Conversations with: Professor Rick Potts

Today, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Rick Potts, the Director of the Smithsonian Institution Human Origins Program! Rick joined the Smithsonian in 1985, and has since focused his research toward understanding how Earth’s environmental change affects early human adaptation. He formulated the well-received Variability Selection Hypothesis, proposing that hominin evolution responded to environmental instability, an idea that lead him to develop many international collaborations among scientists interested in the ecological aspects of human evolution. Rick also leads excavations at early human sites in the East African Rift Valley, including the famous handaxe site of Olorgesailie, Kenya, and Kanam near Lake Victoria, Kenya. 

Smithsonian Institution Human Origins Program Director Richard Potts holding an Olorgesailie hand axe. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

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

I am a paleoanthropologist with a PhD in Biological Anthropology. My main area is the long-term ecological history of human evolution, with a focus on behavioral adaptations to changing environments. Much of my work involves excavation at field sites in East Africa and China. So, the research I carry out depends on a stimulating fusion of evolutionary biology, paleontology, archeology, ecology, sedimentary geology, stratigraphy, geochronology, and diverse environmental sciences. I need to know as much as I can about these fields.

What originally drew you towards human evolution?

The roots of my interest go back to my teenage years. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was drawn from an early age to the origin of things: what were the predecessors of today’s musical instruments, how did the rules of baseball develop, how did our solar system originate? Around 15 years of age, I began reading books about primate (including human) fossil discoveries. Once I found out I could explore the origin of “us”, I was hooked. It wasn’t any particular television special or National Geographic article that captivated me.  It was basic imagination – who were those early ancestors? 

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

It still astonishes me I had the opportunity to know Dr. Mary Leakey, who (along with one of my thesis advisors, Dr. Alan Walker) paved the way for my thesis on early hominin activities and paleoecology at Olduvai. Another of my PhD supervisors, Dr. Erik Trinkaus, was (and is) incredibly fun to work with – and I assumed I would work on Neanderthal anatomy for my PhD. Yet Erik and Alan – and other graduate school mentors such as Steven Jay Gould – imparted a wondrous vision of the interdependent fields that has become present-day paleoanthropology. The best way to begin was made feasible by Mary’s permission (offered very warily) to study the fossil and tool remains from Bed I Olduvai. I was lucky to have this type of PhD opportunity, an exhilarating time befitting my initial teenage imagination where it all started.

Rick excavating an elephant tusk (around 1990). Photo Credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

What has changed in academia since you did your PhD?

Let me answer the research side of this question first. The ease, speed, and breadth of communication has revolutionized the ability to convene worldwide groups of scientists, students, and the people who assist logistics and give permissions (leaders of local field crews, community leaders where we do fieldwork, international organizations, government officials, fund managers). Email and computational ability have made it feasible to transform individual or small teams into an opportunity to communicate with dozens of motivated collaborators and to find colleagues passionately devoted to solving questions on human evolution. One has to be tenacious about cooperation and treat everyone fairly and with respect. The technology of communication, when used with goodwill, helps to get people together and motivated on shared scientific goals.

As for academia, like western society in general, there is a long way to go to assure significant leadership opportunities where diversity is lacking. There’s much greater awareness about it since my graduate school years. The opportunities must also reach students and early career academics internationally, in countries where we work.

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

I appreciate the challenge of herding cats – that is, I delight in bringing teams of colleagues together on projects. For instance, more than 30 colleagues are working on a long sediment core drilled near Olorgesailie, in southern Kenya, very close to our excavations that uncovered a major shift in early human behavior and ecological setting that began roughly 500,000 years ago. We’re developing an incredibly precise ecological record of vegetation, water supply, and other things that mattered to how hominins and other mammals survived. The long-term goal is to inspire large teams of researchers to contribute to understanding the long-term ecological history of human evolution. I’d like to have a few years left to get that ball rolling down the hill – or, rather, making progress up that hill.

Field team at Olorgesailie. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

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

Probably my 1996 book that no one has read – Humanity’s Descent: The consequences of ecological instability. It was a 5-year project of researching, thinking, and writing. It was a delightfully lonely time that led to unexpected areas of thinking about evolutionary processes. The resulting concept of variability selection launched quite a few publications, head-shaking (the disapproving kind), and (I think) novel ideas about how ecological instability can lead to the evolution of adaptability. I consider adaptability to be an overarching theme in the study of human evolution. But I hadn’t thought much about this theme until I took the time to learn and write about it.

Rick with Maasai students in South Kenya. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

What is your favourite memory from the field?

Without a doubt, sitting at the camp table at Olorgesailie with my friend Muteti Nume, the foreman of our Kenya field crew until 2018, when he passed away.  We worked together 35 years, spent every summer together. Over breakfast, we planned the day; at lunch, we barely spoke as the temperature climbed; by lantern light at dinner, we told stories of life, crops (his), memories, and hopes. Later on, it was great to have other researchers around the table; but those early days of fieldwork with Muteti are woven into the story of my life.

Rick and Muteti Nume excavating fossils and stone artifacts at Olorgesailie, Kenya. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

If you were not an archaeologist/paleoanthropologist, what would you be?

Possibly a school biology teacher exciting my students about photosynthesis and boring them about philosophy (how do we know things?). I’d have considered that a wonderful life.

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

I think if I went back (temporarily, of course) to one particular time, one particular place, to see one or several particular hominin species – I don’t think I’d have a clue about what or who I was looking at!  My guess is that the past is so different from my assumptions, any time (back far enough) would prove fascinating… and truly befuddling. In a time machine, I’d prefer to head at least 100 years into the future and be amazed by what the students and colleagues I’ll never meet will have discovered and learned about our species’ ancestry.  

Rick with students at the Human Origins Program. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

Conversations with: Dr Simon Underdown

This week, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Simon Underdown, Reader in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University! His research primarily focuses on the co-evolution of humans and disease, specifically how patterns of past human-disease interactions can help reconstruct human evolutionary processes. He’s undertaken fieldwork across the world, including South America, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. He is a passionate science educator, holding the position of Chair of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Education Committee and is a Chartered Science Teacher, alongside appearing on radio, TV and in newspapers to discuss human evolution. He is former Chair (and current committee member) of the Society for the Study of Human Biology, and a member of the QAA Anthropology subject bench-marking panel.

Dr Simon Underwood of Oxford Brookes University.

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

I’m something of an academic magpie really – interested in everything. Broadly my research focusses on the co-evolution of humans and disease and how patterns of human-disease interaction in the past can be used to reconstruct human evolutionary patterns and processes. I’m especially interested in the role played by diseases in shaping the adaptive environment during human evolution and the impact of disease exchange during contact between hominin species. If I was being more philosophical I suppose my research tackles questions about how humans in the past have responded to challenges presented by their environment in its widest sense. The evolution of the human mind has provided us with a unique (at least in extant hominins) ability to adaptationally grapple with selective pressures on a cognitive as well as biological level and only through designing collaborative inter-disciplinary research can we hope to understand how human evolution works. I take a holistic approach, combining information from fossils, artefacts, and ancient and modern DNA to attempt to reconstruct hominin behaviour and its underlying processes. But if I was being pithy and thinking in terms of one-liners then my research explores the intersection between human biology and cultural adaptation.

What originally drew you towards biological anthropology?

Dinosaurs, and a certain celluloid American archaeologist with a fedora, leather jacket and a questionable understanding of excavation and international law.  My first degree was in archaeology and it was that which stoked my interested in human evolution. In our first lecture we were told to put down our pens and just listen, then spend the next week reading Analytical Archaeology by David Clark; both left a lasting impression on how I think about research and, indeed, how I approach teaching (a great lecture will always trump a million powerpoint slides). Bio anth is such a brilliant subject because there are no limits to the questions we ask. It’s allowed me to work with great colleagues and carry out fieldwork across the world.

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

I did my PhD at Cambridge on Neanderthals with Rob Foley. I had a great time in a really exciting department. It’s always joked that the whole world seems to pass through Cambridge but it’s really true. Seminars from almost every leading figure in the field became normal very quickly. I learnt a lot from Rob,  but above all the importance of not being constrained by a narrow definition of a subject or methodology. Another Cambridge alum, Roger Bacon, said much the same thing in 1620 – just because something has always been done in a particular way is not a good reason to keep doing so unquestionably.

