Conversations with: Professor Michael Petraglia

Today, it is my pleasure to introduce my next guest, Professor Michael Petraglia, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History! Michael’s research is interdisciplinary and covers a range of subjects concerning human evolution, such as the evolution of cognition and behaviour, and the relationship between climate change and hominin dispersals. He has directed archaeological field projects in Africa and Asia, primarily in the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, and is also part of the Human Origins Programme Team at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History.

Professor Michael Petraglia taking a break with the iconic falcon in Saudi Arabia

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

I think of myself as an interdisciplinary archaeologist, meaning that I integrate a wide range of disciplines into my research. While the core of my research is in archaeology, my publications reflect collaborations with a wide range of researchers in the earth sciences, biological anthropology and genetics. I am currently involved in projects of all sorts, ranging from the earliest occupations of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, to the review of the Pleistocene hominin record of China, to the adaptation of Holocene pastoral communities in Arabia. In particular, I have an intense interest in the origin and dispersal of our species, Homo sapiens, so my projects involve the excavation of Panga ya Saidi in Kenya, the investigation of Middle Palaeolithic sites in Saudi Arabia, and research on the Late Pleistocene record of South Asia, now mostly centered on cave and coastal excavations in Sri Lanka. 

What originally drew you towards archaeology and human evolution studies specifically? 

My interest in archaeology began when I was very young, and I was somewhat obsessed with the cultural history of Egypt. My sister Maria gave me a book on mummies, and my bedroom shelves eventually filled with books on Egyptian dynasties.

My interest in human evolution began when I was a teenager and I was awed with the book, Origins by Leakey and Lewin (1977). My sister Maria frequently purchased tickets to attend public lectures on the evolution of primates and humans at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, where I got to hear first-hand accounts from Richard Leakey, Jane Goodall, Cliff Jolly and other famous anthropologists.

My first archaeological field work was in New York where I grew up. I had the chance to excavate Native American and historic sites with local museums and universities. While I was an undergraduate in Anthropology at NYU, I took archaeology courses with Howard Winters (a key figure in the ‘New Archaeology’) and Noel Boaz (who was working on the Pleistocene of North Africa, and who oversaw my dissection of a chimpanzee!).  During my undergraduate years at NYU, I volunteered at the AMNH working with the curator David Hurst Thomas, who set me up on a project in Nevada with Bob Kelly, then a doctoral student at Michigan. During my participation in the Great Basin surveys, I was positively influenced by Lewis Binford’s students, and soon after, I moved to Albuquerque as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico.

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

I attended the University of New Mexico for my Masters and doctoral degrees. One of the main reasons I went to UNM was to study with the ‘Father of the New Archaeology’, Lewis Binford. At UNM, I was enthused to listen to Binford’s stimulating lectures relating to many aspects of archaeology, human origins and early human behaviours. Binford’s lectures were rather astounding as he was a talented orator.

Though I had planned to do my PhD with Binford, Lawrence Straus invited me to work with him in France, which I took up immediately! My PhD topic was on site formation processes at the Abri Dufaure, a Magdalenian site in southwest France. In the 1980s, the topic of site formation was all the rage, so I designed field plot experiments in Jemez, New Mexico, to observe how natural processes interacted with artefacts, moving and burying them. I was able to write this experimental work up as part of an independent study with Straus and this is what eventually led me to his excavation in France. I centered my PhD on evaluating the formation of Abri Dufaure’s rockshelter and slope deposits, but more than that, I was exposed to Palaeolithic archaeology for the very first time, which I found completely fascinating.

Mike recording excavations at the Abri Dufaure, Southwest France (1984). Lawrence Straus in lower right hand corner. 

While at UNM, the well-known Indian archaeologist, K. Paddayya, came to Albuquerque to learn more about the topic of site formation. Paddayya invited me to India to help him assess his Lower Palaeolithic sites in southern India, and so I travelled there during my postdoctoral work at the Smithsonian, leading so some great discoveries of intact Acheulean sites.

 Excavation of the Acheulean site of Isampur Quarry, Hunsgi Valley, India in the 90s. K. Paddayya on lower left.

