Conversations with: Dr Sally Street

Today’s conversation is with Dr Sally Street, Assistant Professor in Evolutionary Approaches to Cognition and Culture at Durham University. Sally obtained her BA in Politics And Sociology at the University of Leeds in 2008, before graduating with an MSc in Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Liverpool in 2010. She then went on to receive her PhD on primate brain evolution and sexual selection from the University of St Andrews in 2014, and has since worked at the University of Hull and the University of St Andrews as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow before taking on her current role at Durham University in 2017. Sally is an inter-disciplinary researcher with broad interests about large-scale patterns and processes in the evolution of behaviour, cognition and culture. Most recently, her research has focused on the evolution of technically skilled behaviour, such as musical ability.

Dr Sally Street, Durham University.

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

I think my interests are unusually broad and I’ve actually always struggled to identify a specific area that I feel I have expertise in! One of the things I find most interesting is what you could call ‘technically skilled’ behaviour, that requires abilities like fine motor control and physical cognition. So that would be things like making tools, playing musical instruments and building structures. I think technical skill is something that humans particularly excel at but does not receive as much research interest as more ‘abstract’ cognitive abilities like language and theory of mind, and I think there might be some interesting societal baggage at least partly behind that – think about the ways in which ‘academic’ versus technical expertise tend to be unequally valued in Western societies. 

How did you first become interested in human evolution?

I was inspired primarily by my maternal grandfather David ‘Duggie’ Ward, who was a broad thinker and avid reader in human evolution, philosophy, politics, music and many other topics. He’d lend me books and first drew my attention to writers like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne who made evolutionary biology accessible to broader audiences. My views on those particular authors have evolved themselves since then due to some of their recent political comments but I still think it’s important to recognise what an inspiration they were for people like me, who might never have otherwise developed an interest in evolutionary biology. At school I always saw myself as an ‘arts person’ and studied Politics and Sociology for my first degree – but I remember often trying to bring up evolution in my sociology seminars and never understanding why this rarely went down well with my tutors and peers!  

Tell us a little bit about your PhD. What did you study and how did you find the overall PhD experience? Would you change anything about it?

Mine was a kind of PhD of two halves – I used phylogenetic comparative methods to test hypotheses for the evolution of primate brain size and structure, as well as the evolution of sexual signals in female primates. Looking back on it now, I think my supervisors, Gillian Brown and Kevin Laland, were pretty brave to take me on given that the project required running some fairly complex statistical methods in R, and yet I had no prior experience in statistical programming! Doing a PhD for me was one of the most challenging, rewarding and more than anything humbling experiences of my life. I was extremely lucky to be surrounded by inspirational people and wonderful mentors, without whom there is no way I would have got through it. Perhaps one of the most surprising things for me was how much I (eventually!) enjoyed programming in R. I was truly horrible at programming at first, and don’t think I have ever felt so stupid as when I would try and repeatedly fail to do even the simplest tasks in R, but now I’m a huge advocate for learning R and couldn’t do any of my research without it. My personal journey with R has also inspired the way I teach now – I’m a firm believer in the value of a ‘growth mindset’ and as a result of my own struggles I always find it easy to empathise with students who find it difficult or even anxiety-provoking themselves.

Following your PhD, what projects have you worked on? Which was your favourite?

Since my PhD I’ve worked on a somewhat eclectic variety of projects including predictors of ‘success’ in invasive vertebrate species and the evolution of nest building in birds! I think my favourite project was probably the one that led to the first paper I was ever involved with, on the relationship between cerebellum structure and nest complexity in birds, with Sue Healy and Zach Hall. We found that species building more complex nests have a more densely folded cerebellum, a brain structure that plays a key role in fine motor control and execution of sequential tasks. I found it so exciting that we had found something genuinely novel, and that all the investment I’d put into learning comparative analyses had paid off. Since that project I’ve been fascinated by how birds build such complex structures, particularly the ‘hanging-basket’ like nests built by weaverbirds and ‘New World’ blackbirds, and have worked on several further nest-building projects.

A male Ploceus velatus (Southern masked weaver) making a nest.

What are you currently working on? Has your work been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’m currently focusing on the evolution of folk music, applying cultural evolutionary approaches to understand how and why folk tunes change and diversify over time. I’m lucky that my work has generally been minimally affected by the pandemic as I tend to use secondary datasets or experiments that can be done online. But of course it did affect me in other ways – nobody should be expected to carry on completely as normal during a global emergency. 

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am probably most proud of my latest project on the role of population size in folk tune complexity, because I feel that with folk music I might have finally found a topic I can stick with! I think there are so many interesting questions about the evolution of music left to answer, and this project means a lot to me personally as I’ve been an active musician since childhood. 

Sally playing music as a child.

I’m particularly interested in the Irish folk ‘session’ tradition of playing tunes in informal gatherings, a rich and complex tradition largely overlooked by musicologists and evolutionary researchers. I got involved in sessions myself in the last few months of my PhD as a bit of respite (ok, procrastination) from thesis-writing. I’m very grateful in particular to the folk musicians of the Whey Pat Tavern in St Andrews for being so welcoming (and patient!) with me as I bumbled my way through my first few tunes. 

The Whey Pat Tavern, St Andrews.

For this particular project, together with my brilliant Durham colleagues Tuomas Eerola and Jeremy Kendal we’ve been exploring how the complexity and diversity of folk tunes is affected by the size of the population of players. We’ve used observational and simulation analyses based on an amazing online folk tune dataset (thesession.org) explore how tunes diversify and change in complexity over time and how this relates to population size, finding that more popular tunes are more likely to diversify into multiple different versions, but converge towards intermediate levels of melodic complexity. If you’re interested to learn more about this project, you can find a pre-print here: https://psyarxiv.com/2he8k/

The results of some of Sally’s simulations on the role of population size in the complexity of folk tunes. The top panel shows a smaller population and the lower one shows a larger population

Why do you think studying human origins is important?

In the current conditions we are living in, it’d be easy to dismiss studying human origins (and all other research without obvious immediate applications for that matter) as a bit of a luxury. But I think we can’t make any sense of our behaviour now without understanding where it originates from, and that’s never been more true as now – how else can we understand, for example, our susceptibility to misinformation, group-think and polarisation without investigating common heuristics in human cognition which are likely shaped by our evolutionary history? 

What do you hope we discover or find out about human evolution in the next 5 years?

I would bet we would find some more definitive evidence of musical ability in Neanderthals, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking…

What advice do you have for students hoping to have a career similar to yours?

This is a hard one, because I recognise that I have benefitted from privilege and luck at many points along the way in my career. I think my best advice would be to invest in learning research skills (as well as subject knowledge), particularly in coding and data analysis, as this gives you the flexibility to go down many interesting avenues, both within and outside of academia. 

Finally, if you were not a scientist, what would you be?

A wildly successful electronic musician, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Conversations with: Professor Ran Barkai

Today’s interview is with Professor Ran Barkai, Palaeolithic archaeologist at Tel-Aviv University. Ran wrote his PhD on the Neolithic but since has moved deeper in time to the Lower Palaeolithic, excavating the site of Qesem Cave in Israel for the last two decades as well as other Lower Palaeolithic sites in the Levant. Although an archaeologist by training, his research interests are wide, including stone tool technology, cosmology and ontology of human relationships with the cosmos in the archaeological record, human-elephant interactions and altered states of consciousness. Ran has published extensively, including in high impact journals such as Nature and Journal of Human Evolution, and he sits on the editorial board of Quaternary Science Reviews.

Dr Ran Barkai, Tel Aviv University.

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

I began my journey as a Neolithic and Paleolithic archaeologist, dealing mostly with lithic technology and reconstructing early human life ways and adaptation. But it was clear to me right from the start that really I am more interested in anthropological questions regarding human behaviour, world views and human interactions with the world. Following years of archaeological field work and stone-tool analysis, it became apparent to me, that in order to arrive at a better understanding of went on in the past, I must expand my horizons and now I am really into human-animal interactions and deal mostly with human-elephant relationships. I came to understand that elephants likely played a major role in human cultural and biological adaptations, so I wanted to delve deeper into the nature of these interactions and the way that humans were dependant on elephants, and of course what happened after elephants were not any more available for human consumption in the Levant.  This research led me into aspects of cosmology and ontology, ‘the ontological turn’ and the way that humans perceived and interacted with the world.

More recently, I have been also interested in human relationships with caves, mountains, stones, different animals and so on, which is fascinating. Following on from these interests, I wanted to understand better human consciousness in the Paleolithic and the role of altered states of consciousness in human adaptation and behaviour, and to what extent these are reflected in the archaeological record – I believe they are. So, basically my aim now is to put all these lines of investigation together, and see how human adaptation, technology, relationships with the world and consciousness fit together and explain the human journey during the Paleolithic. 

Ran Barkai with elephant bones at the Middle Pleistocen site of La Polledrara, Italy.

How did you first become interested in human evolution?

Well, I must admit I wasn’t at first. Since my early childhood I read a lot about the past and was fascinated by ancient history. I was mostly interested in ancient Egypt and the Romans. I guess I must blame my obsession with the Asterix and obelisk book series (which I like reading until this very day, as well as my daughters), and the fact that my parents had at our home the two magnificent volumes of Life magazine: “The World We live In” and “The Epic of Man”. I kept these near my bed and kept looking at the beautiful centrefolds over and over again. After I finished my army duty (after 5 long years), I went to Egypt and visited the great pyramids of Giza. Following that, I went to study Archaeology at Tel-Aviv University with the aim of focussing on Egyptology. This was a nice plan indeed, and studying hieroglyphs was fun, but as soon as I took the stone-tool typology and technology practical class, it became clear to me that this is what I wanted to do. It was both a sensual and intellectual experience, and I was heavily attracted to stone tools. So it was a slippery slope from that class onwards, until this very day.

