Conversations with: Dr Jennifer French

After a brief break, I am very pleased to introduce my next guest Dr Jennifer French, who is currently heading to the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool to take up her new position as a Lecturer of Palaeolithic Archaeology! She has just finished the writing a monograph titled “Palaeolithic Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory” (which has been submitted to the Cambridge University Press for publication in their World Archaeology Series). This will be the first comprehensive synthesis of the population history of the European Palaeolithic combining archaeological data with osteological, genetic, and ethnographic data. 

Dr Jennifer French, now of the University of Liverpool (credit: Lisa Daniel).

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

I’m a Palaeolithic archaeologist with particular expertise in the European Middle and Upper Palaeolithic (Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens in Europe). Within Palaeolithic archaeology, I’m very much a generalist, and my research is centred around key themes, rather than focused on the analysis of any one particular class of material. These themes are: archaeological demography, the theoretical and methodological challenges of the archaeology of archaic hominins, and the integration of Palaeolithic archaeology with the wider anthropological sub-field of hunter-gatherer studies. I like to think that my research programme bridges divisions between the scientific nature of human evolutionary studies and the humanistic focus of prehistory.

What first inspired your interest in archaeology? Did you always want to be an archaeologist and/or academic?

I am not one of those archaeologists whose career is the realisation of a long-held childhood ambition. I was, however, lucky enough to take my A-Levels at a large FE college- one of the few in the UK that offered the (sadly, now discontinued) Archaeology A-Level. I was uncertain what to choose for my fourth A Level subject (to study alongside German, English Literature, and Theatre Studies), and selected Archaeology because of the breadth of the subject. Within one week of classes, I was absolutely hooked, and haven’t looked back since.

I was even later in realising that I wanted to be an academic, mostly because I didn’t know that ‘academic’ was a career until towards the end of my undergraduate studies. I was the first in my family to attend university, and honestly hadn’t thought much about what I would do once I graduated beyond probably continuing in my job at a supermarket while I assessed my options. I had surprised myself by how well I had done in my undergraduate studies and how well received my work had been, so I decided that my preferred next step was graduate study. I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship from St John’s College, Cambridge to study for my Masters’ degree in Archaeological Research. It was then that I decided to pursue a career as an academic as long as academia would have me!

Excavating in Bulgaria in 2006 as an undergraduate at Durham University.

Where did you complete you PhD, what was your topic and who was your supervisor?

I stayed at Cambridge for my PhD, completing a thesis entitled “Populating the Palaeolithic: a Palaeodemographic Analysis of the Upper Palaeolithic Hunter-Gatherer Populations of Southwestern France” funded by the AHRC under the supervision of Prof. Paul Mellars, who continues to be a close friend and mentor. This thesis was a continuation of my Masters’ research into population changes across the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition in the same region, the results of which I published with Prof. Mellars in Science in 2011. Both of these projects looked at how a range of archaeological data can be used as proxies for relative changes in past population size and density in Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer communities, and the relationship(s) between these documented demographic changes and changes in other (environmental, social) domains.

Visiting the famous “Lion Man/ Löwenmensch” in Southwest Germany while a PhD student at the University in Cambridge.

What were the main findings from your PhD? Have you done any further work on this since you completed your PhD?

From the perspective of understanding the Upper Palaeolithic of Southwestern France, the main result of my PhD was the construction of a temporal sequence of fluctuation in relative population size across the Upper Palaeolithic spanning the Aurignacian-Azilian technocomplexes. Some of these fluctuations I didn’t see the relevance of at the time- for example, it took my colleague Andreas Maier finding a similar demographic trough in the Late Gravettian of Europe more widely  for me to realise that this hadn’t really been documented before, and goes against prevailing narratives that it was during the LGM ‘proper’ that the Palaeolithic population of Europe was at its smallest. From the perspective of archaeological demography, my PhD research also tested the robustness of palaeodemographic proxies. Along with Christina Collins, I demonstrated that the proxies of archaeological site counts and summed probability distributions of 14C dates produce similar demographic patterns for the French Upper Palaeolithic record- a finding that has since been replicated elsewhere and increases our confidence in the demographic signature produced by these proxies.

I recommend that those particularly interested in the results of my PhD check out the three papers that resulted from this research in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science and Journal of Archaeological Theory and Method.

