been digging for a long time. However, I haven’t disconnected from intellectual research and writing the book has really helped with that. I also have some papers simmering and academic projects that are ongoing, and I was recently  invited to contribute a chapter to an upcoming Oxford handbook on cognitive archaeology. So I feel like I have maintained my connection to scientific research despite not having an academic position. Twitter has really helped stay in active discussion with the research community too, which has been a god-send as working at home can be quite isolating. I do have a lot of freedom to pursue what I want which I love. But in terms of what my next step will be, I’m not quite sure though I have some ideas… 

If I could change something, it would be the lack of reliable income! I also wish that academia would be more open to proper part-time roles and flexible working, as not everyone who wants a research career can (or want) to commit to a full time post.

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

For a student interested in working on Neanderthals from an academic perspective, I would say learn German! French is great but there are a lot of active projects in Germany right now. Germany seems to be one of the best places for funding and, whilst I don’t want to put a downer on things, if you are a student in Britain right now, things aren’t looking great in that regard. I really hope new research structures are going to evolve to make it possible to maintain international collaborations. That is one of the most precious things about all of the experiences I’ve had, working with different people from different backgrounds and cultures. This is key to human origins. Interconnection between different countries is vital, though we don’t see enough between Europe and the Global South currently. I would say to have an open mind about that! 

In a broader sense and assuming not every student will get an academic position, as I hadn’t for a long time, I would ask them what is it about archaeology that makes them like it, and can they take these skills and apply them to different roles. Don’t be afraid of shifting disciplines or professions and be flexible! It’s okay to have a career more like a braided river than a path.

Conversations with: Professor Erella Hovers

Today’s guest is Professor Erella Hovers, a Prehistorian at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem! Erella’s research is primarily focussed on the Plio-Pleistocene archaeology in East Africa and the Middle Paleolithic of the Levant, concentrating on lithic technology, the development of the use of symbolism and the techno-economic behavior of early hominins. Her research has significantly furthered our understanding of early human material culture in these periods through collaborative multidisciplinary research projects. In addition to being a professor in the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Erella is also an International Research Affiliate for Arizona State University and serves as Field School Faculty in Hadar, Ethiopia.

Professor Erella Hovers

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

I am a paleolithic archaeologist by training. I consider what I do as part of paleoanthropology, because although many people use this term only for researchers working with skeletal remains, the definition of anthropology emphasizes the scientific study of humans and their behavior – present and past. I work mainly in the Early and Middle Paleolithic periods in eastern African (specifically Ethiopia) and the eastern Mediterranean Levant. I am a field archaeologist and a lithic analyst. To me, lithics are a never-ending source of information about the past, if one thinks about them long and hard.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I was interested in “prehistoric people” as a child, even before I knew about evolution. I think I was fascinated by the mental time travel and I had a sense that this type of knowledge could be important to understanding the world around me and how it came to be. The decision to try to make this my profession came much later. When I started my university education, this was not my main interest. I was lucky enough to have a great professor in the first year (the late Ofer Bar-Yosef), who drew me into prehistory and human evolution studies. I took immediately to the multi-disciplinarity of the endeavor, and was fascinated by the work, thought, knowledge and imagination that were needed in order to “build a case” and to convince others that one’s scenario is valid. I was then, and still am, excited about linking the stones and bones to really big and important questions in all aspects of human evolution – biological, cultural, social, cognitive and so many more.

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

I wrote my dissertation under the supervision of Ofer Bar-Yosef and Naama Goren-Inbar, on the lithic assemblages of Qafzeh Cave. This is a cave in Israel, well known for its Middle Paleolithic hominin fossils. The large number of fossils from this cave were identified as modern humans during the 1960 and 1970s, following two different excavations (in the 1930s and the 1960s). Although the lithic assemblages were not studied, it was clear that they were Mousterian and very similar to those of the Neandertals in Europe, and then it also turned out – when dating was finally possible in the 1980s – that these fossils were contemporaneous with the classical Neandertals in Europe, and in fact they were older than Neandertal fossils in the Levant. Very little was known about the lithics though, and that was when Ofer suggested that I wrote my Ph.D. on this material. I carried out  a nauseatingly detailed analysis but also to put the assemblages in the context of behavioral, demographic and evolutionary thought of the time. I touched on all this in  a volume with the uninspiring name ‘The Lithic Assemblages of Qafzeh Cave‘, which – for better or worse – does include much more than the lithics.

