Conversations with: Dr Sonia Shidrang

Today’s guest is Dr. Sonia Shidrang, an archaeologist in the Palaeolithic Department of the National Museum of Iran. Sonia has led several field projects in the Central Western Zagros and recently has initiated a fieldwork project in the Southern Zagros to compare the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sequences in different regions of this Iranian mountain range. In her research, she attempts to understand the patterns of human behaviour in Late Pleistocene settlements of the Zagros Mountains, particularly in the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition and the beginning of Upper Palaeolithic, through the study of different aspects of lithic artefacts. Back in 2001, she began her Palaeolithic carrier as a junior research assistant at the newly established Centre for Palaeolithic Research of National Museum of Iran and some years later moved to Europe to complete her postgraduate studies in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology. She finished her PhD at PACEA, Bordeaux, in 2015 which proposed a new hypothesis suggesting that bio-cultural contact between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, as another potential explanation, beside site formation process, for the presence of Middle Palaeolithic tools in the beginning of several Upper Palaeolithic occupations in the Zagros.

Dr. Sonia Shidrang during a Palaeolithic survey (Bisotun Mountains, western Iran)

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

Broadly speaking, I am interested in understanding human bio-cultural evolutionary processes during the Pleistocene and the ways that different disciplines, like archaeology, palaeoanthropology, paleogenetics, paleoecology, etc., can be used together to try to explain these processes. I enthusiastically follow the ever-changing image that emerges from combining the results of all of these studies in different geographical regions.

As a Palaeolithic archaeologist, I am particularly interested in tracing the earliest emergence of Upper Palaeolithic cultures in Iran which marks a major dispersal route of modern humans through the crossroad region of Southwest Asia. I’m trying to find reliable evidence for possible contact between these modern newcomers and Neanderthals at our Iranian sites, particularly in Central and Southern Zagros. The main focus of my research has been on the techno-typological and taphonomic studies of lithic artefacts, the most frequent archaeological material left behind by Pleistocene human populations. I am mainly interested in the reconstruction of the operational sequences of Early Upper Palaeolithic lithic industries as they reflect changes in techno-economic behavioural patterns of modern populations when compared to the late Middle Palaeolithic lithic industries of Neanderthals in Zagros.

I think it is absolutely fascinating to trace and understand these variable patterns of human interactions with their environment through time and space with the help of different disciplines.

The Mar Tarik cave excavation, a Middle Paleolithic site in Bisotun, Zagros, Iran (2004)

What originally drew you towards Palaeolithic archaeology? 

Nowadays, the love for archaeology grows from very early ages, as kids watch many archaeological science-fiction movies and documentaries as well as reading fantastic archaeology books especially designed for them. In my case, my love for archaeology started from the early ages as well, but in quite different circumstances. I read my first archaeology-related books, which were extremely rare in the chaotic times of post Iran-Iraq war, when I was ten-years-old. Reading those few books, and later watching movies about Egyptian dynasties, fascinated me and consequently led me to apply for a BA in archaeology at the age of seventeen.

Back in 2001 and during my MA, I started to work at two newly founded centres for Achaemenid studies and Palaeolithic research at the National Museum of Iran as a research assistant, thanks to my computer skills that were quite rare at the time. This was the beginning of my lifelong interest in Palaeolithic archaeology and here I focused on learning how to study lithic artefacts under the direction of Fereidoun Biglari, the first Iranian scholar specialized in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology in Iran. These studies intertwined with reading the pioneering works of Deborah Olszewski and Harrold Dibble on the Warwasi lithic assemblages, and works of several other pioneering researchers, introduced me to the topic of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transitions and the Aurignacian as the first widespread culture made by modern humans in the vast area of Western Eurasia. The second waves of inspirations that ensured me of my lifelong carrier in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology came from a trip to south-western France in 2003 where I met several outstanding French prehistorians. Among them, two prominent women, Laurence Bourguignon and some years later Liliane Meignen inspired me to choose this path seriously as a female researcher in a male-dominated field, especially in Iran.

Sonia’s first inspirations from Paleolithic archaeology of France (Périgord, 2003).