As I discuss further below, demography has continued to be the focus of my post-PhD research. In addition to my main projects, I co-lead a working group on “Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Prehistoric Demography” (CROSSDEM) with colleagues at the universities of Bournemouth, Barcelona, and Alicante. Collectively, we have hosted several international workshops, and we are putting the finishing touches to a CROSSDEM Special Issue of “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B”, which brings together a series of ‘state of the art’ papers at the forefront of research in prehistoric demography. I’ve also developed an approach that integrates the study of demography with the study of women and of gender in prehistoric contexts.

Where have you worked since completing your PhD? On what projects?

I was very lucky in that my first post-doctoral position overlapped with my PhD. I took up a Research Fellowship in Archaeology and Anthropology at Peterhouse, Cambridge in 2012, and spent the first 6 months of that post completing my PhD thesis. I remained at Peterhouse until 2016 publishing the results of my doctoral research as discussed above and planning for my next major project which I carried out at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, first as a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow and then as a Wenner-Gren Hunt Postdoctoral Fellow.

This project “Palaeolithic Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory” weaved together archaeological, palaeoanthropological, and genetic data, alongside ethnographic data on recent foragers and demographic models of extant small-scale societies, to develop a demographic prehistory of European Palaeolithic populations ~1.8 million to 15,000 years ago. The results of this project are presented in my monograph of the same name, which I have just submitted to my editor at Cambridge University Press for publication in their World Archaeology Series. This book advances a novel structure for examining the European Palaeolithic based around four demographic stages; 1) visitation; 2) residency; 3) expansion, and; 4) intensification. By combining evolutionary frameworks (Human Behavioural Ecology, Life History Theory) with a social and gender-aware approach to investigating Palaeolithic societies, this book addresses both the biological and social drivers of demographic change within and between hominin species and populations, refuting long-standing ideas about the stability of the demographic regimes of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.

You are just starting your new position as a Lecturer in Palaeolithic Archaeology at the University of Liverpool. -Please tell us a little bit about what you are hoping to bring to our department and what you have planned for this role.   

Firstly, I would like to say how thrilled I am to be joining the Department of Archaeology, Classics, and Egyptology, and especially the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool. I’m particularly excited to join a department with such a strong emphasis on teaching Palaeolithic Archaeology and Evolutionary Anthropology at the undergraduate level, and one of the things I hope to bring to the department is a continued commitment to sharing the latest research and ideas with students. I also have lots of potential undergraduate and masters’ dissertation projects that derive from my recent book research, so if you are a student at Liverpool interested in Middle-Upper Palaeolithic archaeology, hunter-gatherer studies, or archaeological demography, please get in touch!

My research plans for the next few years are varied and given the lottery-nature of many funding schemes, I don’t want to jinx them! Nonetheless, I hope to collaborate with some of my more quantitatively-minded new colleagues on some demographic questions that have been vexing me for years, as well as continuing my work with Prof. April Nowell at the University of Victoria on adolescence in the Palaeolithic. I’ll also be continuing my fieldwork at several Palaeolithic cave sites in the UK with my colleague, Dr Rob Dinnis of the University of Aberdeen.

With the excavation team at Kents Cavern, Devon (credit: Rob Dinnis).

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in Palaeolithic archaeology over the past 5 years?

I’m a big advocate for the position that ‘archaeology is not about what you find, it’s about what you find out’ but there’s no denying that there have been some pretty spectacular discoveries in Palaeolithic archaeology over the last 5 years! As someone whose research focuses on the dynamics of European Palaeolithic populations, the possibility that Homo sapiens were present on the continent as early as ~210,000 years ago really throws a spanner into our models and assumptions about the correlation between hominins and different lithic industries in the European Palaeolithic. The finding of a child with a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father is also incredibly exciting from a demographic perspective-the notion that we now have direct evidence for this sort of interaction during early prehistory is mind-blowing.

What are your favourite things about being an academic? What would you change?

There are many things that I love about being an academic: the freedom to pursue interesting research questions, to work with great colleagues and teach students, and to feel that you are contributing to a global knowledge base. The bad things and the things I would change are well-documented: the increasing casualisation of the academic work force and associated structural problem in terms of the opportunities afforded to people of different genders, nationalities and ethnicities. These issues are obviously not unique to academia and academic settings, but I do think we have a greater responsibility within the academy to be a force for positive change in these areas. I have a long track-record of public engagement endeavours and initiatives to get more young people into both higher education and archaeology (see for example, my work on the National University Archaeology Day with colleagues from the UCL Institute of Archaeology), but there is much, much, more to do here.

Teaching field techniques at Ffynnon Beuno, Wales (credit: Rob Dinnis).

Published by lucyjt96

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

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