How did you find your PhD experience?

In retrospect, it was intellectual fun. No scholarship was available for the project, which was difficult since I had to work for a living (I TA’d and also worked outside of archaeology), in addition to putting in the work for the thesis. But it was also a good thing because it gave me freedom and I was the boss of my own time. I dragged the analysis and write-up for many years, also because I was involved in several other projects (such as my own excavation at Amud Cave and the work in the Hadar Research Project in Ethiopia), taking time off from my Ph.D. work for many weeks on end).

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

I was a post-doctoral fellow in the department of Anthropology at Harvard University, for one year, and was incredibly lucky to be offered a job as a lecturer at Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, immediately upon returning to Israel. I have been there ever since, doing research and teaching. I was appointed an international research fellow of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and spent two 1-year stints as a visiting researcher at the department of Anthropology at NY.

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

Trying to advance publication of some past projects, for one. Amud Cave is a huge project (I sometimes think that we simply translocated the site from the cave to the lab, there is so much sediment to go through and so many lithics and fauna to study). Although we have already put out a rather large number of publications on various aspects of the work there is still a lot to be done. We also returned to the site a few times for limited sampling, for specific studies that were not even conceivable when we had our big field seasons.  We will soon be launching a new phase of study of the faunal assemblage, which I am excited about.

Amud Cave, Israel.

Another site that my team of great students, ex-students and colleagues is working on is an open-air site, Ein Qashish, that was excavated on a very large scale (but is not as dense as Amud Cave, so may actually move forward faster… ). It is currently being studied by a Ph.D. student who is also doing some Agent Based Modelling as part of the process. I really look forward to see what she comes up with.

Excavations at Ein Qashish, Israel (Taken in 2013)

Also, a detailed publication of the Oldowan material from the Hadar research area is -finally – advancing. Slowly but in the right direction…

In terms of field work, I am currently co-directing a project at Melka Wakena, an Early Acheulian site on the highlands of southeastern Ethiopia. My co-director is an Ethiopian colleague – a former Ph.D. student, who received his degree from the Hebrew University just last week! He wrote his thesis on the lithic assemblages from localities that we had already tested at the site. There are very few sites similar to Melka Wakena, so this is a big responsibility, also because the site is endangered by quarrying. We are now working to publish some papers on the project and its significance, and about the lithics.

Melka Wakena, an early Acheulian site (Taken in 2017)

There are thoughts and plans for other new projects, in Israel and abroad. Also, quite a number of papers that are more general and not necessarily related to particular sites that are in the making.

What has been your favourite memory from the field?

It is very hard to select one. I think they would be, in no particular order, listening to classical music during work at Amud; the discovery and excavation of the skeletal remains of the infant Amud 7; getting up in the early morning in the tent in Hadar, hearing the Awash River as it flowed below the cliff where our camp was and the birds chirping in the bush, just before the day started.   

Hadar, Ethiopia (Taken in 2007)

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Nearly each publication that I manage to have accepted by a journal after a rigorous, constructive review process… Writing is hard!

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

I think the field is still reeling from the implications of ancient DNA research. Over the last five years, we are probably learning what the limitations are. Compared to the earlier awe, this is a revolution in itself.

What would you be if you were not a paleoanthropologist?

By inclination, a bum… but since I’d have to be more useful if I wanted to be paid, maybe a literary editor. 