By 2005, I moved to Europe as an Erasmus Mundus Masters student in Quaternary and Prehistory and some years later enrolled in a PhD at PACEA, the University of Bordeaux, as a Wenner-Gren grantee and started my PhD under the supervision of Jacques Jaubert and Jean-Guillaume Bordes. Alongside working on my PhD project at Bordeaux University, I went back to Iran constantly to work on several projects with my colleagues Fereidoun Biglari (a Palaeolithic archaeologist) and Marjan Mashkour (a zooarchaeologist), two outstanding researchers that I have had the privilege of working with from the beginning of my carrier.

I found that it was sometimes difficult to constantly balance life and work within the two completely different worlds of the East and West, but I think dealing with the cross-cultural differences have considerably expanded my perspectives on life and my professional development as an archaeologist who is trying to understand the behavioural patterns of our ancestors in early Prehistory.

Sonia presenting her work during Erasmus Mundus Masters in Quaternary and Prehistory, Ferrara University and Institute for Human Paleontology, Paris (2006).

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My PhD topic was on the Early Upper Palaeolithic of Zagros, involving the techno-typological assessment of three Baradostian lithic assemblages from Khar Cave, Yafteh Cave and Pa-Sangar Rockshelter in the Central Western Zagros, Iran. As previously mentioned, I had the opportunity and privilege to work with two prominent French Prehistorians with deep knowledge of Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic lithic technologies, Jacques Jaubert (Professor of Prehistory) and Jean-Guillaume Bordes (Director of research) who became my supervisors at PACEA. In my PhD, I mainly focused on tracing the techno-typological changes of lithic artefacts throughout the whole sequence of the Baradostian by analysing the three mentioned lithic assemblages from the west of Iran. I tried to contextualize each lithic industry and detect their techno-typological characteristics and cultural changes synchronically and diachronically which all led to me describing three clear phases for the Baradostian in the study region, of which some of their characteristics were highlighted by the previous works.

I also tried to address these issues from a research historical perspective. I took a closer look at all published reports from Dorothy Garrod’s time until the last decade to examine the lithic-based dominant hypothesis of Middle Palaeolithic-Upper Palaeolithic (MP-UP) continuity in all of the excavated sites in Zagros. When all of the chrono-cultural information and their correlations to the stratigraphy were put together, it seemed that despite the dominant hypothesis of MP-UP lithic industrial continuity, the evidence for technological continuity between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic elements is very scarce. Back in 2012-2013 when I was gaining more insights into the MP-UP sequences of Zagros, increasing evidence for interbreeding between archaic and modern humans during Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition was revolutionizing our understanding of interactions between different human populations, initially thanks to the ground-breaking advances in Neanderthal genome sequencing. This was the time that I started to look at my collected information on the peculiar mixture of MP-UP elements in Zagros from a different perspective. Besides emphasizing the importance of site formation processes and the mechanical mixing of archaeological remains, I launched another possible hypothesis for explaining the mixture. The hypothesis, as simple as it was, gave us another option to consider: the cultural indicators of two different human populations, Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, who might have occupied the landscape in an overlapping timespan. Just recently, it was adopted by other researchers working in Zagros, and some competing ex-colleagues included the hypothesis in their publications, without referring to the original source of the idea.

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

Prior to my PhD, I worked as a researcher for the Palaeolithic department of the National Museum of Iran, and during my PhD project in France, I remained an associated researcher to this department and at the same time also worked as a project archaeologist, leading several Palaeolithic investigations (some of which were salvage projects) in western Iran. After finishing my PhD, I went to Austria for a short term post-doc at OREA and then came back to Iran to join a newly founded research institute called the Saeedi Institute of advanced studies at Kashan University on a 2-year contract. For now, I am at the National Museum of Iran as a project archaeologist leading and trying to find budgets for my own Palaeolithic archaeological excavation projects, focused on the issues of MP-UP transition and the emergence and development of Early Upper Palaeolithic cultures in the Zagros. I also teach Masters courses related to Palaeolithic archaeology and human evolution at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University. As well as this, I have published a book on Upper Palaeolithic of Iran in Persian to help Iranian students of prehistoric archaeology understand the objectives of this field of research.

