Conversations with: Dr Bernhard Zipfel

I am delighted to introduce the next guest, Dr Bernhard Zipfel of the University of Witwatersrand. Bernhard is primarily interest in the the origins of hominin bipedalism and the biomechanics and evolution of the human foot, having originally trained and practised in clinical podiatry. He was formerly the Head of the Department of Podiatry at the University of Johannesburg (1990-2006), completing his PhD in paleoanthropology at the University of Witwatersrand in 2004. Bernhard has held the position of Curator of the Fossil and Rock collections housed at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, since 2007. He has published a number of papers on South African hominin discoveries, as well numerous articles on human foot evolution.

Bernhard Zipfel (photo: Brett Eloff) 

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

From my background in podiatry, I have developed research interests in human and primate evolution, the origin and evolution of human bipedalism, foot and ankle biomechanics and palaeopathology. I also still have a keen interest in podiatric medicine. As Curator of Fossil and Rock Collections, I also research conservation and preservation of natural history collections. Beyond my formal research activities, I also have a keen interest in hoplology (study of human combative behaviour and performance), in particular those from southeast Asia, China, Okinawa and Japan.

What originally drew you towards human evolution? 

As a clinician in podiatric medicine for 17 years, I took a keen interest in the natural history of the foot and its associated structures. I did my PhD on human foot bones, which included archaeological and fossil hominin material. I initially intended to remain in the health sciences after my PhD, but at the time, it was a difficult place to work and did not allow me to carry out the research I wished to. As a result, I applied for the curator position at the University of the Witwatersrand, and through the extensive collections I am responsible for, including one of the largest fossil hominin collections, I was able to pursue my passion.

Bernhard Zipfel, Department of Podiatry, University of Johannesburg.

Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience? Would you change anything?

I only started my PhD later in life, and as a mature part-time student (I was Head of the Department of Podiatry at the University of Johannesburg at that time), so it was quite challenging. The field of physical anthropology was new to me, so it was also a steep learning curve. If I could change anything, I would perhaps have taken more time to collect my own great ape comparative data. This would have been a helpful resource for future studies.

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

I completed my PhD at the end of 2004, and continued to work as Head of Department of Podiatry at the University of Johannesburg until 2007, when I took the position of Curator of University of Fossil and Rock Collections at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Bernhard Zipfel with casts and original foot fossils of Australopithecus sediba, published in Science (photo: Brett Eloff) 

What current projects are you working on?

I am currently working on an extensive review paper on the podiatric implications of the evolution of the foot which is part of a series of papers published with international colleagues over the past four years. I am involved in ongoing research into fossils from Kromdraai, on which I am a co-permit holder, and some exciting new discoveries of foot bones in the Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg. I have recently been invited by a team of scientists exploring the South African southern Cape Coast for Middle Stone Age human footprints.

Sorting the numerous skeletal elements of Homo naledi (photo courtesy of National Geographic).

Has COVID19 affected your research plans?

Yes, COVID-19 has prevented international travel, both of collaborators visiting South Africa and my own plans to collect data abroad. However, COVID has also provided an opportunity to reflect, and do some writing. It even gave me the opportunity to deviate a little and do a short paper on COVID and the South African podiatrist. Not having to travel to the office every day saves time, and on some levels, I have found that I have been even more productive.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

In my past career, I am extremely proud of my contribution to the development of podiatric medicine in South Africa. In my current career, I am proud to be able to serve the palaeontology community worldwide with facilitating access to fossil and associated materials. Of course, as a scientist, I am proud to have published in some of the most prestigious scientific journals.

What is your favourite memory from your career?

My favourite memory is the first time I handled the famous Taung skull, the holotype of Australopithecus africanus. I have the privilege of being the curator of this famous and iconic fossil representing the first early hominin discovery, and the first evidence of the origins of our lineage in Africa. 

The Taung Skull, holotype of Australopithecus africanus (photo: Bernhard Zipfel).

What would you be if you were not a scientist?

I would perhaps go back to being a clinically active podiatrist.

Why do you think studying human evolution is important?

As a member of the human species, we are naturally curious as to where we came from. The study of human evolution is essential in understanding how and why we became what we are. It has the potential to help us understand our physical make up, as well as our behaviour. It also gives us perspective on our place in the natural world.  

Bernhard Zipfel (photo: Brett Eloff) 

Published by lucyjt96

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: