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.


Published by lucyjt96

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

2 thoughts on “Conversations with: Professor Rick Potts

  1. I cherish my association with the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution. I have fond memories of interaction with Rick and Jennifer Clark and the last meeting during a field conference in the Bose Province of China. I have a dream to visit Olorgesailie. Research at this site is inspirational.


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