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

In the current job market I’ll whisper this… I was fortunate enough to get a lectureship at Oxford Brookes right out of my PhD. I’m still there, now Reader in Biological Anthropology and Director of the Research Centre for Environment and Society. I’m also a visiting fellow at the Center for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at the University of Pretoria.

Simon at Wadi Faynan, Jordan.

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

My research projects at the moment are mostly focussed on sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Arabia. Obviously Covid-19 has had a massive impact on fieldwork and we’re still trying to adapt and adjust. We’ve been working on ancient sedimentary DNA from sites across Southern Africa and Arabia (including Jebel Faya) and have just secured major funding for  a three year project in Oman. With my good friend Riaan Rifkin I’m also working on a project in Namibia exploring the  Kalahari San hunter-gatherer skin and intestinal microbiome composition. Busy but fascinating work!

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

I think the best ‘thing’ I’ve ever found has nothing to do with human evolution. I was visiting a friend’s project in Nazareth many years ago and found a beautiful pair of Crusader era column bases that had been flipped over to create a crude step. My favourite publication is a 2016 paper I co-wrote with my good friend and colleague Charlotte Houldcroft; Neanderthal Genomics Suggests a Pleistocene Time Frame for the First Epidemiologic Transition. Not only was it great fun to write and attracted a pleasing amount of press coverage, the ideas we developed about differential pathogen resistance and the impact of genetic exchange between closely related hominin species are being borne out almost weekly as new research reveals the impact of Neanderthal genes on the Homo sapiens genome – not bad for an idea we sketched out over a coffee.

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

There are too many to chose from! Human Evolution is a subject that benefits (and suffers) from a single find being able to radically change how we interpret the past. Obviously this makes it really exciting to research but does mean frequent lecture updates! The analysis of ancient biomolecules has had a huge impact on how we think about human evolution as a process and the wide range of new ‘species’ discovered over the last 20 years has similarly knocked long-held theories on the head. But I think the most revolutionary change has not come from bones or stones but rather the way in which technology has transformed how we study human evolution. I’m old enough to remember fieldwork before wifi and mobile phones and while I do sometimes miss the experience of remoteness we had in those days, the ability to be able to instantly discuss finds with colleagues from a site and share data (and of course being able to keep in touch with family) is transformative. Likewise the boon in sharing 3D scans of fossil material instantly has changed the rules of the game. ‘Ownership’ of a fossil is quite rightly becoming a thing of the past.

Simon at Pomongwe Cave in Zimbabwe.

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

Working with amazing colleagues from a huge range of disciplines and getting to explore huge swathes of the world. If I had to pick the very best thing about being an academic I’d have to say complete freedom to explore things that interest me (as long as I can bring in the money!). Being an academic is very odd in the 21st Century. I’m extremely lucky to be able to spend my time researching things that fascinate me and then tell people all about them. But it would be naive to think that the groves of academe do not have problems.  If I had a magic wand I would use it to provide a clear route towards long-term financial security for the hundreds if not thousands of doctoral, post-doctoral and associate lecturers in human evolution who are competing for jobs in an increasingly hostile environment.  As a subject we are brilliant at attracting interest from the public (barely a week goes by without a human evolution story being in the news) but we do struggle to translate this into more full time permanent jobs.

Conversations with: Professor Lynne Isbell

Today, I am very pleased to introduce Professor Lynne Isbell, a primatologist at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis)! Lynne currently holds the positions of Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at UC Davis and President-Elect of the American Society of Primatologists. Her research program is focused on primate socioecology, particularly on aspects of food competition, predation, dispersal, and ranging behaviour. She is field-oriented, and has engaged in multi-year fieldwork in Uganda and Kenya, with briefer forays into Madagascar, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She also is the author of the award-winning book, The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well (2009).

Professor Lynne Isbell, taken by the Leakey Foundation at the AAPA meeting in 2019

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

I am broadly interested in animal behavior and my specialty within that is primate socioecology, the study of how ecology influences primate social organizations. In addition to observing the animals themselves in their natural habitats, I have explored the qualities of food that influence intragroup and intergroup competition and relationships between primates and their predators. 

What originally drew you towards primatology?

Jane Goodall started me on that path. I had always been interested in animals and animal behavior but when I saw the cover of her book, In the Shadow of Man, that showed a young woman much like me following chimpanzees in a forest, I immediately bought it and read it. Before that, I thought the only way to work with animals was as a veterinarian. As an undergraduate, my opportunities were with ungulates such as captive bongos and desert bighorn sheep. My focus on primates began after I moved to Davis and volunteered to work on a year-long behavioral project with captive bonnet macaques. I was hooked! Primates are so much more active than ungulates!

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

My dissertation title was “Influences of Predation and Resource Competition on the Social System of Vervet Monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops)in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.” It wasn’t what I set out to do but I took advantage of a unique opportunity. It’s very difficult to plan a study of the effects of predation on prey animals but when leopards kept eating my study animals toward the end of a slow die-off of the trees that vervets prefer to feed from and sleep in, it gave me a wonderful chance to explore the relative importance of predation and food resources on the lives of vervets.

My Ph.D. experience was one of the best times in my life. I was older when I started grad school and by then I knew it was the right place for me. But I also had the perspective that if I stopped enjoying it I could always leave and do something else with my life. That mindset gave me a sort of freedom from grad school’s often oppressive structure. I’d spent two years in the field in Uganda before I started grad school and my intention at first was to write my dissertation on aspects of red colobus monkey behavior and ecology, but I had been bitten by “the Africa bug” and when the opportunity arose to go back for another couple years to follow vervets around, I jumped at it. I will always be grateful to so many people for giving me a chance: Tom Struhsaker, who taught me field methods; Peter Rodman, who took me on as his grad student; Meredith Small, who, one day while offering me my first ever academic job as a Reader for her class, looked me in the eye and said, “you’re good”, something no one had ever said to me, and; Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, who trusted me to be their field manager. I’m not even mentioning those who made my Ph.D. experience possible in other ways but they know who they are, and I thank them, too.

Lynne standing in front of the tent where she stayed for a time in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, when she conducted her dissertation research (1986).

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

Right after I earned my degree, I was hired as the lab coordinator for a huge introductory organismal biology course at UC Davis. I was in charge of the labs and of 35 TAs who taught the lab sections, and I had to make sure they knew the material. I did that for four academic quarters. Then I was offered a tenure-track position at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which I held for three years before being invited back to UC Davis.

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

I have to say that my research has ended up taking a back seat to my administrative work as Chair of my department these past several years. So, I’m eager to wrap up my last year as Chair and get back into the literature. Does that count as a project? What I’d like is to have the time to think deeply about what I’m reading and make connections that I didn’t know were there before. Then I’d like to write a book or two about those connections, preferably in beautiful places such as on the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya and in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I think it would be a good use of my sabbatical time.

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

I really can’t narrow it down to just one. Three are equally weighted, all taking many years of my time and energy but in very different ways. After working at two field sites that others had developed, I was really proud to be able to develop and maintain my own long-term field site at Segera in Kenya where my students and I could study the behavior and ecology of vervets and patas monkeys, the latter being very difficult animals to habituate to human presence. That field project ran for 10 years.

Lynne following habituated patas monkeys during a long-term field project at Segera Ranch, in Kenya (1999).

I am also proud of developing the Snake Detection Theory. Once the question popped into my head — could snakes have favoured the origin of primates and the subsequent diversity of the major primate clades? — it took about 10 years to investigate and understand the literature from multiple disciplines about which I knew next to nothing at first, in order to convince myself that there really was something to that question, and then to think about what I was reading in order to synthesize it into a coherent theory, and finally to write it all down so that others could see what I was seeing.