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

Towards the end of my PhD in New Mexico, I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship with Rick Potts at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. I landed the postdoc in 1987, and while this was only a one year fellowship, I have since been associated with the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program. The postdoc was a critical position for me, as had the opportunity to evaluate Bed I and II sites in Olduvai Gorge. It also allowed me to travel to India to conduct Palaeolithic archaeology over many years. At the same time, I became fascinated with the Palaeolithic collections, which were amassed since the 19th century, though poorly known to outsiders. Rick and I ended up writing a book on the history behind the Smithsonian’s Palaeolithic collections. Alongside my research at the museum, I got involved in Cultural Resources Management work, mostly centred in eastern North America, though also involving national and international work. I eventually became the Manager of the Cultural Resources Program in the Parsons Corporation, overseeing large-scale archaeology projects, providing me with valuable administrative skills I use to this day.

Though I was happily working in Washington, D.C. for 14 years, I felt the need to change direction, and teach. It was at this moment that an email from Rob Foley hit my inbox, advertising a Lecturership at the University of Cambridge. Soon after, I found myself as a Lecturer in the new Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge. The lectureship expanded my research horizons tremendously, as I designed courses which entailed teaching about hominin fossil record and genetics. As I was married to the archaeologist, Nicole Boivin, we were in search of a dual hire opportunity, which eventually landed us in the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. I took up the position of Co-Director of the new Oxford Centre for Asian Archaeology, Art, and Culture. Oxford exposed me to exemplary research in dating and environmental reconstruction, which I apply to my projects to this day.

While we were at Oxford, my wife Nicky was offered the post of Director of a new Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. We were offered an attractive dual hire package and so we took up our posts in 2016. We are currently based in Jena, where we engage with a vibrant community of archaeologists, including many interdisciplinary researchers from around the world. 

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

The core of my work in the last 10 years has been in Saudi Arabia, a key geographic bridge between Africa and the rest of Eurasia. This has been a terrific project, and our team has made a number of key discoveries. This project is expanding in scope in recent years thanks to the leadership efforts of Dr. Huw Groucutt and Dr. Maria Guagnin, and we are now turning to cave sites and to early and middle Holocene sites, which will provide us with important new information on climate change, dispersals, and inter-regional connections. 

Mike with team members in Saudi Arabia, pictured here are Dr. Huw Groucutt, Dr. Mathew Stewart, and Dr. Richard Clark-Wilson. 

I have been working closely with members of the IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences on the Pleistocene record of Eastern Asia. Together with Dr. Shi-Xia Yang and colleagues, we have published on the famous Nihewan Basin sites and now we are turning our attention to the extraordinary Late Pleistocene record, which is so exciting given how little we know about the dispersal of Homo sapiens into the region. 

Our work at Panga ya Saidi in the coastal upland of Kenya has been wonderful, as the cave site has revealed an impressive Middle and Later Stone Age record extending over 80,000 years. The cave is in a tropical ecotone setting, which suggests it may have been a refuge during difficult times, and so in the next few years we will expand our investigations to better understand human adaptations through time. 

Our work in Sri Lanka continues to draw my attention thanks to the talent of my PhD student, Oshan Wedage. Our work on cave sites, dating back to 45,000 years ago, has shown that modern humans were living in rainforests. We have now begun to excavate coastal sites, and this work is showing an even longer record of human occupation. In future years, we hope to conduct more field work, allowing us to compare and contrast rainforest and coastal records.

What has been your favourite memory from the field?

One of my favourite memories was when our team first visited the Jubbah oasis in Saudi Arabia. As soon as we began surveying, we found multiple, intact Middle Palaeolithic sites . These were some of the first stratified and dated Palaeolithic sites found in Saudi Arabia and in association with an ancient lake. We were previously told there were no palaeolakes in Arabia, and now our satellite work estimates up to 10,000 palaeolakes and wetlands were present, many with fossils and archaeological finds. 

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am particularly proud of our article on the Toba volcanic super-eruption, published in Science in 2007. This article set the tone for a number of debates that I am still involved in, including on the timing of out of Africa dispersals and the effect of the super-eruption on hominins and ecosystems. 

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

Though not without controversy, I think the discovery of 3.3 million-year old tools in eastern Africa is incredibly exciting. Given my own interest in primate archaeology, tool use and the evolution of behaviour, I would think that we are still missing an archaeological record that may go back millions of years earlier than we currently realise. One of my ex-students at Cambridge, Professor Susana Carvalho (featured here last week!) is doing fantastic work in this area.

What would you be if you were not an archaeologist?

I would likely be in a field having something to do with life on Earth. In high school and during my undergraduate years, I took a number of classes in marine biology and coastal palaeontology. Visits to ancient reefs, now in the forests of upstate New York, were mind-blowing experiences, and I continue to look back on these class trips with great fondness.


Published by lucyjt96

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

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