Tell us a little bit about your PhD. What did you study and how did you find the overall PhD experience? Would you change anything about it?

My PhD, entitled “Flint and Stone Axes as Cultural Markers: Socio-Economic Changes as Reflected in Holocene Flint Tool Industries of the Southern Levant” was my own initiative. I was sorting huge lithic collections at a museum in northern Israel and came across thousands of axes, chisels and adzes and realized these were not studied in detail – I wanted to know more about these amazing stone tools. So, I decided to study Holocene bifacial tools from their emergence during the Natufian culture in the Levant up until their disappearance during the Chalcolithic. Luckily, my PhD supervisor was fine with the idea. I studied a lot of excavated materials from different sites in Israel, and attempted to correlate the changes in bifacial tools to transformations in economy, society and ideology. I was lucky in finding a use-wear analyst, Prof. Rick Yerkes, who was interested in joining me in studying the function of these tools, and his results helped me a lot in configuring my conclusions and provided me with a lot of appreciation for the functional study of stone tools. I have very good memories from the years of my PhD and I am very glad with the results. I was able to publish several papers during and following my PhD years and it also came out as a book, so I am satisfied with the results.

There is only one thing I would change. My PhD supervisor was always concerned about me being too bold in my arguments and thinking, and he was afraid this might hamper the review process and that the reviewers might find some of my suggestions and conclusions too far reaching. I know he did that for my own good and in order to make the review process as smooth as possible. And it was indeed smooth. But I had to lower the tone of my arguments and leave aside some of my thoughts and speculations. I never recommend doing so to my students; I make it clear to them that being bold and original might make their life difficult, but I never suggest them to walk on the safe side. I try to help them phrasing their arguments in the best way possible, and they are aware of the fact that their papers will, most probably, be rejected time and time again until finally accepted for publication, and this is indeed a recurring pattern for me and my students. But, it makes life interesting.

Teaching stone tools class during COVID 19 times.

Following your PhD, what projects have you worked on? Which was your favourite?

After my PhD I decided to move to the Paleolithic, the Lower Paleolithic. The year I finished my PhD, the year 2000, the site of Qesem Cave was discovered and we started the excavation that same year. We still study that particular site until this very day, and it will be studied for many years to come. The site is like a treasure box sealed for 200,000 years, and it holds many secrets about human cultural and biological evolution in the Levant. I am very proud of this project. Later on, I was lucky enough to study the lithic assemblages of Revadim, a late Acheulian site in Israel. I was interested in that project because that site is slightly earlier than Qesem Cave so it provided me and my team with materials that reflect the sequence of events in the terminal Lower Paleolithic in the Levant and comparable material to Qesem Cave. The lithics from Revadim were also beautifully preserved and allowed many breakthroughs regarding the understanding of Acheulian stone tools function via use-wear and residue analyses. In the year 2016 the late Acheulian site of Jaljulia was discovered, and we took part in the excavation and were in charge of the lithic analysis. This site adds to Qesem and Revadim in providing a detailed view on what went on during the late Lower Paleolithic in the Levant, a period of significant changes and transformations. So these are my favourites, in addition to the human-elephant interactions project and the study of past human ontology and cosmology. 

Ran Barkai during field work at Qesem Cave, Israel.

What are you currently working on? Has your work been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I basically continue the work described above. As I was not planning field work, COVID-19 did not have a severe influence of my work, but it certainly slowed things a lot, and for a long period of time it was not possible to work at the lab on the lithics. Moreover, the students, as well as myself, went through difficult times so the process of working, thinking and producing was, and still is, not at its best. 

An excursion to Qesem Cave during COVID 19 times.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I like publishing, so this is a difficult question. For the recent year, I am mostly proud in the work done with my PhD student Yafit Kedar regarding the possible role of hypoxia and altered states of consciousness in decorated caves and in human relationships with caves, and in the work with my PhD student Bar Efrati regarding life history and biographies of Paleolithic stone tools as mnemonic objects and token of appreciation towards the ancestors. But I like all of the projects that I am dealing with and all the publications that result, and I hope I will keep enjoying my work in the future as I do now.

Why do you think studying human origins is important?

My general understanding is that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, our ancestors, who lived in the past and paved the way to the present. In my view, all world views, conceptions and habits we now hold as “natural” or parts of “human nature” were actually conceived and practiced by humans in the past, and this human nature was shaped during the human past and thus could be understood and reconstructed through the study of the archaeological record. Thus, if we wish to understand the reasoning behind what we perceive as “natural” of “unavoidable” human behaviour, we should look at our past. We can also find out that humans lived in ways different than our own, and that there are alternative ways, which might be better than the one we are practicing, to allow human prosperity and sustainability. 

A visit to an Innu camp in Labrador with Prof. Adrian Tanner in 2017.

What do you hope we discover or find out about human evolution in the next 5 years?

My aim in the coming 5 years is to try to put together a research framework that will connect available knowledge regarding the animals hunted by humans during the Paleolithic and the stone tools made and used by humans in these times. I believe the transformations in animal prey availability throughout the Paleolithic holds great potential in understanding correlative trends in lithic technology, and my aim would be to make such a connection in an attempt to understand better changes in lithic technology over the course of the Paleolithic. I would also like to try to figure out the role of altered states of consciousness in the Paleolithic and how it is reflected in the archaeological record.

What advice do you have for students hoping to have a career similar to yours?

This is easy, and twofold: First, always follow your heart and keep your heart and mind open. Second: love what you do and do what you love. Find out what you are good at, and what makes you feel good. If you follow this advice, I guarantee you will be both successful and happy. 

Ran Barkai lecturing at the VII International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives, Taiwan, 2017.

Finally, if you were not a scientist, what would you be?

This is even easier: I would love being a park ranger. I like to be out in the open, in nature, and I would enjoy helping to protect the environment. 

Conversations with: Professor Shara Bailey

Today’s guest is Professor Shara Bailey, Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Anthropology at New York University and Director of the Center for the Study of Human Origins. Shara is a biological anthropologist whose research focuses on using dental morphology to understand human evolution. She was awarded her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Anthropology from Temple University, and then went on to receive her masters and PhD degrees in Anthropology from Arizona State University. Following her PhD, Shara worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at The George Washington University, before moving to the The Max Planck Institute Department of Human Evolution in Germany as a Research Scientist. Shara joined the faculty at NYU in 2005.


Professor Shara Bailey, New York University

What are your research interests, and your particular area or method of expertise?

I study human evolution from a dental perspective. I do this by examining dental morphology, which refers to the bumps and grooves that are on the tooth surface. I use dental morphology to reconstruct evolutionary relationships and identify human species from the fossil record. We find that even in living people there are differences in the configuration of these bumps and grooves on the teeth, with areas of the world like Europe, Northeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa having identifiable patterns of trait frequencies. These patterns make tooth morphology really useful for investigating ancestry of modern populations. There are also dental traits and trait patterns that are particular to certain human groups (like Neanderthals) in the past. This fact allows us to identify species and reconstruct relationships among species going back 4 million years. 

How did you first become interested in human evolution and specifically dental anthropology? 

Well, I actually became interested in human evolution by accident!  I was majoring in psychology at the time, and I decided to take an introduction to biological anthropology class to satisfy my final science requirement. I was so excited by the class that in the end I decided to double major in Anthropology. In my senior year, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school but I was still on the fence regarding Psychology vs. Anthropology. I was (and still am) very interested in neuroscience, cognition and memory but I could also see myself as an anthropologist. So I took a career test which clearly pointed me in the direction of anthropology. One thing that stood out was that I realized I’d be much happier working outside and/or traveling around the world then I would be decapitating rats and dissecting their brains in a laboratory! 

In an archaeology class, I had learned about Christy Turner’s research at Arizona State University (ASU), which used dental morphology to reconstruct Native American origins. Being very interested in this topic and also inexplicably drawn to the American West, I decided to apply to ASU, and ASU only, for graduate school. In hindsight it wasn’t the best idea to put all my eggs in one basket, but luckily ASU accepted me – thank goodness!  In my first semester at ASU, Christy Turner’s Dental Anthropology class introduced me to the fascinating world of teeth.  I first did my master’s degree studying the distribution and inheritance of a rare dental trait that appeared in relatively high frequencies in the Pima and Papago populations. I had planned to do a PhD on the dental morphology of South American aboriginal people. At about the same time, my friend was organizing a conference on the nature of modern human origins, because that (replacement vs. continuity) was the big debate in the early-mid 1990’s. It was there that I realised that nobody was using a dental perspective of the fossils to answer this question. I decided to shift my dissertation topic to examining Neanderthals and the subject of dental continuity in Europe. A year later quite fortuitously, the Institute of Human Origins came to ASU bringing with them leading figures in human evolutionary studies – Bill Kimbel and Don Johanson. Bill eventually became my PhD mentor. He encouraged me to look at teeth with “new eyes”, which led me to investigate ways to quantify dental morphology using new methods, specifically morphometrics.

How was your PhD experience and would you change anything about it? 

My PhD experience was wonderful. I still consider those years some of the best years of my life – I don’t think I would change anything about it. Many of my best friends today are those that I met during graduate school. PhDs programs have changed a lot since I went to school; nowadays tuition is nearly always free and the best schools, including NYU where I am now, provide a very generous stipend with no teaching requirements attached to it. Back in the 90s, that model was the exception rather than the rule. I did receive an out-of-state tuition waiver as ASU, my first year and free tuition in subsequent years. This was certainly helpful, but I wasn’t paid to do my PhD. I had to compete with many other students for teaching and research assistantships; as soon as I got my master’s degree, I started teaching at local community colleges. I enjoyed it and even though it didn’t pay much, I got a lot of valuable teaching experience. One of the arguments of providing PhD students with a stipend is to reduce time to degree by eliminating distractions such as having a job.. But in my 20+ years of experience, this approach has not led to a reduction in the time to degree – people are not finishing any earlier than they did before stipends became the norm!