Conversations with: Dr Sonia Shidrang

Today’s guest is Dr. Sonia Shidrang, an archaeologist in the Palaeolithic Department of the National Museum of Iran. Sonia has led several field projects in the Central Western Zagros and recently has initiated a fieldwork project in the Southern Zagros to compare the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sequences in different regions of this Iranian mountain range. In her research, she attempts to understand the patterns of human behaviour in Late Pleistocene settlements of the Zagros Mountains, particularly in the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition and the beginning of Upper Palaeolithic, through the study of different aspects of lithic artefacts. Back in 2001, she began her Palaeolithic carrier as a junior research assistant at the newly established Centre for Palaeolithic Research of National Museum of Iran and some years later moved to Europe to complete her postgraduate studies in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology. She finished her PhD at PACEA, Bordeaux, in 2015 which proposed a new hypothesis suggesting that bio-cultural contact between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, as another potential explanation, beside site formation process, for the presence of Middle Palaeolithic tools in the beginning of several Upper Palaeolithic occupations in the Zagros.

Dr. Sonia Shidrang during a Palaeolithic survey (Bisotun Mountains, western Iran)

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

Broadly speaking, I am interested in understanding human bio-cultural evolutionary processes during the Pleistocene and the ways that different disciplines, like archaeology, palaeoanthropology, paleogenetics, paleoecology, etc., can be used together to try to explain these processes. I enthusiastically follow the ever-changing image that emerges from combining the results of all of these studies in different geographical regions.

As a Palaeolithic archaeologist, I am particularly interested in tracing the earliest emergence of Upper Palaeolithic cultures in Iran which marks a major dispersal route of modern humans through the crossroad region of Southwest Asia. I’m trying to find reliable evidence for possible contact between these modern newcomers and Neanderthals at our Iranian sites, particularly in Central and Southern Zagros. The main focus of my research has been on the techno-typological and taphonomic studies of lithic artefacts, the most frequent archaeological material left behind by Pleistocene human populations. I am mainly interested in the reconstruction of the operational sequences of Early Upper Palaeolithic lithic industries as they reflect changes in techno-economic behavioural patterns of modern populations when compared to the late Middle Palaeolithic lithic industries of Neanderthals in Zagros.

I think it is absolutely fascinating to trace and understand these variable patterns of human interactions with their environment through time and space with the help of different disciplines.

The Mar Tarik cave excavation, a Middle Paleolithic site in Bisotun, Zagros, Iran (2004)

What originally drew you towards Palaeolithic archaeology? 

Nowadays, the love for archaeology grows from very early ages, as kids watch many archaeological science-fiction movies and documentaries as well as reading fantastic archaeology books especially designed for them. In my case, my love for archaeology started from the early ages as well, but in quite different circumstances. I read my first archaeology-related books, which were extremely rare in the chaotic times of post Iran-Iraq war, when I was ten-years-old. Reading those few books, and later watching movies about Egyptian dynasties, fascinated me and consequently led me to apply for a BA in archaeology at the age of seventeen.

Back in 2001 and during my MA, I started to work at two newly founded centres for Achaemenid studies and Palaeolithic research at the National Museum of Iran as a research assistant, thanks to my computer skills that were quite rare at the time. This was the beginning of my lifelong interest in Palaeolithic archaeology and here I focused on learning how to study lithic artefacts under the direction of Fereidoun Biglari, the first Iranian scholar specialized in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology in Iran. These studies intertwined with reading the pioneering works of Deborah Olszewski and Harrold Dibble on the Warwasi lithic assemblages, and works of several other pioneering researchers, introduced me to the topic of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transitions and the Aurignacian as the first widespread culture made by modern humans in the vast area of Western Eurasia. The second waves of inspirations that ensured me of my lifelong carrier in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology came from a trip to south-western France in 2003 where I met several outstanding French prehistorians. Among them, two prominent women, Laurence Bourguignon and some years later Liliane Meignen inspired me to choose this path seriously as a female researcher in a male-dominated field, especially in Iran.

Sonia’s first inspirations from Paleolithic archaeology of France (Périgord, 2003).

By 2005, I moved to Europe as an Erasmus Mundus Masters student in Quaternary and Prehistory and some years later enrolled in a PhD at PACEA, the University of Bordeaux, as a Wenner-Gren grantee and started my PhD under the supervision of Jacques Jaubert and Jean-Guillaume Bordes. Alongside working on my PhD project at Bordeaux University, I went back to Iran constantly to work on several projects with my colleagues Fereidoun Biglari (a Palaeolithic archaeologist) and Marjan Mashkour (a zooarchaeologist), two outstanding researchers that I have had the privilege of working with from the beginning of my carrier.