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

Over the past several years, we have conducted several Palaeolithic excavations in the Western and the Southern Zagros with my colleagues, Fereidoun Biglari (Director of Palaeolithic department, National Museum of Iran) and Marjan Mashkour (CNRS, Director of research) and other international colleagues from around the world. We are currently working on the recovered archaeological materials from these excavations and their related analysis. One of the cases that we are focused on right now is the results of an extensive salvage project in the prehistorically unknown region of Hawraman in Kermanshah and Kurdistan, which resulted in the discovery and documentation of a considerable number of Palaeolithic sites and significant Middle and Upper Palaeolithic archaeological materials. We hope that the outcomes of these excavations will improve our understanding of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic settlements of this region and the crucial shift events that led to the major bio-cultural change in human populations during MIS4 and MIS 3.

The Kenacheh cave excavation, Hawraman, Kurdistan, Iran.

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

Apart from our ongoing discoveries in the new sites of the western and southern Zagros and our 2005-2008 discoveries in Yafteh cave, I’m proud about the hypothesis that I proposed in my PhD for the mixture of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic elements in the very beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic in the Zagros, launching this idea that we may consider the mixture as the result of site formation process or even the cultural indicators of two different human species, who might have occupied the same landscape during an overlapping time span. This is an idea that I am pleased to see other researchers working in the same area have begun to adopt. Since my return to Iran, I have been busy with field works and teaching in the past few years and consequently have had less time for finishing all the publications of the results, but a brief overview of my PhD was published in the Springer book series:Replacement of Neanderthals by Modern Human in 2017, along with a few other papers.

What is your favourite memory from your career?

The field of archaeology, particularly in our case with Palaeolithic archaeology, is usually full of amazing adventures, discoveries, and pure moments that only can be found in remote and inaccessible areas where we work during our field projects. Apart from all of the excitements and wonderful moments that I have had experienced at the time of important archaeological discoveries, a non-science-related memory comes to my mind right now.

In 2009, during our Palaeolithic surveys in Kermanshah province, I had borrowed my friend’s car as our survey’s vehicle and took over the driving myself to prevent any damage to the borrowed car. During the surveys, we visited several villages where respecting the strict local traditions and fundamental values, particularly for women, is one of the most important rules in the daily life of inhabitants. Driving that car (totally common in the Iranian cities) with my archaeological outfit and male colleagues in the car was the most unusual event that attracted much attention and curiosity everywhere on our way. I will never forget the astonished and surprised looks on people’s faces when they saw such an unusual woman and to our surprise, their warm and respectful reactions during our conversations with them.

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

Undoubtedly, many exciting discoveries have improved our knowledge and understanding of Palaeolithic periods during last 5 years, from the Lomekwi stone tools dating to 3.3 million years ago that drawback the timespan of Palaeolithic archaeology considerably, to the many Neanderthals footprints at Le Rozrl of Normandy, France that enables us to trace the size and composition of Neanderthal groups. But speaking about a revolution in our understanding of Palaeolithic times and societies, I definitely think the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome was a real revolution in human evolution studies and related disciplines in the past decade (even more, considering the work of Richard Green and colleagues in 2008) and all these fossil genome sequencings still continue to surprise us each year with new game-changing findings.

But in the geographical area that I work, Iran, I think the most exciting discovery was the first direct evidence for the presence of Neanderthals that came from a small cave called Wezmeh near Kermanshah at the west of Iran. A premolar tooth that belonged to a Neanderthal child between 6–10 years old was found with large numbers of animal fossil remains. It is suggested that the child most probably was killed by a carnivore or his carcass was found by a carnivore in the area and brought to the cave. We re-excavated this interesting cave last year and yielded interesting results.

Wezmeh cave excavation, Kermanshah, west of Iran (2019).

What is your favourite thing about your job? What would you change if you could?

The best thing about my job, I think, is the feeling of freedom, discovery, and adventure from our research. What has kept me in this profession, despite all of its difficulties, is the sense of freedom that it gives me to explore the inaccessible areas of the world and taking the risks associated with this, in an attempt to try to understand past and present societies during our projects and correlate them to their environments.

Regarding the question of what would I change if I could…. it certainly would be the ever growing unhealthy competition and the “publish or perish” culture in academia that I think is against the integrity of research and its original purpose. It forces and ultimately leads researchers to produce publishable results at all costs.