After your PhD, what projects have you worked on? 

Bernard Wood, at The George Washington University, recruited me to come do a postdoc there after hearing me present my dissertation results at our associations annual meetings. During this time with Bernard, I expanded my research back into the more distant fossil record and started looking at comparative samples from the great apes. This was a fantastic opportunity that provided a broader context to what I do, and it also allowed me to look first-hand at fossils that are millions of years old, rather than just Neanderthals and Homo sapiens as I had done for my PhD

Actually, at the same conference that Bernard offered me a postdoctoral role, Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute, offered me a position there as well. So after my postdoc at George Washington University, I moved to Germany. There, I dove more fully into the period of overlap between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Jean-Jacques has a great deal of expertise in archaeology and the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition, which is an important context for the fossils. Jean-Jacques was particularly interested in whether or not we could differentiate Neanderthals from Homo sapiens from teeth alone, given that many sites with so-called “transitional” tool kits preserved only fragmentary remains. The Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute was multidisciplinary: people on our floor worked on isotopes, dating, archaeology, 3D geometric morphometrics and microstructure. Working in Germany was also great for networking, and I went to European conferences and I met new colleagues that I otherwise might not have met.

 I think the importance of networking for early career researchers should be stressed more. When I was collecting data for my PhD, I went from one museum to the next and I never really factored in any extra time to have coffee or a bite to eat with colleagues.. It may seem like a small thing but it has consequences – there are fossils I studied, which other people have ended up publishing on, and I think that it is largely due to the relationships they built. I found that working at Max Planck Institute helped me bridge some of those gaps. 

Shara demonstrating the job of a biological anthropologist to students of Parkside Prep during the World Science Festival in 2018

What are you currently working on?

 I’m currently working on several projects, most of which focus on new fossil finds from eastern and Southern Africa dating from the Pliocene to the Late Pleistocene. I have been using dental morphology to identifying to what species they belong and to help to put them into context. 

I’m also just starting a project on dental integration, which is something that has interested me for several years. Teeth need to come together (occlude) in a very specific and precise way to be efficient. I noticed two years ago that in recent humans the lower first deciduous molar (baby tooth) is much more variable in size and shape than is the upper first deciduous molar. This strikes me as odd. You would predict that they would be similar since they need to come together in an exact way in order to function properly. I found much less variation in this tooth in fossil humans (Neanderthals and H. sapiens) than recent humans. And the variation in recent humans did not track onto geography. So something else is at work. What is it? It may be that with the switch to agriculture and/or modern diets selection pressure for proper occlusion has been reduced leaving more wiggle room for variation. Or maybe there is some other reason entirely! I don’t know yet but I’m working to find out. Stay tuned…

Shara holding the famous Lucy fossill jaw,

What projects or publication, are you most proud of?

I think the paper I’m most proud of is one I did with Tim Weaver when I was at the Max Planck Institute. A lot of times when you find fossils, you find only one or two teeth – but many people would dismiss them, claiming “you can’t tell anything from just a few teeth”. I felt like that wasn’t true and I wanted to figure out how to test it. So, one day I walked down the hallway to Tim Weaver and asked him if there was a way that we could predict the probability of being a Neanderthal based on 1 to 32 teeth. I had all the data and he developed the Bayesian statistics to do it. I really liked that paper because I felt that I had come up with an original idea, I reached out to somebody who could help me, we were able to do it and it was useful; hypothetically a researcher can enter tooth data into our program and it will provide the probability that it is Neanderthal or Homo sapiens. I also liked the paper that I did recently on Denisovan and Homo sapiens introgression events. We knew that these events happened from DNA; however we didn’t have any corresponding morphological evidence because there are so few Denisovan fossils. However, we analysed a Denisovan tooth and found that this second molar has three roots, which had long been considered to be a unique character of modern northeast Asians. This was very exciting as we were able to suggest that this unique trait in modern humans likely came from introgression events with Middle Palaeolithic Asian hominins. 

What do you hope we discover or find out about human evolution in the next five years?

I would really like us to be able to develop methods to extract DNA from hominins in areas where it degrades quickly, like Flores where we find Homo floresiensis and in southern Africa where we see Homo naledi. I still have a lot of questions about their place in the human family tree, even after working with that material, and I think that the DNA might be really surprising. I would really like for us to try to figure out what those are based on DNA. I think it would provide some clarity and quite possibly make us completely rethink our assumptions about human evolution, which is always exciting. 

Why do you think studying human origins is important?

I think people are curious about where we come from and so the more information we can provide the better. I also think that if we can do this in a creative and approachable way, we can get people generally interested in science. Teaching human evolution in schools is so important because I think it’s vital for people to understand both our history and prehistory, as it affects how we see each other, how we see our place in the world and how we fit into the web of life. Also, when you study human origins, you’re not just looking at fossils but also examining things like climate change and extinction events, so it can give more context as to what we are going through right now. 

Shara studying teeth from Homo Naledi, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg

What advice do you have the students hoping to have a similar career to you?

I have a little sign in my office that says: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no”. That is because this is my mantra and all my student have heard it at one time or another. I had an undergraduate who wanted to do an honours thesis, but she was meant to graduate in December. She really wanted to do this honours thesis, which was a two-semester class, and I told her to ask the university whether they would be able to give her money so that she could do another semester (NYU is quite expensive). So, she did, and they said yes. When we assume that the answer is no, the answer is always no. It is always worth asking – what have you got to lose? 

I also advise students to say yes to opportunities whenever they can. True, you have to be judicious and only say yes to things that interest you – but do not be afraid. Listen to your gut. I was terrified getting off the plane in Germany, not knowing how to speak German or knowing anyone, but it was the best thing I could have done for my career. So, actively look for opportunities and when they come up – dive in! 

If you were not a scientist, what career would you choose?

Well, I don’t think it’s an ‘either or’ thing; I have another career as an artist, which is something I’ve done my whole life. I love science and I also love being creative. Painting is a form of mediation for me.  But let’s say, for argument sake, that I could no longer be an anthropologist – then I would probably be doing art or writing in some capacity. I’ve been working on a book for some time and I am taking classes to help me convey my message in a humerus and approachable (read here non-sciencey) way.  

Conversations with: Dr Behailu Habte

Today’s guest is Dr Behailu Habte, Curator of Prehistoric Collections at the National Museum of Ethiopia. Behailu is a lithic technology specialist, with particular interests in the Later Stone Age in the Horn of Africa. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures, France, working within the “Late Stone Age Sequence Project” directed by Francois Bon. He has since moved back to Ethiopia to take up his current position where he has been assisting scientists to carry out both remote and in-person projects, enabling research continuity in the face of the pandemic, as well carrying out as his own research.

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

First, thank you very much for inviting me to this conversation! I am delighted to take part in the project.

Well, I am so curious about the prehistory of Africa at large, where much of our past resides, and what interests me a lot, in fact, is the lithic technological changes and variability found during Middle and Later Stone Age periods over the past 300,000 years ago. In particular, Anatomically Modern Humans dispersed out of Africa around 50,000 years ago, which nowadays we know as the beginning of the Later Stone Age period in Africa, and it interests me a lot to better understand the cultural backdrop to this period through the lithic technological changes we see in the Horn of Africa. The beginning and development of this period, however, remains blurred, but at the same time it leave us with curiosity to unfold the unknowns.   

How did you first become interested in human evolution?

I do not remember when I first got interested specifically in human evolution. But I do remember when I first got interested in prehistory—it was in 2008. Back then, I got hired at the National Museum of Ethiopia as a Junior Cultural Heritage Registration and Standardization, and took part in field excavations for the first time. As far as I remember, my first archaeological field experience was in 2009 when I got involved in the excavation of some Medieval Megalithic sites in Southern Ethiopia, coordinated by an Ethio-French archaeological mission. During this time, we often came across obsidian tools, as we dug deeper underneath the Stelae context, which then sparked my curiosity to know more about prehistoric lithic technologies and lifeways. A couple of years later, I went to Addis Ababa University to do my Masters on Later Stone Age lithic assemblages recovered from sites located along the Main Ethiopian Rift. It was there that I became very fond of the prehistory of the Horn of Africa – even more so of the origins of human biological and cultural revolutions. 

Tell us a little bit about your PhD. What did you study and how did you find the overall PhD experience? Would you change anything about it?

I have just finished my PhD recently from University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures (France), and I studied lithic assemblages from the Main Ethiopian Rift, coeval to final Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age periods. As you may know, there are many more questions than answers regarding the Middle/Later Stone Age periods in the Horn of Africa. As of now, only a handful of stratified sites were investigated, mostly during 1970s, and as such our knowledge about culture-history and technological sequence of Later Stone Age periods remains weak.

I joined the field mission devoted to “Late Stone Age Sequence Project” directed by Francois Bon (University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures), which aims to uncover more Later Stone Age contexts. Under this mission since 2007, we have conducted a series of surveys and excavations along the Ziway-Shala Basin of Central Main Ethiopia Rift. The basin consists four lakes called, Ziway, Shala, Abiyata and Langano; this lacustrine system is particularly interesting because it was subject to climatic induced-fluctuations during Pleistocene and Holocene periods. When the lake levels reduced during arid climatic cycles, we see easily identified human occupations marked along the ancient shorelines, with the anthropogenic layers containing artefacts and bones. These occupation layers are very interesting for my research. I investigated three well dated sites from the basin and studied their lithic techno-typological make-up. Besides that, I also re-analyzed lithic collections recovered from two sites located in the Main Ethiopian Rift to help us put them in a comparative perspective with the more recent ones. In the end, based on the technological analysis and radiometric dates we obtained, I was able to organize the data into five culture-chorological phases of the Later Stone Age spanning the last ca. 31 ka, each distinguished by its lithic technological features. The first phase particularly, represented by lithics recovered from Agadima Shelter, accounts for some of the earliest known well-dated Later Stone Age sequences in the Horn of Africa. Overall, I believe my PhD research is a rare of its kind, proposing culture-chronological frameworks for the region.