I found that it was sometimes difficult to constantly balance life and work within the two completely different worlds of the East and West, but I think dealing with the cross-cultural differences have considerably expanded my perspectives on life and my professional development as an archaeologist who is trying to understand the behavioural patterns of our ancestors in early Prehistory.

Sonia presenting her work during Erasmus Mundus Masters in Quaternary and Prehistory, Ferrara University and Institute for Human Paleontology, Paris (2006).

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

My PhD topic was on the Early Upper Palaeolithic of Zagros, involving the techno-typological assessment of three Baradostian lithic assemblages from Khar Cave, Yafteh Cave and Pa-Sangar Rockshelter in the Central Western Zagros, Iran. As previously mentioned, I had the opportunity and privilege to work with two prominent French Prehistorians with deep knowledge of Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic lithic technologies, Jacques Jaubert (Professor of Prehistory) and Jean-Guillaume Bordes (Director of research) who became my supervisors at PACEA. In my PhD, I mainly focused on tracing the techno-typological changes of lithic artefacts throughout the whole sequence of the Baradostian by analysing the three mentioned lithic assemblages from the west of Iran. I tried to contextualize each lithic industry and detect their techno-typological characteristics and cultural changes synchronically and diachronically which all led to me describing three clear phases for the Baradostian in the study region, of which some of their characteristics were highlighted by the previous works.

I also tried to address these issues from a research historical perspective. I took a closer look at all published reports from Dorothy Garrod’s time until the last decade to examine the lithic-based dominant hypothesis of Middle Palaeolithic-Upper Palaeolithic (MP-UP) continuity in all of the excavated sites in Zagros. When all of the chrono-cultural information and their correlations to the stratigraphy were put together, it seemed that despite the dominant hypothesis of MP-UP lithic industrial continuity, the evidence for technological continuity between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic elements is very scarce. Back in 2012-2013 when I was gaining more insights into the MP-UP sequences of Zagros, increasing evidence for interbreeding between archaic and modern humans during Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition was revolutionizing our understanding of interactions between different human populations, initially thanks to the ground-breaking advances in Neanderthal genome sequencing. This was the time that I started to look at my collected information on the peculiar mixture of MP-UP elements in Zagros from a different perspective. Besides emphasizing the importance of site formation processes and the mechanical mixing of archaeological remains, I launched another possible hypothesis for explaining the mixture. The hypothesis, as simple as it was, gave us another option to consider: the cultural indicators of two different human populations, Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, who might have occupied the landscape in an overlapping timespan. Just recently, it was adopted by other researchers working in Zagros, and some competing ex-colleagues included the hypothesis in their publications, without referring to the original source of the idea.

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

Prior to my PhD, I worked as a researcher for the Palaeolithic department of the National Museum of Iran, and during my PhD project in France, I remained an associated researcher to this department and at the same time also worked as a project archaeologist, leading several Palaeolithic investigations (some of which were salvage projects) in western Iran. After finishing my PhD, I went to Austria for a short term post-doc at OREA and then came back to Iran to join a newly founded research institute called the Saeedi Institute of advanced studies at Kashan University on a 2-year contract. For now, I am at the National Museum of Iran as a project archaeologist leading and trying to find budgets for my own Palaeolithic archaeological excavation projects, focused on the issues of MP-UP transition and the emergence and development of Early Upper Palaeolithic cultures in the Zagros. I also teach Masters courses related to Palaeolithic archaeology and human evolution at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University. As well as this, I have published a book on Upper Palaeolithic of Iran in Persian to help Iranian students of prehistoric archaeology understand the objectives of this field of research.