Conversations with: Professor Tanya Smith

I am very pleased to introduce today Professor Tanya Smith, human evolutionary biologist at the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE) and the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research (GCSCR) at Griffith University. Tanya, following a PhD in Anthropological Sciences at Stony Brook University, has held fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in addition to a professorship at Harvard University. Her research at ARCHE and GCSCR focuses on primate dental development and growth, using tooth microstructure to resolve taxonomic, phylogenetic and developmental questions about great apes and humans, as demonstrated by her recent popular book The Tales Teeth Tell. She has published in a number of high-impact journals, such as Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and her work has been reported in The Conversation, The New York TimesNational GeographicSmithsonian, and Discovery magazines. She has also appeared on American, Australian, British, Canadian, French, Irish, German, New Zealand, and Singaporean broadcast media.

Professor Tanya Smith, Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University (Photo credit: Jeff Camden).

What inspired your interest in human evolution and specifically primate teeth?

I was initially lit up by an introductory biological anthropology course I took with Robert (Bob) Anemone during my first semester at SUNY Geneseo in 1993. The field encompasses so many of my personal interests in natural history, skeletal biology, and human uniqueness. While majoring in biology, I took every one of Bob’s bio anthro courses and participated in two field seasons in the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming — where we recovered Eocene mammalian fossils, including tiny primate teeth. During my senior year at Geneseo I began to read about how scholars were using biological rhythms in teeth to explore ancient human development, and using electron microscopy, I started my own search for these lines in the fossil teeth we found in Wyoming.

What types of  information can we obtain about human evolution from teeth?

Nearly everything you can think of: birth, growth rates, age, disease, evolutionary relationships, life history, diet, migration, climate, nursing behaviour, and social status — humans have even used teeth as a form of personal expression for thousands of years. As we discuss below, I had no trouble filling an entire popular science book with diverse types of information on teeth!  

Australopithecus africanus Taung child studied by Raymond Dart. The upper and lower jaws have a full set of baby teeth along with the permanent first molars.
Fossil courtesy of the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg)(Image permission: Tanya M. Smith and MIT Press).

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience as a young woman embarking on a career in academia?

As someone who happily counts tiny time lines in a dimly lit microscope room, I am drawn to empirical research on things that can be quantified precisely. For my PhD I studied the development of primate teeth, testing hypotheses about biological rhythms and methods to characterize their growth, as well as exploring variation in chimpanzee molar enamel. I was fortunate to have a supportive advisor at Stony Brook University, Lawrence Martin, who also employed me to run his laboratory and study Miocene ape dental development. At the time I was aware that some other faculty in the department were less supportive of women, but the challenges of being a marginalized academic didn’t come into real focus until later in my career.

After your PhD, you’ve worked in a number of institutions in many countries all over the world. Do you think your development as a scientist has benefited from working in these diverse working environments? 

Unquestionably. I recently wrote an article for the US Association for Women in Science Magazine on Academics without Borders. Anthropologists emphasize cultural relativism — seeing differences without judgement — and there are fascinating differences in the way that scholars work in different parts of the world. My exposure to diverse academic cultures on several continents has helped me to work differently. I find myself drawn to people who are not threatened by diversity, and really enjoy collaborations with international scholars whom I pepper with questions as I absorb their personal and professional perspectives.

Tanya in Uganda in 2014 watching Bud, a male chimpanzee. (Image permission: Zarin Machanda and MIT Press).

Recently, you published the popular book ‘Tales Teeth Tell’. Tell us a little bit about the book and your experiences when writing it.

I recently discussed this on the AnthroBiology Podcast and wrote a blog featuring some of the highlights from the book. It was actually a planned experiment in a sense; I wanted to both learn how to write a book and to show that women in the middle of their careers can communicate about science to the public. It’s been wonderful to see other women in biological anthropology recently stepping into leadership in this way; the story of human evolution has classically been told by men nearing the end of their careers. Yet biological anthropology is so much more than just a boy’s club!

What projects are you currently working on? What do you hope to find out?

Even after twenty years of seriously thinking about how teeth grow, I am still on fire about them! My collaborators and I have recently been collecting isotopic data from primate teeth with an ion microprobe, and we are able to precisely document birth through distinct elemental shifts — which raises so many questions about what is going on inside mothers and infants during this profound transition, as well as what the cells are doing to create this permanent structural and chemical record. On a broader scale, I continue to noodle over how dental tissues may better resolve developmental questions about the origin and evolution of humans. And I’m happy to share that I was just awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to investigate prehistoric human population growth by analysing the teeth of ancient children.