Archaeological survey around Lake Langano in 2012 (Central Main Ethiopian Rift) 

Following your PhD, what projects have you worked on?

Now that I am back from France since finishing my PhD (almost exactly a year ago now, as I came back on 2nd of November 2020), I have continued working at the National Museum of Ethiopia, as Curator of Prehistoric Collections. The general research spirit, however, is not as good as I expected due to issues affecting us both globally and locally. Globally, we are still under the quagmire of the COVID19 pandemic which have prevented us conducting collaborative field research with colleagues. For instance, we planned to continue the archaeological survey around Ziway-Shala Basin between December and January 2020, under the framework of Late Stone Age Sequence Project, but we could not make it there because of the pandemic restrictions. Locally, we face civil war in Northern Ethiopia, which has seen fighting between Federal forces and Tigray rebels since last November 2020, which has complicated thing, apart from research activities, by also affecting overall movement in the country.

Despite this, I am currently involved into two research Projects: Late Stone Age Sequence Project now directed by Dr. Clement Menard (Director of Centre Européen de Recherches Préhistoriques de Tautavel), and The Solomonic-Zagwe Encounters Project (Solzag) directed by Dr. Tania Tribe (SOAS-University of London). Because we are in this exceptional global health crisis, we have been urged to look for exceptional ways out. In this regard, I would like to thank Dr. Tania Tribe and Dr. Christopher Tribe, who empowered us to advance the SolZag Project field survey and data collections under their guidance remotely. I would say this is a new experience on how to continue collaborative scientific activities during such unique circumstances. 

Excavation in 2015 at the Holocene deposits of Deka Wede site in Ziway-Shala Basin (Ethiopia) 

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I have in at least four main activities: working at the National Museum of Ethiopia, curating and organizing the collections and also assisting visiting researchers who come to study the lithic collections in our custody—the later in fact is much more infrequent compared to what we had in pre-Covid years. Second, I am planning and working on the publication of my PhD study results – I confess it is taking me too long to materialize it, but hopefully it will be done soon. Third, I am working with colleagues of SolZag project to refine our survey data and publish its initial results. In this, I work on the lithic finds collected from Lalibela surroundings— they are so interesting lithic finds. The last but not the least, I am currently doing collaborative research with a PhD student, Lucy Timbrell (University of Liverpool), and coordinator of this website, that includes some remote data collection work on Middle Stone Age lithic assemblages stored at the National Museum of Ethiopia. This collaborative work will not only help Lucy resume her research remotely, as the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest in Ethiopia has posed travel restrictions for her, but also we share new knowledge regarding the older prehistoric contexts that I have hardly investigated previously. I think these are the main things I am working at the moment, and will see what to plan after things return to normal after COVID and instability in Ethiopia.

Excavation at Final Middle Stone Age context of DW4 sites in Ziway-Shala basin in 2018 (Ethiopia) 

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am proud of being part of both the “Late Stone Age Sequence Project” and “SolZag” Project.  Both projects are so special in that while the first one gives me exclusive chances to investigate Late Stone Age sites through lithics artefacts, the later provides an exceptional outlook on the lithic finds coming from the Medieval ages. I feel like both projects offer an ideal research platform for me to understand the continuity/discontinuity of lithic traditions from prehistoric all the way to historic periods. 

Why do you think studying human origins is important?

All research is important, but maybe studying human origins interests many of us as it raises the most debating and puzzling questions. In my opinion, it is probably the most important field to study, not only because it invites the scientific community to address the questions of who we are and where we came from, but also it also captivates wide public imagination for the same reason. As a prehistorian, though, studying human origins can be specifically important when thinking about biological and cultural evolutions human went through, and looking at the interplay of both facets in defining how we evolved – anatomically and culturally.

Archaeological survey around Lake Beseka of Northern Main Ethiopia Rift in 2018 

What do you hope to discover or find out through your research in the next 5 years?

Well, I have so much things to do in my mind in the years to come. I would love to see myself becoming a leading prehistoric researcher in the Horn of Africa in the coming 5 years. To this end, I have in mind to initiate more Middle and Later Stone Age archaeological research in Ethiopia, especially on sites I have already reassessed during my field survey in 2018. This future plan actually relies on the availability of grants that I hope my project proposals may win; of course, any interested colleagues will be welcomed to collaborate in the project. I am certain that the research will generate new data from archaeological sequences attributed to the Middle/Later Stone Age, and will improve our understanding of lithic technological variability in the Horn of Africa.

What qualities about your colleagues do you admire the most?

I admire my colleagues who keep a balance between scientific research – with par excellence – and social commitments. In my view, I think we should not only be a “fossil nerd or lithic nerd” – life needs to be relaxed and we should not monotonously follow the same routine every day.  As an archaeologist studying past cultures, and accepting the view that ‘we are a social animal’, I believe in looking for ways to keep the balance between our science and social lives, and indeed I know few colleagues who meet this quality of balance – they are smart!

Archaeological survey around the Bulbula Canyon of Ziway-Shala Basin (Ethiopia) in 2019

Finally, if you were not an archaeologist, what career would you choose?

Difficult question to answer indeed.  I really do not know what career I would choose if I was not archaeologist… I have a mixed feeling. Back in high school, I loved plant science, literally trees and shrubs, so perhaps I would be a botanist? I do not know!

Conversations with: Professor Matthew Bennet

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!

Professor Matthew Bennet, Bournemouth University

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.  

Taking photos for 3D models of the footprints at White Sands National Park, New Mexico, USA.

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. 

Ancient footprints discovered at White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

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 

Team members working at White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

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.  

Conversations with: Dr Habiba Chirchir

This week’s guest is Dr Habiba Chirchir, Assistant Professor of Biology at Marshall University. Habiba is interested in the relationship between skeletal anatomy and behaviour through the study of trabecular and cortical bone. Her work mainly focusses on comparative studies of fossil hominins, modern humans, primates and other mammals, involving data collection in museum laboratories. Prior to her position at Marshall University, Habiba worked at the Smithsonian Institution as a Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow, where she continues to be a Research Associate.

Dr Habiba Chirchir, Assistant Professor of Biology at Marshall University.

What are your research interests and your area of expertise?

My work investigates the relationship between morphology and behaviors such as locomotion and subsistence strategies. I am really interested in how our behaviour, and that of our ancestors and other mammals, influences our skeletal anatomy and the implications of this for our evolution.  

To do this, I undertake comparative studies, for example by studying mammals that have similar behaviours to us, such as those that walk and run long distances, or are closely related to us like primates. I do comparative studies to try to understand how bone morphology has changed over time. In particular, I am interested in morphological gracilisation, the ‘lightening’ of the skeleton, and how this is related to processes like domestication and behaviours such as choice of subsistence strategy.

What originally drew you towards biological anthropology and your specific area of research?

I grew up in Kenya and undertook my undergraduate degree at the University of Nairobi in Anthropology. During the course of my studies, I was most interested in biological anthropology, which grew thanks to an internship that I completed at the National Museum of Kenya in the Palaeontology, Archaeology and Osteology departments. Through this internship, I met and worked with graduate students who were interested in bone morphology, and this is how I started to develop my research interests. For my undergraduate thesis, I decided to investigate how bone morphology is influenced by subsistence strategies and after that I applied to graduate school in the US where I moved for my Masters at New York University, where I continued to study bone morphology in relation to different subsistence strategies and food resource acquisition.

For my PhD at George Washington University, I decided to focus on internal morphology, more specifically trabecular bone, as opposed to studying external bone morphology using linear measurements as I had done previously. I started with the question – what differences exist in the trabecular bone of human groups with different subsistence strategies? How do they compare to our fossil ancestors? How do they compare to our closest living relatives? One thing in particular that I noticed from my PhD research was that modern humans are particularly gracile and have low trabecular bone density. As such, my PhD opened up new questions for me, which led me onto my post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian Institution and my research projects to date. So, my research interests are really an accumulation of all these experiences and projects that I have had over the course of my academic journey so far.

Sagittal section through a human hand bone

How did you find your PhD experience?

Well, a PhD is challenging! But I was in a fantastic department at George Washington University, with wonderful supervisors and colleagues so that certainly helped. I was also very lucky that I had access to lots of resources that allowed me to study what I was interested in. Easy access to the Smithsonian collections was also very useful.

Habiba collecting data for her postdoc at the Smithsonian Institute (2015).

What current projects are you working on?  

Overall, I have three main projects that I am currently working on. The first is directly related to human evolution and it is an investigation into the process and quantification of gracilisation over the last 3 million years. Whilst the pandemic has really hindered our work, the idea is that we will be scanning a number of fossils from eastern Africa, which be analysed in comparison with some of the famous European fossils from the late Pleistocene to try and pinpoint exactly when we see this evolutionary shift towards gracile skeletons. My initial conclusion from my PhD was that this change occurred very recently during the last 10,000 years in the Holocene. However, the main problem is that there is a huge gap from around 100,000 to around 2.8 million years ago in the genus Homo where we don’t really know much about what’s going on in terms of gracilisation. We are really interested in finding out whether the ‘lightening’ of the skeleton does actually occur relatively late in human evolution, or whether there was fluctuation in the gracilisation process during this earlier period that we currently don’t know much about. One of the really interesting things we have recently seen from colleagues is that when you look at the Spanish Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antessor fossils at Sima de los Heusos, we do see a fluctuation in gracilisation over time, which is not seen in Neanderthals, as shown through cross-sectional geometry which is one of the ways of quantifying gracilisation. So, much like this work being done in Spain, our project will examine whether trabecular bone in the African and European fossils is consistently high, or whether there is a variation in cross-sectional geometry through time.