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

Over the past several years, we have conducted several Palaeolithic excavations in the Western and the Southern Zagros with my colleagues, Fereidoun Biglari (Director of Palaeolithic department, National Museum of Iran) and Marjan Mashkour (CNRS, Director of research) and other international colleagues from around the world. We are currently working on the recovered archaeological materials from these excavations and their related analysis. One of the cases that we are focused on right now is the results of an extensive salvage project in the prehistorically unknown region of Hawraman in Kermanshah and Kurdistan, which resulted in the discovery and documentation of a considerable number of Palaeolithic sites and significant Middle and Upper Palaeolithic archaeological materials. We hope that the outcomes of these excavations will improve our understanding of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic settlements of this region and the crucial shift events that led to the major bio-cultural change in human populations during MIS4 and MIS 3.

The Kenacheh cave excavation, Hawraman, Kurdistan, Iran.

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

Apart from our ongoing discoveries in the new sites of the western and southern Zagros and our 2005-2008 discoveries in Yafteh cave, I’m proud about the hypothesis that I proposed in my PhD for the mixture of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic elements in the very beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic in the Zagros, launching this idea that we may consider the mixture as the result of site formation process or even the cultural indicators of two different human species, who might have occupied the same landscape during an overlapping time span. This is an idea that I am pleased to see other researchers working in the same area have begun to adopt. Since my return to Iran, I have been busy with field works and teaching in the past few years and consequently have had less time for finishing all the publications of the results, but a brief overview of my PhD was published in the Springer book series:Replacement of Neanderthals by Modern Human in 2017, along with a few other papers.

What is your favourite memory from your career?

The field of archaeology, particularly in our case with Palaeolithic archaeology, is usually full of amazing adventures, discoveries, and pure moments that only can be found in remote and inaccessible areas where we work during our field projects. Apart from all of the excitements and wonderful moments that I have had experienced at the time of important archaeological discoveries, a non-science-related memory comes to my mind right now.

In 2009, during our Palaeolithic surveys in Kermanshah province, I had borrowed my friend’s car as our survey’s vehicle and took over the driving myself to prevent any damage to the borrowed car. During the surveys, we visited several villages where respecting the strict local traditions and fundamental values, particularly for women, is one of the most important rules in the daily life of inhabitants. Driving that car (totally common in the Iranian cities) with my archaeological outfit and male colleagues in the car was the most unusual event that attracted much attention and curiosity everywhere on our way. I will never forget the astonished and surprised looks on people’s faces when they saw such an unusual woman and to our surprise, their warm and respectful reactions during our conversations with them.

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

Undoubtedly, many exciting discoveries have improved our knowledge and understanding of Palaeolithic periods during last 5 years, from the Lomekwi stone tools dating to 3.3 million years ago that drawback the timespan of Palaeolithic archaeology considerably, to the many Neanderthals footprints at Le Rozrl of Normandy, France that enables us to trace the size and composition of Neanderthal groups. But speaking about a revolution in our understanding of Palaeolithic times and societies, I definitely think the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome was a real revolution in human evolution studies and related disciplines in the past decade (even more, considering the work of Richard Green and colleagues in 2008) and all these fossil genome sequencings still continue to surprise us each year with new game-changing findings.

But in the geographical area that I work, Iran, I think the most exciting discovery was the first direct evidence for the presence of Neanderthals that came from a small cave called Wezmeh near Kermanshah at the west of Iran. A premolar tooth that belonged to a Neanderthal child between 6–10 years old was found with large numbers of animal fossil remains. It is suggested that the child most probably was killed by a carnivore or his carcass was found by a carnivore in the area and brought to the cave. We re-excavated this interesting cave last year and yielded interesting results.

Wezmeh cave excavation, Kermanshah, west of Iran (2019).

What is your favourite thing about your job? What would you change if you could?

The best thing about my job, I think, is the feeling of freedom, discovery, and adventure from our research. What has kept me in this profession, despite all of its difficulties, is the sense of freedom that it gives me to explore the inaccessible areas of the world and taking the risks associated with this, in an attempt to try to understand past and present societies during our projects and correlate them to their environments.

Regarding the question of what would I change if I could…. it certainly would be the ever growing unhealthy competition and the “publish or perish” culture in academia that I think is against the integrity of research and its original purpose. It forces and ultimately leads researchers to produce publishable results at all costs.