What achievement are you most proud of?

In 2018 I published a collaborative paper in Science Advances detailing how the teeth of Neanderthal children can be used to reconstruct weekly records of ancient climate, nursing behaviour, and illness. Leading an amazing group of anthropologists, archaeologists, earth scientists, and public health specialists to make these discoveries was one of my most satisfying accomplishments, and our team was one of three finalists for the Australian Museum’s 2019 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research. Another memorable achievement was co-hosting the Biological Anthropology Women’s Mentoring Network’s 10-year anniversary party in April 2019. I co-founded BAWMN with some friends as women are underrepresented in palaeoanthropology and at the senior academic ranks, and I really enjoy connecting with network members at the annual American Association for Physical (Biological) Anthropology meetings.

3 year-old infant Neanderthal upper jaw and associated baby and permanent teeth. Individuals from this Belgian site (commonly known as Engis) were the first fossil hominins ever discovered. Fossil courtesy of the University of Liège (Belgium)(Image permission: Tanya M. Smith and MIT Press).

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

I absolutely cherish having the professional freedom to pursue what I am curious about. It is an incredible privilege, and I try to encourage others to find confidence to do the same in whatever form that might take. One thing I would like to change about being an academic is the expectation that one should continuously train PhD students. I’ve had a chance to work with some amazing students and early career researchers, who are under incredible pressure in the current circumstances. Given long-term decreases in permanent academic jobs market — I find it frustrating that universities seem to be graduating more and more PhDs each year.

If you were not a human evolutionary biologist, what would you be?

I am enraptured with contemplative neuroscience, having had a meditation practice for over a decade, and I enjoy dipping into scholarly literature and popular science books on the topic. It’s truly amazing to me that we can train our minds in ways that are analogous to going to the gym and conditioning our muscles. I’ve experienced the positive effects of mediation and spent considerable time with some wonderful Buddhist nuns, and could easily imagine pursuing the academic study of meditation in a future lifetime.

Tanya enjoying sunrise on top of Big Red, the famous 40-metre-high sand dune at the edge of the Simpson Desert in Birdsville, Queensland (Photo credit: Tony Miscamble).

Conversations with: Dr Hila May

Today it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Hila May, a physical anthropologist based at the Department of Anatomy, Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center, Tel Aviv University! Hila leads the Biohistory and Evolutionary Medicine Laboratory at Tel-Aviv University, which has two principal fields of interest: 1) the evolutionary trade-offs between different anatomical structures during an evolutionary process of adaptation, and their impacts on modern human health and 2) the reconstruction of the everyday lives of past population through their skeletal remains. She has appeared many times in the media discussing the significance of new discoveries, such as the jawbone from Misiliya Cave. She also has published in a number of high-impact academic journals, such as Nature, Science and Journal of Human Evolution.

Dr Hila May, Department of Anatomy, Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center, Tel Aviv University

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

I like to think about my research as multidisciplinary, involving human evolution, biohistory, and evolutionary medicine topics. Each of them stands on its own but they are related and complementary. To summarize it in a nutshell, I would say that my research focusses on five major issues:

1) Current human health in light of biological, cultural and technological evolution throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene.
2) The reconstruction of daily life in prehistoric populations, including issues relating to demography, physical activity, diet, health, group violence (intra and inter), labor division, and social behaviour.
3) The effect of technological revolutions on human biological structure, mainly the Agriculture revolution (ca. 15k years ago) and the Secondary products revolution (ca. 8000 k years ago).
4) The origin of Levantine prehistoric and historic populations based on ancient DNA.
5) Improving methodologies and creating new research tools for studying skeletal remains (e.g., methods for sexing skeletal remains and diagnosing pathologies). 

Why did you originally want to study human evolution?  And tell us about your PhD?

Actually, before starting my MA degree I wasn’t even aware of physical anthropology, and like all good stories, I found it by chance. You see, when I started my studies at the university, I could not decide between science or humanities, so I postponed my decision by combining the two and graduated as a BSc in Life sciences and Sociology and Anthropology. After graduating my BSc degree, my lack of decisiveness still had a strong grip, so I started to look for researchers that combine biology and anthropology and who use biological methods. This search mission turned out to be not an easy one, as there are only a few scholars in Israel that are carrying out this type of research. 