Another project I’m working on looks at the effects of domestication on the skeleton. Human self-domestication has been proposed to have been one of the primary drivers of gracilization. Whilst there are many studies that have explored this hypothesis in humans, the strongest evidence of the effects of domestication on morphology comes from carnivores, specifically dogs. There is a famous study of Siberian foxes which demonstrates that when tameness is selected for over aggression, offspring eventually become more gracile in their morphology. Recently, I explored this idea through a post-cranial comparison of dogs and wolves bone morphology, complementing and extending previous studies of crania and external morphologies such as coat colour. I found that dogs have low trabecular bone density when compared to wolves as a consequence of domestication. I also want to extent this to other wild dogs, and I have students helping with data collection and imaging of dingoes, grey hounds, jackals, African hunting dogs and coyotes. So, that is a very exciting project!

The third stream of my research is focussed on the modern human skeleton. This project looks at how different subsistence strategies leads to different bone morphologies in different populations. We have expanded our samples and have a nice collection of images of skeletons from North America, pre-agricultural and agricultural Egypt, Tierra del Fuego as well as individuals from the Upper Palaeolithic. I have an undergraduate student who will be starting to analyse this data in Autumn.

Why is your research important for understanding human evolution?

As humans, we are interested in our past, and so we want to understand what changes took place over time that led to how we look and behave today. However, in a more applied sense, I’m really curious about how the ‘lightening’ of the skeleton in modern humans made people, especially in industrialised countries, more susceptible to bone diseases like osteoporosis. Through my research, we can investigate whether gracilization occurred due to a reduction in physical movement in recent societies, or whether it was a by-product of another deep-rooted evolutionary process. In this way, by exploring what happened in our evolutionary history, we can better understand the problems of the today.

What project or publication or discovery are you most proud of?

All of them are my babies – I can’t pick one! I think they are all interesting in their own ways. My recent paper on dog domestication is really awesome because it is the first study on the gracilisation of the post-cranial skeleton. If I think back a little bit, I wrote a paper on trabecular bone density in the human fossil record that I am proud of. However, I am really pleased about all of my work, and I feel grateful that I was able to do it.

What is your favourite memory from the field?

Sadly, I haven’t been in the field for a long time – I went to the field a few times during my PhD with my supervisor in northern Kenya which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, whilst not linked to my current research interests or projects, one of my favourite memories from the field is actually from a Roman excavation in Oxford. It was my first time abroad and my first archaeological dig on a more recent site. We were excavating a Roman settlement with multiple rooms and walls and we found a pot which we dug inside to find goat or sheep bones! That was my favourite experience, as it was all very new to me, and I enjoyed that it was very clear what we were finding, unlike excavations of much older material. I was part of a big international team which was very exciting as a young person. 

If you were not a biological anthropologist, what would you be?

Perhaps a zoologist, as that was my other option as an undergraduate if I did not get onto the anthropology course. If I was not in academia at all, I would probably be a gardener as I love gardening and being in nature. 

What features do you most admire in your colleagues?

Hard work, dedication, and curiosity. However, I also admire people that can balance this with having fun. Academia has its ups and downs, and each one of us needs to be able to prioritise what matters most to us. Being able to work hard whilst not overwhelming yourself is very important, such as knowing when to stop and leave work for the next day. I think that I may have found this balance (although I think a lot of my colleagues work harder than me!), and I enjoy seeing my colleagues do the same. 

Habiba in front of a pQCT scanner, holding a cast of Lucy’s femur alongside a modern human example, demonstrating the difference in size and morphology (2020).

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?

Because of my research, I think I would go back to the Plio-Pleistocene and see how Australopiths were behaving. Were they climbing trees or were they walking, or both? The morphological traits of Australopiths are intriguingly ambiguous, so I would really like to know exactly how they moved around. Thinking about it, I would also really like to go back to that Roman settlement we were excavating in Oxford. Our conclusion about the pot was that it represented a ritual offering, but I would love to find out what was really going on there.

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) 

Conversations with: Professor Adam Brumm

This conversation is with Adam Brumm, an Australian professor of archaeology at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Adam has wide-ranging research interests, but his main focus is on the story of early humans in Island Southeast Asia and the wider Australasian region. Since 2003, he has conducted extensive field research in the Wallacean archipelago of central and eastern Indonesia, the myriad of biogeographically distinct oceanic islands lying between Asia and Australia. Some of his team’s recent findings appear in NaturePNAS, and Science Advances; highlights include the discovery of Late Pleistocene cave art in Sulawesi and early Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils in central Flores. Adam is a former Australian Research Council Future Fellow and a founding member of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE). 

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

I am interested in all aspects of our evolutionary past, but my particular area of expertise is the early human story in Wallacea, the biogeographically distinct zone of oceanic islands located between the continental landmasses of Asia and Australia-New Guinea. I began my career as a specialist in lithic analysis. Now, however, I mostly ‘just dig holes’, as a colleague said of me rather facetiously. That is, I’m a field director, a primary producer of stone artefacts, fossils, and other empirical data excavated from archaeological sites. In this role I develop and lead major multidisciplinary fieldwork projects in various parts of Indonesia, collaborate with specialists from numerous fields to analyse and date the finds, and spearhead the publication of results. It’s not ‘just digging holes’, though I enjoy doing that. 

What originally drew you towards studying human evolution? 

I think I’m being honest when I say that I was led to this path by my early interest in how (and why) things began. As a kid I was obsessed with ‘Why’ questions. I was also fascinated by history, but above all I loved thinking about why things are the way they are – how our world came to be as it. As I got older these interests deepened, with a good dose of embarrassing teenage angst thrown in. For example, when I was 14 we had to do a class presentation on a topic of our choice; whereas the other kids all talked about how awesome rugby is, or why Pearl Jam ruled (it was the early ’90s), I gave a fulminating oration that questioned the existence of God. I didn’t think much about human evolution per se until I studied undergraduate anthropology and became enthralled by hunter-gatherers. This spilled over into Palaeolithic archaeology, and, from there, to human evolution studies.

Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience? Would you do anything differently if you could do it again? 

I did my PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra between 2003 and 2007. My research focused on early Middle Pleistocene stone technology in the So’a Basin of Flores, Indonesia, with a wider consideration of the tool-making behaviour of the Homo floresiensis lineage. I should note, however, that at the very beginning of my PhD experience the only ‘Hobbits’ were in Tolkien’s stories – Homo floresiensis had not yet been discovered.  

I had originally intended to do my PhD on early stone technology in Myanmar as part of an ANU team that was applying to do field research there. Just before I was due to move to Canberra to start, however, I accepted an invitation to join Mike Morwood’s excavations at Liang Bua cave in western Flores. So I volunteered for a fortnight on the Liang Bua dig in August 2003 (though I was mostly working on terrace sites outside the cave). Few people in the world had even heard of Liang Bua at this time, or Flores, though that would shortly change. Soon after I returned home, I heard that our Indonesian colleagues who had continued the dig discovered something truly amazing: the partial skeleton of an unknown human species, Homo floresiensis! Swept up in the excitement, I jumped ship to the Flores team where I studied the much older stone artefacts from the So’a Basin. Meanwhile, the Myanmar team from ANU never managed to do any serious fieldwork in that country, so joining the ‘Hobbit’ project, though a treachery on my part, was the best thing I ever did.

Adam Brumm (L) in Flores in August 2003, shortly before the discovery 
of Homo floresiensis. The picture was taken at the Liang Bua team’s basecamp,  
the Hotel Sindha in Ruteng. Middle: Carol Lentfer. Right: Bridget Walker. 

I enjoyed aspects of my PhD experience immensely, especially the fieldwork in Flores and the time spent reading quietly in the wonderful libraries at ANU. But a lot of it was a struggle to overcome a general lack of confidence, and the last six months was hell. If I could do it again, I possibly would do a PhD by publication rather than producing a monograph style thesis. My thesis is thicker than an old-fashioned telephone book. Apart from the examiners and me, I don’t think it has been read by anyone. On the other hand, writing this tome was a scholarly rite of passage and I certainly learned a great deal from the process.  

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

The year before graduation I began applying for fellowships in Australia and overseas. I was fortunate in that I managed to secure a three year fellowship from the Australian Research Council (ARC), as well as a two year post at the University of Cambridge. I was able to defer the start of the former until I had completed the latter position in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (under the stewardship of Professor Graeme Barker). I have since held two more ARC fellowships: an early career research award known as a DECRA, and a Future Fellowship (a mid-career researcher award). For a time I was based at the University of Wollongong with Morwood, who died of cancer in 2013. I am now a professor of archaeology at Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution. 

What current projects are you working on? 

I have just received ARC funding to initiate a new project in Sulawesi that is focused on a unique population of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, the ‘Toalean’ people. These foragers appeared rather mysteriously in South Sulawesi around 8000 years ago and vanish from the island about 1500 years ago, not long after Neolithic farmers established themselves in the region.

The Toaleans made distinctive, beautifully crafted stone projectile points with pressure-flaked serrations, and some scholars have even suggested they were long distance seafarers who introduced dingoes to Australia. We have found a new cave with the richest Toalean deposits uncovered thus far. Once we can get back to Indonesia, we will start major excavations there in an effort to throw light on the history and lives of these people. I’m especially interested in exploring the relationship between the Toaleans and the hunter-gatherers who made rock art inside the same caves and shelters at a much earlier time. 

How has the COVID19 pandemic affected your work? 

We were unable to go into the field in Indonesia in 2020. This year is also a write-off. This has been very frustrating. It has, however, given me more time to catch up on writing. I have also been able to spent so much more time with my family (I have two daughters, aged 8 and 5), as I have not been disappearing into the field for several months each year, and we have experienced intermittent lockdowns (though nothing compared with the UK). This has been wonderful and life changing – for me, and, I hope, for my kids. So it is not all bad. But I will start to get a bit worried if we are unable to make it back into the field next year. 