Finally, I’m proud of one particular field study that on the surface lasted one year, but, in fact, took 30 years to complete. As I already mentioned, leopards decimated my study groups in Amboseli when I was conducting my dissertation research. I’d wanted at that time to put radio-collars on the leopards I kept seeing very fleetingly but it didn’t happen. Then, 14 years later at my Segera field site leopards did the same thing again, and yet we were no wiser about leopard/primate interactions because leopards wait until we’re gone to do their killing. Another 13 years passed and then GPS technology and grant support made it possible to remotely investigate in fine detail how GPS-collared leopards interact with GPS-collared olive baboons and vervets. Logistically it was a very difficult project to initiate but with a great team in the field, including Laura Bidner, Dairen Simpson, Mathew Mutinda, George Omondi, and Wilson Longor, we pulled it off with surprising results, e.g., leopards spent a lot more time near vervets than baboons but baboons were at greater risk when leopards were nearby, and when leopards hunted, they killed vervets during the day, but baboons, at night.

Lynne with a female leopard that they had finally trapped and anesthetized to put on a GPS collar at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya (2014). The goop on her eyes prevented them from drying out.

What is your favourite memory from the field?

My first thoughts turned to events that are stuck in my mind because they were scary. They’re good stories to tell but I wouldn’t call them favorite memories. For a happy favorite memory, I always smile in awe when I think back to the moment when I stood in the dry river bed of the Mutara River at Segera and turned to see the beginning of the fresh new river trickle toward me from its origin as rain in the Aberdare Mountains. How many people ever get to see the front of a river? I am a very lucky person! The times I touched a leopard were also very special, almost spiritual, moments for me.

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

I think maybe an investigative reporter. I like the truth and I enjoy searching for clues to puzzles.

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?

It would be really cool to see Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei in the wild and to study its behavior and ecology.

Conversations with: Professor Ben Marwick

I am delighted to introduce today Professor Ben Marwick, an archaeologist from the University of Washington! Specifically, Ben‘s research interests are focussed within Southeast Asian and Australian archaeology, such as hominin dispersals, forager technologies and ecology. He also is interested in how archaeology engages with local and online communities, in addition to popular culture, as well as techniques and methods for reproducible research and open science. Based in Seattle, Washington, he is locally affiliated with the eScience Institute, the Burke Museum, the Center for Statistics and Social Sciences, the Quaternary Research Center, and the Southeast Asia Center. He has also been recently elected as a Vice President of the Society of Archaeological Sciences.

Professor Ben Marwick at the University of Washington

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

I’m interested in the emergence of modern humans, specifically the dispersal of hominins into the Eastern hemisphere. I’m interested to understand how they adapted to new environments, and what their relationships were with other hominin groups and other species. My technical archaeological expertise is in stone artefacts and geoarchaeology. I also love to explore, analyze, and visualize any kind of archaeological data using the free and open source R programming language. I like to help others do their research with R also, because I think using open source code to do, and to communicate, scientific research is important for the sustainability of our field.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I am drawn towards studies of human evolution because of how it helps us understand our experience as humans, and how our cultures and societies came to be the way they are today. As a young kid I was interested in history, and the material traces of history. I spent a lot of time during school holidays working in remote sheep shearing sheds in the southwest of Western Australia. Probably a bit too much of that time was spent wondering about all the old rusty bits and pieces accumulated on the farm, and what life was like for people who used those antique tools. Later I was delighted to find out that researchers were analysing artefacts like these with chemistry, statistics, and so on, to understand past human behaviour. Then I knew I’d found the perfect combination of studying history, doing science, and working outdoors. I’m fascinated by scientific analysis of material culture as a way to learn about human behaviour and relationships in situations where we can’t ask anyone directly. The unifying qualities of evolutionary theory are very inspiring to me, and the application of cultural transmission theory and behavioural ecological theory to understand changes in material culture appeals to my intuition. I think the understandings that come from studying material culture of the past are important for defining our individual and collective identities in the present, and how we identify ourselves is important for determining what we think is good, right and important, and how we behave to each other.

Ben working at the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi, Vietnam, with Prof. Lam My Dzung, Dr Pham Thanh Son, Dr Nguyen Doi and Eric Kelley.

What was your PhD topic? 

The title of my PhD thesis is “Stone artefacts and human ecology at two rockshelters in Northwest Thailand” (data and R code are on Dataverse). I studied stone artefacts and oxygen isotopes from shellfish to see how technology changed as climate changed. I found that technology didn’t change much, but the way the landscape was used changed a lot. Although this is an arcane topic about a time and place that is exotic for most people, the results are immediately relevant to handling our contemporary problems relating to climate change and global warming. The message is that technological solutions don’t need to play a major role in adapting to climate change, the big payoff is in changing human behaviours and routines.  

Ben at Khao Toh Chong Rockshelter, Thailand, after excavations co-directed with Dr Cholawit Thongcharoenchaikit and staff from the Krabi Department of Culture.

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

I had a great time doing my at the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University. My primary supervisor there was Professor Sue O’Connor, who was wonderfully supportive and a really inspiring role model. Professor Rasmi Shoocongdej generously allowed me to join her big project in northwest Thailand, and her support and encouragement has been vital to my success in archaeology. Professor Peter Hiscock was also my supervisor at the ANU, and he strongly influenced many of my views about archaeology and science generally.

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

I had the rare good luck to get a tenure-track job as an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington before I’d finished my PhD. My work there has been punctuated by some highly fulfilling fellowships, for example to spend time in Southern Thailand working with Rasmi and Cholawit Thongcharoenchaikit (thanks to ACLS/Luce), in Dublin with Helen Lewis, and in Tubingen with Chris Miller and the geoarchaeology group there (thanks to the DAAD). Most recently I was at the University of Wollongong as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working with the amazing group in the UOW Centre for Archaeological Science. Currently I’m back in Seattle working as an Associate Professor at the University of Washington.

Excavating on the Chauk Plateau, Myanmar, with co-director Kyaw Khaing and students from the Field School of Archaeology, Pyay.

What current projects are you working on? 

Two current projects I’m especially excited about are with colleagues and community members in northern Vietnam with Pham Than Son, Mai Huong Ngyuen and colleagues at the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi, and in Myanmar with Kyaw Khaing, Mae Su Ko and colleagues at the FIeld School of Archaeology at Pyay. We have a few locations under investigation that appear to preserve traces of early modern human activities in mainland Southeast Asia. Results from these projects will help us understand how people moved across the Eastern hemisphere, interacted with other hominin groups, and adapted to the unique conditions of this region. In these locations we are testing hypotheses from a model I proposed in 2009 to understand the ways that humans arrived in the region.  

To the north of these projects, I’m working on stone artefacts in southern China with Li Bo, Hu Yue and colleges that indicate prepared core and Levallois strategies. And to the south, I’m part of a big group led by Chris Clarkson and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, working on the analysis of materials we excavated from Madjedbebe, northern Australia, where people were living 65,000 years ago
Since COVID-19 brought lab and fieldwork to a halt early in 2020, I’ve been spending a bit more time on purely computational research, including reviving an interest I previously explored with Ian Kretzler. There have been some exciting recent developments in machine learning and text analysis that my lab group has been exploring and getting very interesting results with.

Where do you hope these go in the future?

In Vietnam and Myanmar we are excited to investigate some very promising locations with high-resolution excavation. We also are planning to combine this work with student training, in the form of undergraduate field schools, and local community participation, especially through local schools. We have grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Geographic Society to support this work. For the Chinese and Australian projects we have some pretty substantial publications in preparation to advance the debate and respond to critics.

Ben giving a keynote address at the conference “Digital Heritage in a World of Big Data”, Stirling, Scotland.

What is ‘Open science’ and why is it important in archaeology?

Open science is honouring the ideals of science that drew many of us to archaeology: transparency, reproducibility, objectivity, cooperation. As John Ziman put it, science ‘is a cooperative enterprise, in which the enemy is ignorance, not the [person] in the other laboratory’. In practice, open science means access to scientific research that is unrestricted by financial, technical or cultural barriers. As for many sciences, the historical transition of archaeology from vocation to profession introduced incentives that have made it tough for researchers to adhere to these values. However, many fields have adopted innovative practices and technologies to revive and strengthen these values. Posting preprints of papers to enable free access to papers appearing in paywalled journals has been standard practice in Physics for over a decade. Since 2016 the American Journal of Political Science will only publish papers that are accompanied by raw data files and computer code files to reproduce the results presented in the manuscript (because when a paper says ‘data are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request’, that’s often not true) Over 5,000 journals and scholarly societies are signatories to the Transparency and Openness Protocol, as a pledge of their support of the principles of openness, transparency, and reproducibility (including a handful of archaeology journals).  

