Conversations with: Professor John Gowlett

I am very pleased to introduce this week’s guest – Professor John Gowlett from the University of Liverpool! Like many of his students (see last week’s conversation with Prof Andy Herries), John was very inspirational to me as an Evolutionary Anthropology undergraduate, and continues to be a great mentor as I embark on my PhD in his research group. John is an African archaeologist and evolutionary anthropologist, a world leader in a number of areas of human evolution studies, such as the origins of fire use, the emergence of language and art and the evolution of early stone technologies. Recently, a number of colleagues came together from around the world to produce an edited volume titled ‘Landscapes of Human Evolution: Contributions in Honour of John Gowlett’, paying homage to his impressively extensive research profile.

Finding an Middle Stone Age core at Mweya (Uganda) in 1990

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise within archaeology and anthropology?

I have always been interested in one major issue of evolution – how we became human.  It always went beyond archaeology for me.  My first book  Ascent to Civilization was a shot at taking on the challenge, at a fairly popular level – it’s very hard to keep that up alongside detailed research, but recently in Thinking Big working with good colleagues such as Clive Gamble and Robin Dunbar, that spread the load and made it easier. David Cannadine, the historian, has quoted the French scholar Le Roy Ladurie to the effect that we are all fundamentally parachutists or truffle hunters – looking at the world, or seeking for detail.  In truth in archaeology we always need both, for ideas to be sustained by evidence.  In detail, I know quite a bit about parts of the Acheulean handaxe tradition, and aspects of fire studies, but I’m constantly reminded of how much I don’t know.  I like to explore how early humans came to assemble and manage chains of ideas. 

John (right) at East Turkana with (left to right) Kay Behrensemeyer, Jack Harris and Dinah Crader in 1972. Jack Harris calls it ‘the heroic age’!

What first inspired your interest in anthropology and archaeology? 

Like lots of us, I think, I started becoming interested in the past at an early age.  My father used to take us around castles on summer holidays, especially in Wales.  We also used to visit my grandmother in Essex, and alongside her house was a cart track .  We used to hunt for fossils in the gravel – I still have a couple of beautiful sea urchins derived from the chalk.  At nine a school prize had me taking a voucher to a bookshop -but my 5 shillings didn’t extend to any of the books – finally there was a little book on fossils, which I still have – I didn’t understand that you could make up the price – .the 7 shillings tag was a great concern.  Somehow the 2 shillings was found!

By 12 or 13 I was going on bike rides and sketching old houses and churches, then came the first chance to work on an excavation – in Chester, on the Roman fortress ditch outside the city wall.  Hugh Thompson provided a chance to work on the amphitheatre.  My school thought that archaeology meant classics, but geology and art had more appeal for me – I managed an O-level in one and an A-level in the other. The great eye opener was arrival of my university reading list – I was entranced with books such as Carter’s Human heredity and Howells’ Mankind in the making.

What was your PhD topic and who was your supervisor at the University of Cambridge? 

My dissertation was entitled rather prosaically ‘A contribution to studies of the Acheulean in East Africa with especial reference to Kilombe and Kariandusi’. My main teacher was Charles McBurney; he had a great deal to offer, but because he could be rather austere, and seemed a bit of a traditionalist – which he wasn’t – many students preferred to work with Eric Higgs, the inspirational leader of an early agriculture project which also swept in the Palaeolithic.  I went with McBurney on expedition to Afghanistan, but his idea for me to become ‘our man in Central Asia’ didn’t fit with my great desire to work on earlier human origins.  It was the flamboyant Pat Carter, on the fringes of the Cambridge department, but highly active in Africa, who made the connection that allowed me to have an early season with Glynn Isaac at East Rudolf, now East Turkana.  Glynn made plain to me that far too many people wanted to work on the new Oldowan occurrences.  BUT, a large new Acheulean site was coming up – and that was Kilombe.  Kariandusi became tacked onto the thesis when Richard Leakey wanted to have the Kariandusi museum renovated, and the chance to work there was not to be missed.  As McBurney was away in Russia, Alan Bilsborough the physical anthropologist stood in to be my supervisor, and has remained a friend and occasional mentor ever since.  Apart from his support there seemed so little interest in Cambridge that I took an unusual opportunity – a lectureship in archaeology in Khartoum, Sudan, my first real job.  I came back before my viva.  Sadly, McBurney died the previous night.  I can see much more clearly now than then his great sense of obligation to be rigorous in the face of the very limiting data that we get in the Palaeolithic.

Visiting Meroe in Sudan in 1975 after a 4000 mile drive by landrover

What were the main findings from your PhD? 

My thesis set out the main finds of two big million-year-old Acheulean sites – early dates, and not always accepted, still less that such industries could have many advanced characters.  Learning this direct from the material and its dynamics often put me at odds with received opinion.  I was influenced by books such as Annett’s Feedback and human behaviour and the work of the psychologist Kevin Connelly.  My main conclusion was that we shouldn’t underestimate early hominins – I came to appreciate that they have many abilities which some people would deny even in the Neanderthals!  I was getting this into print before I finished the thesis, in a note in Nature about cultural complexity that Tom Wynn says was one of the first pieces on Palaeolithic cognitive archaeology – though his own work has a very strong claim.