What career achievement are you most proud of? 

There are two: first, the discovery of the earliest archaeological evidence for hominins in Flores (and in Wallacea); and second, the discovery, with Max Aubert and Indonesian colleagues, of extremely old rock art on the island of Sulawesi. I am proud of both of these career achievements; not in the least because, for me, they underline the importance both of serendipity – dumb luck – and curiosity-driven research in archaeological discovery. 

In 2005, when I was still a PhD student, I was excavating at Mata Menge, an open site in the vast expanse of tropical grasslands and blind gullies that is the So’a Basin. One day, while nursing an appalling hangover (the previous night I had attended a local village ceremony and dutifully consumed all the many palm wine toasts on offer), I wandered off from the dig site and got thoroughly lost. Whilst stumbling about in the sweltering heat, in a bewildered state, I found some heavily patinated stone tools eroding out from a fluvial conglomerate exposed at the base of a gully. Eventually I found my way back to Mata Menge (no one had even noticed I was gone). Thus ended the ‘archaeological survey’ described in the subsequent Nature paper. Soon afterwards I returned to the new site, Wolo Sege, where my excavations revealed stone tools beneath a one-million-year-old ignimbrite deposit. At the time, we thought hominins got to Flores around 840,000 years ago, so the Wolo Sege tools show that the story of ‘Hobbits’ on the island was even older still. I have since tried to make major archaeological discoveries while hungover, but it only worked that one time.

Adam Brumm (L) and Gerrit van den Bergh (R) at Wolo Sege (2010), an open site in the So’a Basin of Flores.

The Sulawesi rock art was first reported by archaeologists in the 1950s. Most authorities assumed that Neolithic people had made these cave paintings, but no had ever tried to date them. In 2014, we published the results of our Uranium-series dating of calcite that had formed on the art, showing that a hand stencil at one cave was at least 39,900 years old, and was thus compatible in age with the earliest cave art in Europe. We have since dated several more ‘ice age’ cave paintings in Sulawesi (and Borneo). Our findings include what seems to be the earliest narrative representation (a hunting scene), dating back at least 44,000 years, and a spectacular painting of a warty pig that is a trifle older at 45,500 years. These are minimum ages, however, as we have only been able to date the calcite growths on top of the rock art rather than the rock art itself, which could be much older. It is not overstating the case to say that these discoveries are seriously challenging – some would say changing – our understanding of when and where the first cave art traditions emerged. 

Max Aubert (L) and Adam Brumm (R) at a Sulawesi cave art site named Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. The hunting scene on the wall behind them is dated to at least 44,000 years ago. Credit: Endra.

If you could use a time machine, when would you go back to visit and why? 

I would go back a million years in order to see how on earth whatever creature it was that gave rise to Homo floresiensis got across the Wallace Line to Flores, and who it was. I would then drop in on the ‘Hobbits’ every hundred millennia or so to see evolution at work on these hominins. I would also like to see how this long island story, as Churchill might have put it, came to an end. I suspect it involved the arrival of our species and it was not pretty.  

Why should people be interested in human evolution? 

Whenever I’m asked this, I trot out the amnesic patient analogy. Imagine that you woke up in a strange room with no memory of who you are. You are able to talk and walk and read, and do all the other things everyone else can do, but you have no idea where you come from, and you never again come face to face with anyone from your past. Your best option at this point would probably be to start from scratch and build a new life. In this endeavour you may be quite successful. As time went on, however, wouldn’t you want to try to figure out who you really were? Would your new life, however long and fulfilling, truly have meaning if your old self thereafter remained a mystery? Wouldn’t even the most fleeting memories you were able to salvage from the abyss – the face of a loved one, your mother’s name – be worth more to you than anything that came afterwards? I think most people in this situation would be more than merely ‘interested’ in their origins. Indeed, I don’t believe they could ever be at peace until they found out who they were and where they came from.  

Similarly, it is imperative for us as a species to try to piece together our evolutionary story as a species. Humanity is in a collective state of amnesia. Our written history only spans the last 5000 years or so. This is a blink of an eye when you consider that the earliest creatures we might call human lived in Africa around 2.5 million years ago, while human-like primates from which we can most likely trace our immediate ancestry date back to 5 million years ago. Despite decades of research, there are still many gaps in our knowledge of the vast time span of human evolutionary history. In fact, the gaps are more like chasms. But future research will reveal findings that will change our understanding of our origins in ways we cannot presently imagine. Homo floresiensis shows us that. That’s why human evolution research is so exciting, and so important for humanity itself: every new scrap of evidence is like a shining memory dredged up from the deep and unfathomable darkness of our past.  

Conversations with: Professor Anthony Sinclair

Today’s conversation is with Anthony Sinclair, Professor of Archaeological Theory and Method in the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool. Anthony specialises in Palaeolithic archaeology, and has conducted field research in Western Europe, southern Africa and Saudi Arabia. He is also interested in archaeology as a discipline and is currently working on ‘The Atlas of Archaeology: a Scientometric Study of Discipline Growth‘, a Leverhulme Trust funded project which uses bibliometric data to explore how the field has developed over the last 60 years. At the University of Liverpool, Anthony teaches several undergraduate and masters courses which cover Palaeolithic archaeology, especially the Upper Palaeolithic and Palaeolithic art, archaeological theory and issues in interpretation, ethical and political issues in archaeological practice, material culture and technology and archaeological field skills.

Professor Anthony Sinclair, University of Liverpool

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

I am interested in craft, people making and doing things, how and why they chose to become good at some activity whilst having to invest, sometimes, considerable time in doing so.  Craft is not just temporal, in terms of the manufacture of items or the careers of makers; it is also spatial – distributed across landscapes that are both geographical and socially structured and material.  As a palaeolithic archaeologist I explore this primarily through the analysis of lithic assemblages recovered from sites sometimes identified through landscape survey undertaken in Western Europe, South Africa and most recently Saudi Arabia.  My other interest is in the nature of the discipline of archaeology, its history, theoretical developments, production of literature and the challenges we face in attempting to pass on an effective knowledge of this changing discipline to our students.  This is, in part, research for teaching.  Binding the two together is expertise: the learning and practice of a skill, in the past and in the present.

What originally drew you towards studying human evolution?

I wanted to be an archaeologist from my early teens. I thought then that archaeology was a study of the Greek and Roman Worlds and perhaps something medieval as well; so, I chose Latin and Ancient History as A-levels along with Maths. However, when I started my undergraduate degree in Archaeology & Anthropology, archaeology was taught chronologically from the beginning, and roughly in proportion to a period’s duration. We did lots of human evolution and later prehistory to begin with, followed by the origins of the early states: in Egypt, the Near East, the Americas and China.  At the end, there was just one lecture on the Greek World and two on the Roman.  My other archaeology course was on the theory, method and history of the discipline. I also chose to study physical anthropology – the primates and hominin bones side of human evolution then and the social anthropology of small-scale societies, along with anthropological theory (gift exchange and politics, symbolism, and so forth). The anthropology of complex societies (states and empires) was taught in social and political sciences.  When it came to specialise, I wanted to keep up my social anthropology and I had developed a taste for the theoretical side of archaeology. Choosing to specialise in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic or later prehistory (Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age) seemed the way to go; I had been persuaded that the important developments in human life occurred early on and these were the periods of archaeology that were most theoretically engaged – debates between Processual and Post-Processual approaches to archaeological interpretation, as personified in the form of Colin Renfew and Ian Hodder, were in full swing at this time.  A new interest in primates and physical anthropology was the final pull towards the study of human evolution. 

Anthony in the field in Saudi Arabia.

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

I did my PhD in the 1980s.  I originally started researching whether we could determine the origins of human language through a study of the lithic evidence.  However, within a few months I read the first papers using experimental methods to study animal communication, especially play-back recordings of sounds that animals made to see how they react – for example, the famous study by Cheney and Seyfarth in 1985 about the warning calls of vervet monkeys. It struck me that this research would very quickly change all we knew about communication in other animals and my own research would probably be irrelevant in the 4 years in would take to complete. Ironically, these studies are still not common, though I have just seen reports of playback studies amongst humpback whales also revealing the complexity of their communication. And, of course, the work on symbol systems with chimpanzees and bonobos has demonstrated that the communication we observe in a natural setting is not the same as what these animals are capable of. 

So, I chose to change direction to follow a different interest: whether the investment in time and skill required to make the most elaborate stone tools of the Upper Palaeolithic – the Solutrean – could be explained in purely utilitarian terms or, as I thought more likely, through social, stylistic and symbolic reasons.  This was in effect the application of postprocessual ideas to a data set, stone tools, that was almost exclusively considered through processual approaches.  Using a chaîne-opératoire approach, along with a study of raw materials, I examined the manufacture of a range of tools in assemblages excavated from 8 sites – chosen as examples of ‘home-base’ / ‘specialised site’ pairings across southern France, northern Spain and southeastern Spain.  The conclusion was that whilst many tools could be interpreted in utilitarian terms, there was consistent evidence of great technological skill particularly in the most elaborate Solutrean tools requiring time and ‘apprenticeship’ even though working edges of the same quality could be made more simply. Solutrean techniques of stone tool retouching were symbols of expertiseWhen used as butchery knives, as the largest Solutrean points are most likely to have been, such technological symbols could work to emphasise the moment of food sharing creating social obligations at a time when mass hunting and food storage might separate the moment of distribution from hunting when such obligations are commonly seen to be made amongst contemporary hunter-gatherers.  This is a time period and a problem that I still return to as new ideas come to mind such as the problem of finding experts to learn rare skills from when living in mobile societies at a low population density.