Getting our papers, data, and methods into the hands of as many of our colleagues as possible, as easily as possible, is not just an idealistic vision. It is vital for the long-term sustainability for archaeology as a discipline, because it supports the rapid and efficient accumulation and evaluation of new archaeological knowledge. Disciplines that are slow to realise this are going to increasingly balkanise and fade from relevance to the broader research community and society (and so struggle to attract funding and students). Among archaeologists, it has often been noted that resistance to transparency, openness and reproducibility sometimes comes from anxiety about perceived loss of status because of fear that sharing leads to a poverty of currency to trade in the traditional prestige economy of knowledge. To me, this resistance is part of the colonialist baggage of archaeology – knowledge and power practices that reproduce a logic of subordination. We now recognise it is necessary to reject these logics from our discipline. Open science is important for decolonising archaeology

If we are serious about doing collaborative scientific work and producing results that are relevant to the communities we work with, we need to ensure they have access to our papers, data, and methods. This has a special urgency for human evolution researchers, because we are often working in parts of the world where our local colleagues lack many of the resources that researchers at Western institutions take for granted. Their university probably doesn’t have a site license for ArcGIS, and their internet isn’t fast enough to download a huge zip file from a dropbox. Many of our current ‘good enough’ practices for getting research done are not effective for properly including our collaborators. What do we need to change to ethically include our local collaborators in our research, and sustainably support the development of archaeological science and the study of human evolution in our host communities? Answering this question is a long term project, and will involve extra work for many of us. I reckon we can save a lot of time by adopting open science practices that have been already working well for other fields. Not all archaeological data are safe to share publicly (e.g. site locations, culturally sensitive images and objects), so doing open science thoughtfully requires consultation and planning to minimize risks of damage.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my publications that involve students, particularly undergraduates, and especially where we are part of a big team. That kind of work is more challenging and complicated than solo or small group work, but very fulfilling. Some of these include our paper on a 65 kya age for human activity in Australia, our paper on the transition from foraging to farming in Peninsula Thailand, and our paper on replication assignments for teaching archaeological science. 

A distant second to these is my paper that Enrico Crema mentioned in his interview here, about computational reproducibility in archaeological science. That paper has enjoyed a wide readership far beyond archaeology, and led to many stimulating discussions and follow-up papers, for example with Suzanne Pilaar Birch, Sophie Schmidt, Li-Ying Wang, and others. It’s been very satisfying to see the influence of that paper on over one hundred archaeological journal articles so far, covering all kinds of topics and time periods, with authors making their data and R code available with their publication. This is vitally important for demonstrating the reproducibility of our research, to enable others to combine their data with previously published data, and for others to easily use newly published methods on their data.

Ben excavating at Madjebebe, Australia with the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.

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

For a student interested in Southeast Asian Palaeolithic Archaeology my main advice is to aim for a sustainable balance between contributing to the international community of archaeologists (e.g. through scholarly communications at conferences and journal articles, etc.), and contributing to the local communities of students, researchers and community members that host your fieldwork (e.g. by visiting local schools, giving guest lectures and workshops at local universities, etc.). There are many challenges to overcome in achieving this balance, and it can be tough to find fulfilling ways to make useful contributions. One possible starting point would be to find something you like about archaeology, and work on incremental ways to make it even better. 

More generally, for a student interested in archaeology and human evolution, my advice is to read widely and look for inspiration in related fields beyond archaeology, because “chance favours the connected mind”. Connect not only with ideas, but also with people, don’t hesitate to ‘cold email’ a researcher to ask a question about their research or seek advice about yours, and nurture good professional relationships with the goal of having them for your entire career. I reckon that computational and statistical fields are going to be a great source of inspiration for archaeologists in the coming years, but there are many other fields that will be productive also. I’d also suggest approaching your participation in the research community as an anthropological problem: a big part of succeeding in academia is finding answers to the question of what are the unspoken norms that guide the behaviours of the members of that community (publishing, presenting, teaching, etc)? Participant observation is one rather slow way to answer this question, a way to speed this up is to become familiar with research on writing for publication, presenting your research, teaching, etc. Some of my favourites include The Science of Scientific Writing, Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: A Case for Sentence Headlines and Visual Evidence, and Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. The Nature Careers blog posts are another great source of professional advice that I highly recommend for tips and inspiration on many of the little day-to-day things that we need to do in a research career.

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

Some of the most exciting and positive changes are the development of quantitative methods of analysing artefacts to formalise modelling of cultural evolutionary processes. Methods for discriminating among different kinds of cultural transmission, and the computational tools for using these methods, have been really impressive at reviving efforts to answer basic questions that are at the core of archaeology. The refinement and application of geochemical methods to archaeological questions, especially the identification of biomolecules with mass spectrometry, has been amazing and fascinating. And of course ancient DNA has improved our understanding of many major events in human evolution. Exciting organizational changes include the rise of team science and big projects with many participants, and open science, when the code and data are freely made public.

Perhaps the most striking change has been in demographics and diversity. It’s great to see how archaeology has become increasingly accessible to people from many backgrounds that I rarely saw in the research community when I was doing my PhD.  Community efforts to enable this accessibility through new teaching methods, new content in undergraduate classes, and dismantling the hidden curriculum, have been making a positive difference. These demographic shifts have highlighted the urgency of the task of updating and clearly communicating our professional ethics and norms of behaviour. For example, we have a lot of work to do to eliminate sexual harassment, bullying, and other bad behaviours that have been difficult to address because individual and institutional power and prestige have been valued more than our community’s wellbeing and its sustainability. Events of 2019-2020 have especially shown that our existing scholarly and professional organisations are struggling to manage how academia generally, and archaeology in particular, have changed over the last decade. Despite these rising waves of discontent, I’m optimistic that our organisations and their leaders will catch up with the new norms, and restore their relevance to the community. I’m inspired by other fields, including some bigger and older than archaeology, who have been very nimble with their professional societies to update their codes of conduct and professional practices. 

Conversations with: Professor Ravi Korisettar

This week, I am delighted to introduce Professor Ravi Korisettar, Senior Academic Fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi! Ravi is a key contributor to Indian Palaeolithic archaeology, specialising in geoarchaeological methods and approaches to understanding the relationship between prehistoric humans and their environments. He has published seven books in India and two abroad and is a Section Editor for Current Science, India’s leading science fortnightly journal. Ravi has also held the position of Honorary Director of the Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum in Karnataka since it’s establishment in 2010.

Professor Ravi Korisettar in front of the rock art site at Sangankallu, Ballare

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

In a couple of years from now, I will be completing fifty years of learning, teaching and researching archaeology. During the first half of this period, I experienced many ups and downs and institution-hopping to make a career as an archaeologist. This constrained me to work on diverse disciplines such as geoarchaeology, Quaternary geology, palaeoclimatology, radiometric dating, tephrochronology, the application of computer techniques, etc. This had enabled me acquire multidisciplinary skills, though carrying the tag of ‘jack of all and master of none’ was a frustrating and sometimes depressing experience.

I am particularly interested in understanding man-land relationships in prehistory and explain why the settlements are found where they are. Currently, I am interested in global migrations and public outreach archaeology. Though primarily an archaeologist, I specialised in geoarchaeological field methods to address the problems of the establishing the antiquity of Palaeolithic settlements, searching for hominin fossils, identifying refugia and critically assessing the correlation between climate and culture change.

What originally drew you towards archaeology?

I was born into a low-income family. My parents used to inspire me with success stories about my Cambridge educated maternal uncle, S. Settar, about whom Raymond Allchin took pride in calling him a polymath. Though Settar was a historical archaeologist, his Cambridge experience had given him a clear interdisciplinary vision of archaeology. And yet, my parents wanted me to take up chemistry and physics combination for my undergraduate studies, which I completed in 1971. At this point, my uncle had returned from Cambridge and rejoined the faculty of Karnatak University. My brief visit to his place and a brief meeting with the Allchins at his residence was a certainly a turning point for me.