What projects are you currently working on at the University of Liverpool and why are these important for understanding ancient hominins?

My field research is centred on the extinct volcano of Kilombe in Kenya, and the archaeological sites on its southern flanks and within its caldera.  For a very long time I have been fascinated by the possibilities of what we call the Acheulean main site – strictly GqJh1,  It is a vast handaxe distribution about a million years old.  It gives a very unusual opportunity – the handaxes are coming out of a single horizon with outcrops up to 200 metres apart, so there is an almost unique chance to compare the different outputs made at almost the same moment in time.

The new project has taken us up to the heart of Kilombe mountain, its caldera, to much older sites.  They are important for learning how early hominins exploited high level environments.

One of John’s favourite views of Kilombe, with friend and field assistant Kimolo (1974)

What is your favourite thing about fieldwork and where has been your favourite place to excavate?

I have especially fond memories of working with Dr James Brink at Cornelia in the Free State of South Africa.  It is another million year old handaxe site, with lots of fauna.  You are right out on the high veld, astonishingly more like prairies of the American Midwest than the Africa which I knew.  James would run a very friendly camp, working hard with his crew all day long then still  insisting on cooking in the evening, great rows of steaks or the S. African wors on the campfire, and we would sit out in the cold under the great African sky with its incomparable stars, with red wine and brandy.  A great loss, James succumbed to a tumour a few months ago, and I’ve been working to help get one of his last papers to press.  

James Brink cooking steaks over the braai at Cornelia (2009)

East Africa is so different, and my main joy for fieldwork: I love Africa, its people, its huge variety.  My soul lifts when the plane lands in Nairobi, and I enjoy each step of dealing with the colleagues in the Museum, even the officials that we meet, visiting our British Institute in eastern Africa, then the long drive up to site in chaotic traffic; going up and down the volcano on a rock road each day, and especially meeting again and dealing with our farmer friends who are our helpers in the work.  They are far from well off, and have no more than primary education, but they have an interest, knowledge and focus which is humbling.  

With colleagues at a small town in Uganda (1990)

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

The recent meeting which colleagues organised around my surprise festschrift is one of the most special things for me.   They came together from all round the world, and I hope they are pleased with the result.  It’s a great privilege for me to go through it seeing all their different perspectives.

People often ask an archaeologist what is the most exciting thing you have ever found.  Of course we don’t see things that way; there are moments all the same – and one of the most special things came working with Tony Buchner on a Palaeoindian site in Canada. At lunch break in the hot sun I was trailing my legs in the creek and paddling my hands in the water against the bank, when something just dropped into my palm – a perfect stone point pressure-flaked all over each face.  They sent me a beautiful replica made by a local flint knapper.  Finding australopithecine remains at Chesowanja was a stunning moment too – the actual finder was Bernard Ngeneo, who used to work with Richard Leakey.

We have to keep looking for highlights even in grim times.  In January – it seems about 100 years ago – I spoke at an evolutionary biology conference in Ankara; that was a wonderful meeting organised by students of METU University to help protect evolution in the Turkish educational system.  Speaking to an audience of 700 prospective students was thrilling.  At dinner one student asked me what ten books had most influenced me – that was food for quite a lot of thought. In the end my list included only one archaeology book, Mary Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge Volume 3.

John with Darwin and Australopithecus at METU in Ankara (January 2020)

What advice would you give to a first year PhD student, like me, at the start of their academic journey

You need a lot of luck, as in Leakey’s luck, but then at least to an extent you can make more luck.  It helps to remember that a thesis is meant to be seen as a training in research and not supposed to be a huge mountain that takes over.  If you can shape some papers and publish them early – as you have done already – that counts for a lot.  And the essence of archaeology is that we don’t know all the answers, so you have to enjoy not knowing everything!

John’s ten books…

Forbes, Duncan.  1956. British Fossils. Second Edition.  Black, London.

Homer. 600 BC?   The Iliad

Leakey, M.D. 1971. Olduvai Gorge volume 3. C.U.P. Cambridge.

Huxley, T.H.  1863. Man’s place in nature. Macmillan, London.

Craik, Kenneth. 1943. The nature of explanationC.U.P. Cambridge.

Huxley, J. 1974. Evolution: the modern synthesis. Third edition. Allen and Unwin, London.

Sacedoti, Earl D.  1977. A structure for plans and behavior.  Elsevier, New York.

Eddington, A. 1939.  The philosophy of physical science. C.U.P. Cambridge.

McGrew, W.C. 1992.  Chimpanzee material culture: implications for human evolution.  C.U.P. Cambridge.

Feynman, R. 1998.   Six easy pieces: the fundamentals of physics explained.  Penguin, London.


Published by lucyjt96

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

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