Like most students I think, my experience of doing a PhD was great fun, challenging and stressful towards the end.  Collecting my data in France and Spain meant moving often from place to place such that I never spent long enough in one location to get to know people. However, I learned Spanish and improved my poor French and this has been of great use since.   Back in the UK, I was a member of a large and active postgraduate community in a big department.  I attended and chaired research seminars and often met visiting archaeologists from abroad.  I got involved with the student journal, the Archaeological Review from Cambridge, editing two issues on ‘Technology in the Humanities’ and ‘Writing Archaeology’ as well as being production manager for several others.  I wrote articles and book reviews for other issues and each year I aimed to give a paper at the annual conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group.  I did some non-PhD research, examining lithic sourcing in an island setting for the Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project directed by Steve Mithen and Bill Finlayson, along with episodes of excavation work for a professional archaeological unit as my grant ran out.  I believe that involvement in these other things made the difference when it came to getting my first permanent academic post.

Attending a workshop on agency and lithics at the University of Boulder, Colorado, 2002.

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

I was employed as a part-time lecturer in the last year of research to replace a colleague on research leave and at the same time became Curator at Ely Museum in Cambridgeshire. This gave me some funding to finish my PhD.  From 1990, and with my PhD complete, there were very few academic posts advertised and at that time there were no Post-Doc positions in archaeology.  Inspired by discussions with visiting Japanese archaeologists, I applied for a two-year Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship to learn Japanese and to study Japanese Palaeolithic archaeology in Tokyo. When that ended, and still without a job, I worked as a guide taking tourists from USA, Australia and, to my surprise, many from Israel around the sites of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in coaches.  Amongst many other things, I attended three traditional Burns Night Suppers in Edinburgh across consecutive weeks in August, several Welsh Medieval Banquets in the dungeons of Cardiff Castle – for the paying guests these were described as ‘the original dining halls’ of the Castle, and endless numbers of Irish Ceilidhs.  Whilst this might seem like a step off the academic path, it taught me about the commercial use of the past and has informed my teaching on heritage ever since – and how not to lose people on field trips.  After still more unsuccessful applications, including one in which I tried to persuade a university that they did not really want a Lecturer in Roman Archaeology because the Palaeolithic and human evolution was more interesting, I was finally appointed to a Lectureship in Archaeological Theory and Method at Liverpool. This turned out to be the last job for which I could make a genuine application for the next few years. Indeed, I thought it would be my last application to an academic post before moving on to try something else.

I have also been fortunate to be able to get involved in contemporary national developments in academic work whilst still employed at Liverpool.  From 2005, I worked for the Higher Education Academy in the Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology, originally as the Lead for Archaeology, and then Director of the Subject Centre as a whole.  With the Centre staff, I spent several years travelling to departments around the country, organising workshops, conferences, and projects to support the teaching of Archaeology and later Classics, with a big focus on supporting postgraduates as teachers.  I worked with the Institute for Archaeology, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage and the Archaeology Training Forum looking at ways to bridge the gap between the professional and academic worlds of archaeology. The Centre conducted the first research on the employability of archaeology graduates in the UK and provided an opportunity to write about the teaching of archaeology in general and start thinking again about the specific conceptual problems of teaching a multi-disciplinary field like Palaeolithic archaeology. Funding cuts led to the dissolution of the Subject Centre Network in 2012 and I returned full time to a teaching portfolio that was mostly in human origins for the first time in my academic career.

What current projects are you working on?

I have just started working on The Atlas of Archaeology: a Scientometric Study of Discipline Growth for the Leverhulme Trust.  This project uses bibliometric data from Scopus and the Web of Science to explore how archaeology has grown as a discipline and how its social structures and cognitive frameworks have developed across the last sixty years using the techniques of network analysis and science mapping.  Large sets of bibliometric data will allow me to explore the relationships within and between disciplines, national and international collaboration and conceptual developments from 1960 to 2021. The evolution of Palaeoanthropology as a research field will be a significant case study for The Atlas.  The genesis for this project was my experience of coming back to teach Palaeolithic archaeology after many years teaching other courses.  The quantity of published documents and the range of concepts and disciplines involved was so much more than when I was a student and a subject that I thought would be straightforward to teach was incredibly difficult. I started looking at the journal outputs, and reading in the broader literature about conceptual growth, interdisciplinarity and threshold concepts. I encountered scientometrics, bibliometrics and science mapping along the way and an idea was born.

In terms of fieldwork, I am in the middle of a programme of work in Saudi Arabia looking at the evidence of hominin dispersal into the continent along the Red Sea coast.  With colleagues I am also planning a return to South Africa to start continue around the World Heritage Site of Makapansgat following up on earlier work conducted around the millennium.  In comparison to the other sites in the Cradle of Humankind (Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdrai, etc.) that are close to Johannesburg, Makapansgat and the Cave of Hearths located nearby are off the beaten track and seem forgotten to tourists.  We hope to enhance the resources available to support local communities trying to gain a greater benefit from their heritage by using biographies to map people, places, ideas and evidence in the past and present. “2001” and its Dawn of Man sequence will be somewhere in the middle.

Anthony’s first field school season for Liverpool at Carden Park in 1996.

Finally, I have been boring my colleagues with plans to build a mammoth bone house. These are the first permanent human dwellings, enabling communities to live in perhaps the most hostile environments of the Pleistocene. And yet we don’t really know how they were constructed, or how they worked as thermal, illuminated or human environments.  Contemporary climate data is detailed enough to be useful, architectural software exists to model the flows of air and light inside and out, and there is even research now available on Palaeolithic clothing.  Additive printing, or CNC milling might allow the construction of artificial mammoth bones.  I imagine half-size replicas packed like giant Lego in the back of vans on the way to schools for children to make and stimulate their interest in human evolution and environmental change.

How has the COVID19 pandemic affected your work?

Fieldwork in Saudi Arabia and South Africa has stopped and will probably continue to be difficult or impossible for another 18 months.  Otherwise – and quite by chance, in The Atlas of Archaeology I have a research project that is digital, internet-based and essentially COVID-19 resilient.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

I think everyone feels a great sense of accomplishment when they see their first article in print.  For me this was an examination of changes in style through time and across apprenticeship networks in 18th century English silverware as revealed through an attribute analysis and a study of hallmarks.  Since then, I am usually most proud of what has just been published, or in anticipation of what I am currently working on and hope will be distinctive.  As a committed teacher, however, I am most proud of my students, the excitement gained from research that we might do together and then, the careers they move on to. At Makapansgat, for example, this included an exploration of the hominin experience of landscape using ideas derived from environmental psychology and the data capture techniques of sports science. Seeing and helping students develop as scholars and individuals is one of the genuine pleasures of an academic life.

If you could use a time machine, when would you go back to visit and why?

The sensible thing would be to go back in time to look at some aspect of life in the Palaeolithic – perhaps in those mammoth bone houses.  But I am not sure I really want to be able to see this in reality, since the challenge and fun of the job is to try and discover this.  Instead, I would use a time machine to see my musical heroes in action. 

Much to my children’s dismay, I listen to jazz, specifically modern jazz – which like modernism in design is now many years old.  Modern jazz is probably better known as Bebop and Hard Bop, the first distinctive styles of jazz created after World War II.  The great Jazz performers display an extraordinary mixture of technical virtuosity and cognitive flexibility as they improvise on a tune.  A bit like making a Solutrean point perhaps ….  I have two dates in mind.  The first is 15th May 1953, to see Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach playing at Massey Hall in Montreal.  This is sometimes called the greatest jazz concert in history.  It was the last time the two great innovators of Bebop (Parker and Gillespie) played together; Parker died the following year at just 34 years old. For human evolution specialists by the way, Charles Mingus recorded one of only two musical tracks I know of named after a hominin species – Pithecanthropus Erectus. The other date would be 8th October 1963 to see the John Coltrane quartet (Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) play at Birdland in New York.  I heard a recording of this concert for the first time whilst drinking too much whiskey with archaeological friends in a jazz coffee shop in Japan. It combines an interest and a fond memory. If, one could stop off between the two, I would love to spend the morning of 12th August 1958 on East 126th Street in New York.  Look it up – “A Great Day in Harlem”.

What advice would you give students interested in human evolution?

“Enjoy every minute, you have made a great choice.  Human evolution can take you anywhere and everywhere and although the evidence may seem slight, your interest is only limited by how you can think about a problem.”

For someone serious about an academic career in human evolution, I would say don’t focus all your energies keeping up with papers published in your research area right now. Take the time to read outside your topic and ideally the discipline; many great developments are inspired by or come from applications of ideas seen elsewhere.  And in the same vein, don’t be afraid to hold on to a broader set of research interests and move around them from time to time; the juxtaposition of different things stimulates new ways to look at old problems.  As my colleague Matt Grove has shown, extreme specialists are a step away from extinction…..

Anthony introducing a practical on Upper Palaeolithic typologies at Liverpool in 2010.

Conversations with Dr Simon Greenhill

Today’s conversation is with Dr Simon Greenhill, Senior Scientist in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at Australian National University. Simon’s research primarily focuses on the evolution of languages and linguistic diversity, and what this can tell about about human prehistory. His research mainly uses Bayesian phylogenetic methods and he has helped build a number of large-scale linguistic and cultural databases. He is also one of the editors of Language Dynamics and Change, and he is on the editorial board of the Journal of Language Evolution.

Dr Simon Greenhill, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

Broadly speaking, my research has focused on three main areas.

First, I think the biggest unsolved question we have in human evolution is why and how we generated such massive diversity of languages and cultures. Why do we have more than 7000 very different languages instead of just a few? why do we have so many ways of building a human society? where do we see the most diversity? how is this diversity linked to, or generated by, social, cultural, and environmental factors? And conversely; how is this diversity constrained, what configurations are rare, and why. For example, I’ve been involved in studies quantifying global and regional linguistic diversity and how this is generated. Another recent focus has been testing hypotheses about how factors like population size or cultural contact can affect the evolutionary dynamics of language change.