Prior to this meeting, I used to spend my summer holidays in a small book store owned by my elder maternal uncle at Hosapete near  Hampi, the well-known world heritage site in south India. The store used to sell fiction and scholarly works on art, tourism and culture. Tourists, students and scholars of Indian art and architecture from all over the world visiting Hampi used to drop by the book store and, though unable to speak fluently in English, I used to enter into conversation with some of them and also learn from them about other sites like Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal (also a world heritage site), the cradle of Indian temple architecture. This exposure to such books and scholars from all over, in addition to the proximity of Hosapete to Hampi, where we used spend our weekends, had given me some idea of what archaeologists do and I was also familiar with the adage that though the ‘career of an archaeologist lies in ruins’, it is full of romance and excitement.

During one of my conversations with Settar regarding the choice of a subject for post-graduation, it struck upon him that my science background will be helpful for an MA degree in archaeology. He advised me to go to Deccan College in Poona (Pune) and mentioned that great scholars like Iravati Karve, H.D. Sankalia and S.M. Katre, who have nurtured the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology and linguistics, built this world class institution. Undoubtedly, Poona had the reputation as ‘Oxford of the east’. This was the most motivating advice I received at the critical point of my formative years of life and career. Coming to Poona changed my idea of archaeology and two years of post-graduate study brought me closer to appreciating Pleistocene geoarchaeology, bio-cultural evolution of man and to S.N. Rajaguru, a geologist by training. The latter’s humble nature and exemplary attitudes drew me towards him and Pleistocene geoarchaeology and we built a lifelong relationship, academic and otherwise. Following my post-graduate studies, I enrolled for a PhD under his supervision.

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

The topic was Prehistory and Geomorphology of the Middle Krishna, a braided stream network draining the Precambrian basement complex on the Indian Peninsula. It was both exciting and frustrating. In the 1970s, discovering Acheulian artefacts was very rewarding and great material for writing a prehistory dissertation. However, I did not find any! The most exciting part of my research was my introduction to the works of Robert Bruce Foote, the father of Indian prehistory, and several other colonial and European geologists and geomorphologists. Stimulated by their works, I learnt the fundamentals of geology, fluvial geomorphology and climate change and became a competent field archaeologist. Fluvial deposits known as High Level Gravels were widespread in the Raichur and Shorapur Doabs in northern Karnataka (Doab refers to land between two rivers). The gravels were chiefly composed of chert (flint) clasts and the chief clasts were the chief raw material for making Middle Palaeolithic artefacts. These deposits and the associated Middle Paleolithic chert artefacts were widely separated in time, provided little or no scope to determine the absolute timeline for human occupation of the area, other than the ‘Middle Paleolithic age’. The absence of biotic material further hindered behavioural interpretation of hominins’ in a resource poor region Raichur Doab (land between the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers). I became obsessed with the problem of the uneven distribution of Palaeolithic settlements across the subcontinent, their chronology and absence of hominin fossils.

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

I did not have a permanent job for well over a decade after completion of my PhD in 1979. Short-term research assistantships kept me engaged in work, which however did not promise a stable future and solid income. I was a Visiting Scientist (1980-82) at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad.  I was assigned the task of preparing  a  litholog  of Neogene-Quaternary sediments in the valley of Kashmir and laboratory processing of samples for Be10 dating, and process samples for palaeomagnetic, micropalaeontoligic and  palynologic analyses. Following this I had a post doc fellowship (1983-85) from the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi, and a Research Associateship (1988-89) at Deccan College. With intervening unemployed days. Finally, I was appointed Reader (1989-98), Professor (1998-2013),  at Karnatak Univeristy. Post retirement, I was  Dr. DC Pavate Chair Professor (2013-15) at Karnatak University, Dr VS Wakanakr Senior Fellow (Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh), UGC Emeritus Fellow (2015-17) and now I am concurrently ICHR  Senior Academic Fellow  (2019-21), Adjunct Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru (since March 2020) and Hon. Director of the Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum at Ballari in Karnataka (since 2010).

Replicas of human ancestors at the Robert Bruce Foote Museum

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

I have multiple projects on going:  (a) understanding the cognitive content of prehistoric rock art, (b) re-examining of Late Pleistocene hominin fossils from rock shelter excavations and assessing their potential for aDNA studies, (c) preparing systematic catalogue of antiquities from surface surveys and excavations carried out during the last forty-five years, now handed over to the government at the Robert Bruce Foote museum in Ballari, Karnataka, (d) preparing a comprehensive report on Sangankallu Neolithic-Iron Age excavations.

My publications bear ample testimony of my many successful international collaborations and that I will be able to successfully carry out these research projects and contribute to a better understanding evolution of past human societies in a multidisciplinary framework in the future.

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

I am very proud of the following achievements:

The discovery of tephra marker bed in the alluvial sediments of the Indian Peninsula (1988).

The development of a Basin model to delineate man-land relationships (2007).

The establishment of Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum (2020).

The first dating of the Middle Palaeolithic and the oldest date for the microliths in India (at the time of publication, 2009)

The emergence of agricultural economies in the Suthern Neolithic of India (chief investigator Dorian Fuller now at UCL, London)

The Bellary District Archaeological Project (Co-investigator: N.L. Boivin, now at Max Institute Planck, Jena)

The Kurnool District Archaeological Project (Co-investigator: M.D. Petraglia, now at Max Planck Institute, Jena).

A down-scaled model of Sanganakallu Neolithic hills at the Robert Bruce Foote Museum.

What are your favourite memories of your career?

Memories have been sweet and sour, but more on the sweeter side. The early decades of my archaeological career were a period of anxiety and stress, compounded by not being able to contribute to the growth of archaeological knowledge through my PhD work. Job applications to the Archaeological Survey of India and several  institutions did not find me suitable because of ‘other considerations’…

My entry into Karnatak University in 1989, though helped breathe a sigh of relief, had moved me away from full time research in archaeology to full time teaching history and archaeology, where archaeology was a subsidiary component of postgraduate syllabus. During my harness at the university, I continued to confront non-egalitarian environments, both socially and academically. Yet winter and summer holidays were at my disposal to pursue my research interests and update myself with the developments in method and theory in global prehistory. During the settling in time of a year or so, I began to explore the scope of interdisciplinary collaborative research with scholarly friends from institutions in India and abroad.

The Ancient India and Iran- Charles Wallace fellowship (1996) at Cambridge, UK, gave me my first international exposure to intense and stimulating academic experience.

The Fulbright Visiting Scholarship (2001) at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC gave me greater international visibility and strengthened my wide network with archaeologists in India and abroad.

Ravi engaging in public outreach archaeology, with school children at Jwalapuram.

If you were not an archaeologist, what would you be?

Archaeology was my bread winner. If I were not an archaeologist I would have to opt for a undergraduate lectureship (if considered suitable) or turn towards local industry for a non-academic job.

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

Though there have been great leaps in Indian archaeology, especially in the areas of  Palaeolithic and Neolithic, I see that Indian archaeology is more productive since the turn of the century. The application of processual and post-processual archaeological methods and theory have opened up new pathways of investigation aimed at holistic reconstruction of human bio-cultural and social evolution. Our priorities are the issues relating to (a) identifying  potential sites for geochronology of Palaeolithic sites, (b) reconstructing palaeogeography of Palaeolithic landscapes for a better understanding of site formation processes, (c) delineating man-land relationships during the Quaternary, (d) developing ethnoarchaeological interpretations of archaeological data sets and (d) helping place the Indian subcontinent at the forefront of global debates on peopling of the earth. So, I would advise students to concentrate on these topics.

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

I would be at the time of Big Bang, witness the formation of the atmosphere and the origins of first life forms and travel with the emergence of multiple life forms. Then I would also witness the emergence of hominins capable of making and using tools. It is a fantasy though, of course!

Conversations with: Dr Ammie Kalan

This week’s guest is Dr Ammie Kalan, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology! Ammie is a postdoctoral researcher investigating chimpanzee culture and communication as part of the Pan African Project: The Cultured Chimpanzee. Over her career as a primatologist, Ammie has conducted fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau, Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Republic of Congo and Costa Rica. She has developed a passive acoustic monitoring system for primates living in tropical forests and continues to be interested in bridging the gap between behavioural research and applied conservation through the use of non-invasive monitoring. Next year, she will be starting as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada!

