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.


Published by lucyjt96

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

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