Second, how did the current distribution of human societies get the way it is? My first publication was on “Testing Population Dispersal Hypotheses”and since then I’ve worked to test hypotheses about human prehistory. For example, I used computational phylogenetic methods to identify the relationships between the languages of large Austronesian family that stretches from Taiwan to Madagascar, Hawaii, Rapanui (Easter Island), and New Zealand. I used this phylogeny to pinpoint the homeland of the languages (and their speakers!) in Taiwan around 5200 years ago and their dispersal since. I’ve subsequently been involved in ongoing projects attempting to shed light on the histories of the Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, and Uzo-Aztecan language families.

Third, you can’t answer interesting questions without good methods and good data. In terms of data, a major component of my work has been building large-scale, open access databases of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural data. I have built and released two of the world’s largest cross-linguistic databases, the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database and TransNewGuinea.org, and am involved in many other database projects including POLLEX-Online, Pulotu, D-PLACE, and number of forthcoming projects (Lexibank, Numeralbank, Parabank, Glottobank). Using these data, I have worked to evaluate how well computational and phylogenetic methods for languages and cultures work.

What originally drew you towards human evolution, and specifically language evolution?

I’ve always been fascinated by languages, my father learnt Russian, German and Maori and had many dictionaries scattered around the house (Dad collected books, amongst many other things, and decided he liked the Collins ‘Gem’ dictionaries). I remember paging through these old dictionaries comparing words and looking up different meanings on rainy afternoons. I later went on to take German and French at school.

However, I ended up going to university to take computer science. I quickly decided I didn’t want to spend my life programming CRMs or doing IT tech support, so I dropped out of that and then did a year or so doing the undergraduate ‘sampler’ taking papers in biology, psychology, anthropology, German literature, political studies, and philosophy.

At the same time I was reading a lot of popular science books and came across three books which enthralled me: Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (which had just been published a year or so earlier). With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that these works are flawed in various ways but at the time they were life changing, for me at least, and I soon converted to a biology/psychology double major.

A few years later, when I came across a course “Evolution, Behavior, and Cognition” taught by Russell Gray, Mike Corballis, and Fiona Jordan. This course had a major language evolution component and I was immediately hooked and loved every minute of it.

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

I did my PhD in the department of Psychology at the University of Auckland. My supervisor was Russell Gray – I badgered him until he took me on as a student. I titled my PhD thesis “The Archives of History: A phylogenetic approach to the study of language,” and it contains a loosely connected set of chapters that all were eventually published as papers: a description of the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database, a computational phylogenetic test of hypotheses about Pacific Settlement, an evaluation of how robust phylogenetic methods were to horizontal transmission/borrowing between lineages, and an exploration of rates of change in grammatical features.

I really enjoyed my PhD. It was a lot of hard work but I was in an amazing department and community at Auckland, surrounded by world-leading researchers in psychology, biology, linguistics, anthropology, and computer science. The late, great Pacific Archaeologist, Roger Green, took a particular interest in my career – often popping by my office to give me a paper on a topic he thought I should be educated about and returning the following week to quiz me relentlessly.

I made many good friends and started collaborations with some of them that are still generating new projects a decade later. And I even got to meet both Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins when they visited the university during my time there (but I chickened out asking them to sign my copies of their books).

Simon and colleagues at the Evolution of Language Symposium at the Evolution meeting in 2007 (featuring Mark Pagel, Quentin Atkinson, Michael Dunn, Fiona Jordan, Simon Greenhill and Russel Gray).
After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I received my PhD in 2009 and immediately started a postdoc in Alexei Drummond’s Computational Evolution Group in the Computer Science department at Auckland. There I got to spend a lot of quality time learning Bayesian phylogenetic methods while exploring grammatical data from languages. This position lead to a series of papers on the rates of change in language structures.

In 2012 I was awarded a Discovery Early Career Research Fellowship and moved to the Department of Linguistics in the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University in Canberra. Being in one of the world’s best field linguistics departments was quite an eye opener for me (I was literally the only person who did not do fieldwork and colleagues used to joke that I was the honorary indoors-linguist). At ANU my goal was to focus on the relationships between the languages of New Guinea. New Guinea is one of the most linguistically diverse parts of the world (>900 languages!), as well as one of the least-studied parts. This project resulted in a large-scale language database, and a series of papers on linguistic diversity and potential explanations for this diversity.

In 2014 we successfully bid for a major project which became the “ARC Centre of Excellence of the Dynamics of Language.” I was the named director of the language evolution component (one of four). One of the main things started there was a project testing a long-standing hypothesis about rates of change in languages being linked to population size (our answer was “sort of,” and “sometimes”).

A few years later I was offered a permanent Senior Scientist position at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. I started there in 2016. Since then I’ve been involved in far too many projects to keep track of.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m involved in a lot of projects at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, but a major one that we’re just wrapping up is a phylogeny of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Uto-Aztecan is one of the biggest language families in North America with between 50 to 70 languages that were spoken from Wyoming and Idaho down to El Salvador. Despite a few hundred years of study there is still ongoing debate about whether they came from the Nevada region almost 9000 years ago, or from California 3000 years ago, or from Mesoamerica 3000 years ago. Our results clearly point to a 3000 year origin in what is now California, which neatly meshes with a lot of the ethnohistorical and ethnobotanical arguments out there. It is also the first time we’ve had a robustly dated language group in North America so I’m hoping it can help shed light on the rest of the Americas as there’s a lot of very interesting language groups there that have important stories to be told (Mayan, Oto-Manguean, Athapaskan, and many more!).

One project that I’ve just started is aiming to further explore the evolutionary dynamics of languages and cultures on a global scale. We’re hoping to use the rates at which different aspects are changing over time to tackle a series of related questions. For example, do the most distinct cultures have the most distinct languages? Or do rates correlate in different parts of the world such that certain aspects of language and culture are more stable over time everywhere? Or does this vary across the globe? I’m looking forward to finding out what this tells in the bigger picture.

Has COVID19 affected your research plans?

Yes and no. In general most of my work requires only a laptop (and computer-cluster), so in that sense I’m far luckier than my colleagues who have had their fieldwork or project plans thrown into complete disarray.

However, I deeply miss meeting colleagues and chatting with them. Many of the most fun projects I’ve been involved in were started by a conversation down the corridor. I’m a little worried by all the great projects that will never be started because the initiating conversation didn’t happen.

I was on paternity leave for the first few months of the pandemic as my wife and I apparently thought bringing another child into the world during a global crisis was a good idea. Since then it’s been a bit of a juggling act to get work done at home with two children, but in the grand scheme of things we’re all healthy and safe so I can’t complain.

Simon presenting at the International conference on Historical Linguistics in Kyoto, 2011.
What achievement are you most proud of?

If I had to rank things then I think my proudest achievement is the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (ABVD). As part of my PhD project I needed language data from many Austronesian languages and while there was lots of data out there it was generally scatted in the primary literature (journal articles, dictionaries, etc), and more was available in the ‘gray’ literature hidden in people’s filing cabinets or private hobby databases. To collect all these data into one location I built a web interface and collated the data.

We started with about 200 languages collected by Bob Blust, but since then the database has grown in size to have more than 300,000 lexical items from more than 1600 language varieties. The ABVD is therefore one of the world’s largest comparative linguistic databases.

My PhD supervisor Russell and I decided very early on (~2005?) to put all these data online and make them open access. Nowadays the open science and open data movement has really reshaped the playing field making it common for all data to be online and reusable. But it was a different story back then (“data are available from the authors on request”), and I think younger academics often don’t realise how unusual that was. At the time the ABVD was unique. Because of this, the ABVD has been cited as leading the way for open databases of comparative linguistic data and the general structure and framework has been copied by a number of major linguistic and cultural databases.

The database also gets used frequently: the website gets about 800 visitors a week, there are links to it all over the web (especially places like Wikipedia), and the paper we wrote describing the database has about 250 citations. I’m always amazed at the new and innovative ways the ABVD has been used by researchers from cutting-edge computational studies to traditional linguistic and anthropological studies. Even more gratifyingly I get a few emails a year from speakers of a language in the database thanking me for helping make their language more widely known. One person even told me they were using the wordlist to teach his son some words from his grandparents language. Very humbling.

Why do you think studying the evolution of languages is important?

If we want to understand humans, we need to understand language. Language is the strangest thing that people do: We spend a lot of time forcing air through a hole in our heads to send messages to other members of our species. As infants, we come equipped to rapidly learn this trick and as adults we usually spend many hours every day doing this. With a few phonemes we can tell immediately if someone shares our accent, and have powerful clues to where they’re from, their gender, their age, and their social groups.

Language is the best example of a cultural evolutionary system. Language is inextricably tied to culture. Each language is in itself an intricate cultural product that has co-evolved with its speakers to carry priceless information between speakers and across generations (which is why we can use languages to trace history).

More practically, a lot of work on cultural evolution rests on small scale inter-individual studies or rather abstract simulations. Along with these studies I feel we also need to look at the larger macro patterns over thousands of years. It would be great to do that on cultures but this is hard as we don’t really know how to carve culture at her joints so that our units of comparison are consistent across many cultures. Anthropology also largely turned away from large-scale comparison in the 60s and 70s so there’s no real ongoing tradition of comparative data collection on a global scale after that. Linguists, however, have collected vast amounts of comparative data that can be readily used to look at big picture macro-questions. In short, human evolution and cultural evolution needs more linguistics!

What would you be if you were not a scientist?

I’m not sure – I’ve wanted to be a scientist for a few decades now and really enjoy it. If I were looking for a job I’d probably try sell myself as a data scientist (whatever they are). However, one thing I always enjoyed was web development and I did a bit as a sideline when I was doing my PhD. Web development mixes the fun technical side of programming (I used to make spend hours making sure my websites were XHTML 1.0 compliant) with a more creative component designing and styling interfaces.

However now I have two daughters, a 6 year old (Zoë) and a 10 month old (Maya), so realistically I’d probably be a stay-at-home dad.