Dr Ammie Kalan in the savannah woodlands of Boé, Guinea-Bissau, researching the rare accumulative stone throwing behaviours chimpanzees engage in there. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

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

I am a primatologist who specializes in great ape behavioural ecology, with a particular interest in tool use, culture and communication. I also actively work on improving remote methods used to study wild primates, not just great apes, in the field, namely passive acoustic monitoring and camera-trapping.

What originally drew you towards primatology?

When I was in grade 5, so about 10 years old, I remember learning about endangered species, particularly the mountain gorilla and having the feeling that I wanted to do something to help and to know these creatures better. Not too long after I remember watching in awe as David Attenborough got up close and personal with wild mountain gorillas on an episode of BBC Life (I think?) and never being able to forget that remarkable moment. Growing up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest I knew I wanted to dedicate my career to wildlife ecology and/or environmental conservation but I could not get these wild great apes out of my head. So after studying Zoology for my BSc I volunteered for my first experience studying wild primates in Costa Rica as a research assistant and soon after applied for a Masters program that specialized in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. After moving to Oxford for this masters I was able to have my very own run in with wild gorillas (western lowland gorillas) when I conducted my first field research in Africa at the Lac Tele Reserve in the Republic of Congo for my dissertation project.

Ammie biking to the remote camp site in Boé after a brief visit to a nearby village to stock up on supplies and use electricity. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

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

My PhD was on the social and ecological context of chimpanzee acoustic communication and its potential for biomonitoring. It was essentially two projects simultaneously since my supervisors were concerned by the riskiness of my biomonitoring project that they wanted to make sure I would have a backup plan, so to speak. This suited me just fine because I got the best of both worlds, I was able to do a project that was novel, technically challenging, but would be pioneering if it worked and also be able to follow habituated chimpanzees on foot to record their vocalizations and try to better understand what they might be communicating to one another. In the end, the biomonitoring project was generally a success, since I was able to show how remote audio recording units can be installed in a forest to record wild primate sounds that can later be extracted from these continuous forest recordings using semi-automated algorithms and thereby provide biologists with large-scale data on primate presence in an area. I was also able to make some interesting new observations about chimpanzee food calls and pant hoot vocalizations with the data I recorded following individual chimpanzees, not to mention the incredible privilege to be able to get to know individual chimpanzees as they tolerated my presence from the moment they woke up until they built their evening nests.

Ammie recording food calls and pant hoot vocalisations of the Taï chimpanzees in the Côte d’Ivoire. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

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

I am currently a postdoctoral research for the Pan African Programme based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Here I work on integrating behavioural data we have collected from over 40 PanAf temporary research sites to better understand the ecological and environmental drivers and threats to chimpanzee behavioural and cultural diversity. Much of this work has already helped me to establish new collaborations and to start my own research projects, such as on chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing based in Boe, Guinea-Bissau with the support of NGOs such as the Chimbo Foundation. In the future I will continue to use the PanAf dataset as a means to investigate questions that have thus far been difficult to answer using only a handful of populations.

Overview of the PanAf project’s methodological approach. (Credit doc.station Medienproduktion GmBh,

Why is your research important for understanding human evolution?

Studying great apes such as chimpanzees provides us with the unique opportunity to observe and investigate the characteristics of a species closely related to humans that is still living today. The same cannot be said for the many fossils we have of our hominin ancestors, therefore primatology in general can provide great comparative insight into the course of human evolution given that we too are primates. For example, if we consider that the chimpanzee or Pan lineage split from the Homo lineage approximately 7-8 million years ago, then by comparing these two lineages today we can hypothesize which traits would have been present in our last common ancestor.

Ammie following habituated chimpanzees of the Taï Chimpanzee Project. They wear face-masks and maintain a distance of 10m to protect the chimpanzees from potential diseases that they may carry and vice versa. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What is your favourite memory from the field?

It’s very difficult to pick one but a particular moment does stick out.  While I was following the habituated chimpanzees of the Taï Chimpanzee Project there was one day when the individual I was following met up with other members of the group at a nice, open nut cracking site. As we arrived, I sat on a dead log to rest my feet while still observing my focal and as I did so one of the adolescent males at the time, called Ibrahim, started to walk directly towards me. Now Ibrahim was a bit naughty, as young male chimpanzees going through puberty often are, where he often displayed curiosity and interest in the human researchers and would at times come too close to us. So, I was a bit apprehensive about what his intentions were this time since I was well aware of the fact that I was in a sitting position and we were essentially eye to eye. As he got closer, I noticed he had a small stick in his mouth and was playfully running up to me. He then stopped about just a meter short of me and threw the small stick at my feet while making a lovely play face: he had just invited me to start playing with him using an object invitation as chimps commonly do amongst each other. I felt very honoured and happy inside but could not display any response since this is how we maintain a healthy separation from the chimps. He waited for me to do something and did look a bit disappointed when I didn’t move an inch but then quickly turned his attention to another more playful participant that had followed him and I could then move away from them to maintain a better distance. It took all my restraint to not react to his invitation that day.

Kuba, an adult male chimpanzee of the South group Taï chimpanzees. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

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

I love that I get to work in the field, immersed in wild places and wild animals where essentially anything can happen. It can be a little daunting at times, even scary or terrifying in some of the places/ circumstances in which I’ve worked, but it is never boring or repetitive. You never know what discovery awaits you when you are in the field and the excitement that comes from experiencing that is well worth the strenuous physical and psychological toll that being in remote, isolated places can bring. The one thing I would change if I could is that there would be fewer insects to contend with while collecting data, or at least that they would ignore us humans as potential prey. For example the little flies that go right into your eyes so that you literally cannot see, or the flies that lay eggs under your skin, or the ants that in a second will get underneath all your clothes and painfully bite you all over….

If you were not an primatologist, what would you be?

I would’ve become an environmental scientist, a route that I once seriously considered before choosing to do my masters degree in primate conservation. I was particularly fond of tropical forest ecology and interested in assessing and mitigating the effects of human disturbance on natural ecosystems so I’m sure I would have ended up not too far from what I am doing now.

A look out point over the Issa valley in Tanzania where the Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research and Conversation Project ( hosted one of the PanAf sites. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

Conversations with: Dr Briana Pobiner

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

Briana in the field at Olorgesailie, Kenya

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

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

Briana studying hominin fossils at the National Museums of Kenya

What originally drew you towards human evolution?

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

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

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

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

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

 Briana talking to students during a Smithsonian outreach program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favourite memory from the field?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations with: Professor Rainer Grün

It is my pleasure to introduce today Professor Rainer Grün, a world-renowned geochronologist and Professor of Archaeochemistry at Griffith University! Rainer is the former Director of the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution and is an acknowledged leader in the field of electron spin resonance (ESR) and uranium-series (U-series) dating. His work has contributed immensely to our understanding of the timing of human evolution, for example through the development of non-destructive dating methods and the discovery of new, surprisingly young, dates from Broken Hill skull from Zambia, which revealed that Africa and Eurasia were inhabited by a whole range of hominin species just a few hundred thousand years ago!

Professor Rainer Grün, a geochronologist at Griffith University.

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

I’m a geochronologist and the main thrust of my research relates to further developing dating techniques, in particular U-series and ESR dating. This requires expertise in geochemistry for U-series and radiation physics for ESR. In recent years, I mainly focussed on developing virtually non destructive dating, which is essential for the analysis of ancient human remains. I’ve also ventured out to work on the use Sr isotopes for the reconstruction of human migrations and provided a Sr isotope map for France. Another side track is working on palaeothermometry, which is a tool that can assess how fast valleys erode and estimate the denudation rates of mountain ranges.

Rainer meeting with Martin Aitken during Sr isotope fieldwork in France.

What originally drew you towards geochronology and human evolution?

I was lucky to spend my first postdoctoral fellowship at McMaster University with Prof Henry Schwarcz. He got me interested in archaeological applications. In December 1986, I attended the International Colloquium L’Homme de Neanderthal in Liege, where I met Chris Stringer with whom I struck a lifelong friendship. He really got me into palaeoanthropological dating applications. Jean-Jacques Hublin attended the same meeting and our collaborations started at the same time.

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

My PhD was entitled “Contributions to ESR dating”. It was pretty much a random selection of experiments on the underlying principles of ESR dating and applications on whatever samples I could get hold of. As an undergraduate student, I was not very focussed on studying. I held several pinball machine records in the pubs around the Department of Geology in Köln. I thought my fate was becoming a taxi driver. However, once I discovered research during my Diploma thesis work, I got hooked. I worked pretty much around the clock and did my PhD in less than two and a half years.

