This conversation is with Dr Matthew Bennet, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at Bournemouth University. Matthew’s research primarily investigates ancient footprints and the application of ecological models to hominin evolution research. He joined Bournemouth University in 2002, where he was Dean of Applied Sciences from 2007 to 2010 and Pro Vice Chancellor of Research and Internationalisation from 2010 to 2014. In 2015, he was awarded a major NERC Innovation Grant to translate his footprint research in to a practical tool for use by forensic scientists. Throughout his career, Matthew has written several leading textbooks on human evolution and the study of ancient footprints, and he has co-authored a number of papers in high-impact journals. Recently, his team published some high-profile research on the ancient footprints discovered at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, U.S.A, the dating of which has pushed back the presence of humans in North America by around 10,000 years earlier than was previously thought!
What are your research interests and your particular area or method of expertise?
I trained as a geographer and geologist worked on a range of glacial and Quaternary projects throughout the 1990s before becoming focused on African trace fossils. Since then, I have become something of an expert in fossil tracks, especially human tracks.
How did you first become interested in human evolution?
In 2007 I was invited to be a member of the Koobi Fora field school and that took me to northern Kenya. Working on the Ileret footprints got me interested in the whole topic.
Tell us a little bit about your PhD. What did you study and how did you find the overall PhD experience?
I started my PhD in the late 1980 with two of the leading glacial geologists for their generation – David Sugden and Geoffrey Boulton. They were both fantastic although like any talented academic over committed and very busy. I learnt a lot from both of them and my research was focused on the deglaciation of the Scottish Highlands. Edinburgh was a tough doctoral school, competitive with lots of talented people and not much nurture. It was tough and not the best experience.
Following your PhD, what projects have you worked on?
I worked for what was English Nature for ten months as a conservation officer before landing my first academic job. It took me time to find my feet in terms of research but a succession of arctic field seasons got my research career moving and gave me a lot of experience, both good and bad.
What are you currently working on?
Well, I have been working in Tibet on parietal art and at White Sands National Park for the last couple of years. There is a lot of work to do at White Sands over the coming years on the human tracks there. This will keep me busy for a while.
What project or publication are you most proud of?
I am very proud of my two Science papers one in 2009 on the Ileret footprints and the most recent in 2021 on the footprints from White Sands. These papers take a huge amount of work over many years and involve a lot of politics, egos and it is a huge relief to bring them to publications. I am proud of that effort and the patience I have had to show during these journeys.
I am very proud of my two Science papers: one in 2009 on the Illeret footprints and the most recent in 2021 on the footprints from White Sands. These papers take a huge amount of work over many years and involve a lot of politics, egos and it is a huger relief to bring them to publications. I am proud of that effort and the patience I have had to show during these journeys.
Why do you think studying human origins is important?
It goes to the heart of who we are and reminds us how lucky we are to exist at all.
What do you hope to discover or find out in the next 5 years?
I hope to continue the work at White Sands and understand more about human hunting of ice age mega fauna.
What qualities about your colleagues do you admire the most?
Imagination and an ability to think outside the box
Finally, if you were not a scientist, what would you be?
May be an architect, or more likely a very bad and unsuccessful professional mountaineer.