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

I was a postdoc fellow at McMaster University from mid 1985. In 1987, Ann Wintle asked me whether I was interested to take over her thermoluminescence lab at Cambridge. In the late 80s I met John Chappell who was the professor for Biogeography and Geomorphology at the ANU in Canberra. He encouraged my to apply for the directorship of the radiocarbon dating laboratory, which I commenced in early 1992. I stayed at the ANU for the next 23 years until I was offered to set up what later became the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University in Brisbane.

ESR team at Cambridge: John Chappell, Yuske Shimoyama, Ed Rhodes, Jack Rink, Henry Schwarcz.

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

I am close to retirement. I have several projects that I pursue, in particular to understand the diffusion processes of uranium into bones and teeth and to see whether there are uranium concentration dependent correlations with the alpha efficiency in tooth enamel. I also continue to collaborate with a wide network of researchers on the direct dating of human remains. This work is presently divided up between Mathieu Duval who does the ESR analysis and I carrying out the U-series work.

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

They relate to original ideas. Truthfully, one does not have many of those in ones career. Two of the publications will be very obscure for the readers of this website and they relate on the possibility of dating mollusc shells without the need to measure the external dose rate, the other one is on the palaeothermometry of the Eldzurtinsky Granite. The most important idea relating to palaeoanthropology was combining U-series and ESR systematics for the simultaneous modelling of the age of a tooth as well as the uranium uptake history of its various dental tissues. This publication is the underpinning of all dating applications of teeth using these methods.

Rainer measuring samples from Broken Hill skull with Professor Chris Stringer. Photo by: Katherine Griffiths.

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

Of course, the discoveries of several new human species such as Homo naledi and Homo luzonensis as well as the Denisovans. In particular, DNA work has brought a completely new dimension to our understanding of the complexity of human evolution: the interbreeding of what was thought to be different species, and the time depth of the occurrence of the various species.

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

I had a very satisfactory career and don’t think I’d change a thing, mistakes, warts and all. Considering my somewhat forceful driving style, I don’t think I would have made a good taxi driver.

Fieldwork in Namibia 2007.

Conversations with: Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes

Today it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes, who is an evolutionary anthropologist! Duncan works with the Hadza in northern Tanzania, who have traditionally subsisted through hunting and gathering. Duncan is interested in food-sharing, the use and abuse of signalling theory and forager egalitarianism. He previously won the Ruggles-Gates Award from the Royal Anthropological Institute as well as a grant from the Leakey Foundation for his PhD project: Reading the signals: What does Hadza hunting success honestly convey? Duncan recently finished a teaching fellowship at Durham University, where he lectured in evolutionary anthropology. He is about to begin a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania for the ‘Culture of Schooling’ project, investigating Hadza engagement with formal education.

Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes, an evolutionary anthropologist at Durham University/University of Pennsylvania

What are your research interests?

My subject area is called ‘hunter-gatherer studies’. Although there continues to be much debate about whether ‘hunter-gatherer’ even makes sense as a category, the name has stuck. I work with a population called the Hadza, who traditionally hunted and gathered for most of their food. I’m interested in the motivations underlying hunting and food-sharing. I’m interested in unknotting the reasons why, despite a spectrum of differences, there are some critical similarities between hunter-gatherer groups who are united by nothing other than a shared mode of subsistence. I’m interested in the ways by which forager populations adapt when traditional subsistence practices become less viable. Finally, I am interested in forager egalitarianism. Our history books are full of kings, queens, khans and emperors. How then, despite the manifold incentives to seize power, do populations like the Hadza manage so effectively to curtail attempts at aggrandisement and prevent people from naming themselves ‘leaders’?

What originally drew you to evolutionary anthropology?

Although we like to see ourselves as exceptional, humans are as much the products of evolution as any other species. And while there are many valid frameworks with which to view ourselves, no account of our actions, our minds and our forms is wholly complete without recourse to evolutionary logic. Given this fact, it is a constant source of consternation that evolutionary anthropology is not a larger or more well-known discipline. Why isn’t evolutionary anthropology on the national curriculum? I enjoyed learning about the Tudors in school, but the origins of bipedalism are surely more universally elucidating than the English reformation. The Catcher in the Rye has a lot to say about the human condition, but perhaps not quite as much as The Origin of Species. So that’s the draw of evolutionary anthropology. Humans do not make sense without it. Not completely.

How did I get into evolutionary anthropology in the first place though? The unglamorous truth is that it was an accident. I applied to Cambridge’s now defunct ‘Archaeology and Anthropology’ course, with the idea of studying social anthropology. I was interested in learning about the full range of human experiences and cultures. As the course progressed, I did not always enjoy the sometimes high-minded epistemological wrangling of social anthropology, nor the unrelenting self-reflection and self-censure. Sometimes I felt I was learning more about what social anthropologists thought of each other than I was learning about the world and the people in it. At the same time, each lecture in the evolutionary anthropology course was a revelation. I remember reading Kristen Hawkes’ original paper on the grandmother hypothesis one day in the library. It was such a clever and interesting piece of evolutionary logic that I decided then and there that I was sold. And that was that.

What was your PhD topic and what were the findings from your PhD?

My PhD research examined the costly signalling hypothesis of human hunting, specifically the idea that hunters procure and share the meat from large animals as a way of showing-off their hunting skills. If hunting is a way of showing off, or signalling, then being known as a good hunter should be closely related to actually being a good hunter.

So is it? I found that, among the Hadza, in aggregate, people’s assessments of their peers’ hunting skills were actually pretty accurate. However, at an individual level, there was much error and noise. This is an example of a crowd wisdom effect. If you ask lots of people to guess the weight of a jar of sweets, the mean of their guesses is often freakishly close to the actual weight. But this can happen even when most individual estimates are pretty wide of the mark.

Duncan’s field vehicle parked under a thorny acacia tree.

What do my results tell us about signalling? This is open to interpretation, but my personal take is that individual assessments of hunting ability are too error-prone for hunting and sharing to be a good way of signalling skill. But the good news is that aggregated reputation scores seem pretty accurate, so we should continue to use them as a proxy variable where actual skill is unknown!

My PhD research also addressed another question. There has been extensive debate about food-sharing and family provisioning. Do Hadza hunters share their food indiscriminately? Or do they keep the lion’s share for their own families? I looked at the relationship between hunting reputation and nutrition and found that well-reputed hunters and their spouses had no better nutrition than did anyone else. As discussed in the paper, it is difficult to prove a negative, and there are some finicky barriers to inference. But results are nonetheless consistent with generalised food-sharing, in line with previous reports by Nicholas Blurton Jones, Kristen Hawkes and James Woodburn.

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

I did my PhD at Cambridge University. My supervisor was Frank Marlowe, who tragically took early retirement due to ill-health during my degree. His students wrote a collection of remembrances about his life and work for Human Nature which you can read here. When Frank retired, Robert Attenborough kindly took over as my supervisor, and continues to be a good friend and an occasional agony uncle.

What are you currently working on? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

I currently have a few things in the works. The first piece of upcoming research reconsiders James Woodburn’s theory that egalitarianism might be the consequence of democratised access to lethal weaponry – the idea that you shouldn’t boss people around when they’re armed and dangerous! I conclude that the evidence doesn’t support this theory, but that it might hold some explanatory power in more limited contexts. In the second piece of research with Coren Apicella and Kris Smith, we asked many Hadza directly about what motivates them to hunt, to gather and to share food. Contrary to theoretical debates, most people, both men and women, highlighted that family provisioning and signalling were both important motivators for foraging work. Finally, I’m about to start work on a project looking at the changes brought about by increased participation in formal education.

Where do I hope this research will go in the future? I hope it will go into your endnote or Mendeley libraries!

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

My review article on Costly Signalling theory published in Evolutionary Anthropology precipitated some friendly but occasionally forthright email exchanges with a couple of my academic heroes. However, I think the article raises some important questions. I would like to see greater opportunities for the interrogation of established theories and frameworks by young scholars and I was very grateful to the editor for giving me the chance to publish these ideas. However, the article I am proudest of is ‘A Noisy Signal’, which I have discussed above.

Taking shelter from the midday sun in the shade of a baobab. 

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

In my own field of human behaviour, with a few exceptions, I think things most often progress through a process of gradual evolution and not revolution. It’s pretty difficult to dig up a new behaviour! My top four papers from the last five years are Sceleza et al’s eye-opening recent paper on diversity in human reproductive strategies, Ringen et al and Ember et al’s cross-cultural investigations of the association between risk/resource stress and food-sharing, and Singh et al’s review paper on self-interested norm enforcement. Closer to home, Alyssa Crittenden’s group have published some really good recent research about recent Hadza dietary changes, e.g. Pollom et al’s just-published paper about how a mixed-subsistence diet might actually have some advantages over a purely foraged one. I mentioned the importance of interrogating established theories, and I also want to highlight how much I liked Dan Smith’s recent paper on cultural group selection. It’s super compelling. Check it out.

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

The easy answer is that you should follow your passions. The harder answer is that a research career can be stressful. PhDs can, for some students, feel like doing low-paid work for your supervisor. Moreover scholarship, especially anthropology, is an oversaturated industry and the number of qualified applicants exceeds the number of jobs. So, make sure you know the downsides, make sure you’ve talked to people and make sure you’re going in with your eyes open. Make sure you have a backup plan. And if you’ve done all of that then go ahead and follow your passions!

What would you be if you were not an evolutionary anthropologist?

One of my greatest regrets in pursuing anthropology was that I had to abandon my nascent professional wrestling career. Though if not a wrestler, probably a journalist, maybe a foreign correspondent.

Duncan and the 2015 field team, Charles and Ibrahim

Conversations with: Professor Rebecca Ackermann

This week’s guest is Professor Rebecca Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town (UCT)! Rebecca was the founding Director of the Human Evolution Research Institute at UCT, and is currently Deputy Director. She is also Deputy Dean of Transformation in the Faculty of Science at UCT. Her research focusses on evolutionary process, and specifically how gene flow, drift and selection interact to produce skeletal diversity through time, with a focus on human evolution. Rebecca is also engaged in discourse and policy development around sexism, racism and transformation of the discipline more generally

Professor Rebecca Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town

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

I am a biological anthropologist who studies morphological – primarily skeletal – variation. I’m interested in knowing why we vary, why lineages diverge evolutionarily. This obviously involves getting a firm grasp of both within and between group variation, and I have looked at a lot of different organisms – from mice to gorillas to hominins – to do this. In particular, I’ve studied the relationship between patterns of variation and the evolutionary processes that produce them, i.e. the relative roles that selection, drift, and gene flow (hybridization) play in producing diversity

What originally drew you to biological anthropology? 

I’ve always been interested in bones, since I was small. Someone recently reminded me of the story of how I was reading a magazine describing a child’s struggle with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones) when I was about 8 or 9, and decided I wanted to find a cure for it. Although I didn’t go into that line of research, clearly I have remained hooked on bones! But more than that, I wanted to understand what makes us different and why. That included trying to understand everything from human variation (and race and racism) all the way through to fossil hominin taxonomic diversity. I was very lucky to have great mentors when at The University of Chicago as an undergraduate (special shout out to Jane Buikstra), who really helped me to explore all of anthropology and come out with a more holistic approach to considering this question. That was the time when I decided biological anthropology was for me.

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

I studied facial variation in what were then the earliest known hominins – the australopiths. A large part of that research examined how our underlying assumptions about how and why hominin taxa vary shape our species-determinations. I grew up in the United States, and my PhD work was the first time I was privileged to travel to Africa, first to South Africa in 1995 for preliminary work, then to South Africa and Kenya in 1996/7 for data collection. Like most foreigners coming to these spaces for the first time, I found it incredible. To be able to see and touch the fossils for yourself, meet people such as Phillip Tobias, and experience a very different culture. 1995 was also when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in their first participation post-apartheid, and that was an experience I will never forget. But my PhD experience was not all rosy. Multiple times during my academic training I experienced sexual harassment, and this forever shaped me. I changed universities because of it, avoided certain academics and curators, and ultimately modified my choices going forward. During that time and for many years after, I also felt the weight of being a woman and not being included or taken seriously in the discipline, and was repeatedly bullied at conferences and in other academic spaces, even when I was supposed to be the authority. Luckily I always felt able to stand up to those people, but nevertheless the experiences had a profound effect on me and on my choices going forward, and on my mentoring especially.

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

I did a two-year postdoc at the same institution where I received my PhD – Washington University in St Louis – under the supervision of James Cheverud. Halfway into that, the advertisement for a Lectureship in the Archaeology Department at the University of Cape Town crossed my desk. I only realised later that the post was advertised with what we now call transformation goals in mind – i.e. to hire a black or female South African. I applied, and ultimately was offered the position. While in South Africa previously I had been to Cape Town and said I would move there in a heartbeat if I got a chance. So I did. In 2000, I moved with myself, my husband, and our three old dogs, and have been here ever since. But the fact that there were no qualified South Africans to take up the position bothered me from day one, and I made a commitment to myself that one of my primary goals would be to make sure that next time there would be. I am now Professor and Deputy Dean for Transformation in the Faculty of Science, and my job is to continue the work of transforming our institution to one that reflects the demographic and cultural diversity of South Africa.

Rebecca at home in Cape Town, with Table Mountain in the background

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

I am involved in quite a lot of research projects, many of which are in collaboration with current or former students. In addition to my focus on skeletal morphology, I am involved in issues around decolonisation in palaeoanthropology. Disparities in wealth, opportunities and privileges in the discipline have meant that the demographic of who gets to ask and answer research questions has historically been, and still is, skewed to the West. These disparities have grown out of colonial/patriarchal practices, and their correlates, racism and sexism. We’re paying more attention to this globally, especially right now, but need to look at ourselves more critically, and especially how we as individuals and collectives continue to prop up these systems and impede the transformation of our discipline.  

Rebecca with her colleagues and her son in the field (left to right: Rebecca, Nomawethu Hlazo (PhD candidate), Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Dr. Job Kibii, her son Zane, Dr. Robyn Pickering) at the Cradle of Humankind in 2019.

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

My students, right through from undergraduates to PhD students. I am proudest of them and everything they have achieved, some despite considerable adversity that people in the Western world can’t fathom. I am especially proud of my PhD students, who are a beacon of hope in today’s world. 

Rebecca with some her current and former PhD students (left to right: Dr. Tessa Campbell, Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Dr. Riashna Sithaldeen, Rebecca, Robyn Humphreys (PhD candidate), Nomawethu Hlazo (PhD candidate), Dr. Kerryn Warren)

What is your favourite memory from your career?

One of the happiest days of my life happened in September 2009, when I sat my then four PhD students (Riashna Sithaldeen, Lauren Schroeder, Tessa Campbell and Wendy Black… all South African women who have since completed) down in my office to tell them I was going to have a baby for the first (and only) time. I was 40, and quite anxious to be pregnant. I know that may not seem like an academic highlight, but the outpouring of sheer joy that came from them really drove home the fact that we had created this supportive and inclusive space together. They also assured me that having a boy was for the best as none of them would have wanted me as a mother (LOL). I have been deeply privileged to have the opportunity to know them, and the cohort of young South African palaeoscience students more broadly

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in human evolution studies over the last 5 years?

Why, the fact that human evolution is so complex, of course! Hybridisation and chance have played a huge role in shaping hominin diversity. But let’s be honest, although this has received a lot of attention in recent years, the reality is that researchers – many from non-Western spaces – have been challenging simple models of hominin evolution (and especially human origins) for some time. We have simply gotten to a point where the genetics have supported previous hypotheses and made them more mainstream.

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

I love giving students opportunities and watching them grow. I love the freedom and flexibility academia gives me, and them, to explore their ideas, and to change. I don’t like the slow pace of social change in academia, and the fact that it is still largely a white man’s world. I deeply dislike the continuation of practises that prop up the systemic inequalities that resulted from colonial practices. It bothers me immensely that helicopter research is still rampant, with Westerners bringing their money and people into African countries, in many cases with relatively little engagement with Africans as peers (and not just workers). I would change that in a minute.

University of Cape Town Inaugural lecture for Full Professor