By my mere luck, I came across Prof. Israel Hershkovitz from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University who became my supervisor in my master and PhD theses. It was him that gave a name to what I was passionate about, and exposed me to the wonderful, exciting, and never dull worlds of human evolution, physical anthropology, and evolutionary medicine. My MSc was in evolutionary medicine where I studied an interesting phenomenon named HFI – Hyperostosis Frontalis Interna (an overgrowth in the inner part of the frontal bone) that’s etiology is most probably related to sex hormones and has increased significantly during the last century (as I demonstrated in my study). My PhD thesis was in physical anthropology where I focused on the impact of the Agriculture Revolution in the Levant (ca. 15k years ago) on human biology from various aspects including nutrition, physical load and health.     

Hila excavating a burial in Timna as part of the Central Timna Valley project of Tel Aviv University, located in the southern Aravah, Israel.

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

Before starting my position as principle investigator at Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, I was a post doctorate fellow at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland under the supervision of Prof. Frank Ruhli. During that period, I expanded my knowledge and skills in virtual anthropology methods and carried out some exciting projects in evolutionary medicine. For this project, I developed a new protocol for estimating the shape of the femur for revealing how changes in femoral shape during human evolution is related to the risk for a hip fracture.  

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I am involved in several projects, some in collaboration with researchers from Israel and abroad. Firstly, I am involved in the study of new fossils from Israel dated to about 100-150k years that hopefully will help us to clarify who lived in the southern Levant during this important period for human evolution. I also lead research of several projects that aim to reveal the mysteries of past populations, such as their origin (through aDNA studies), physical load, health, diet, demography, and social behaviour. My focus is on populations who lived during the agriculture revolution and the Secondary product revolution in the Levant. These studies will shed light on the people that lived during crucial periods for the development of modern lifestyles. Other projects that are currently being carried out in my lab try to reveal, from an evolutionary perspective, why modern humans suffer from certain diseases such as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and hip fractures. Understanding the evolutionary causes of these diseases may help in finding ways for preventing them.    

Peqi’in Cave; a Chalcolithic secondary burial cave at the Upper Galilee, Israel.

What do your roles at the Department of Anatomy, Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Dan David Center entail on an average day?  

 During an average day I wear and replace between several hats:

  1. I have a great research group composed of about 8 MSc and PhD students that I supervise.
  2. I teach anatomy to medical students as well as courses in biological anthropology for graduate students.
  3. I am a curator in the Anthropological collection in Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, Tel Aviv University where I am responsible for the preservation laboratory and, of course, the collection itself. 

Why is your research important for understanding prehistoric human behaviour?

You can look at skeletal remains as an objective history book. By applying various methods, both traditional and novel (the latter are mostly based on imaging techniques like microscopy, micro CT, and virtual anthropology), we develop a better understand of the biology of the studied populations, which include their work distribution, demography, physical load, diet and nutrition, health, and migration. 

Furthermore, since we have an ever-growing anthropological collection that spans a large time scale, we can examine biological changes over time in populations that lived in a limited geographical region. Therefore, confounders related to environmental conditions become less significant, which helps to enhance our hypotheses and conclusions about the past lives of these ancient populations.    

Entering Safsuf Cave; a chalcolithic cave at the Upper Galilee, Israel.

What’s the best thing about your job? What would you change if you could?

As I always say, I am fortunate to feel as though my work and my hobby are the same. There isn’t a dull moment and I get to choose which research to carry out or to be involved in. I believe that I would be happy to add more field days although I already spend about a third of my time in excavations.

Conversations with: Professor Mark Maslin

Today’s guest is Professor Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London and Director of The London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. Mark is a leading scientist with particular expertise in the causes of past and future global climate change and its effects on the global carbon cycle, biodiversity, rainforests and human evolution. He has published over 165 papers in journals such as Science, Nature, Journal of Human Evolution and The Lancet, with a current citation count according to Google Scholar over 17,500 (H=64 and i10 index=160). He has written 10 books, over 60 popular articles and appears regularly on radio and television.  His books include the high successful ‘Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, 2014 and 2021), ‘The Human Planet: How we created the Anthropocene’ co-authored with Simon Lewis (Penguin, 2018), and ‘The Cradle of Humanity’ (OUP, 2017 and 2019) which bring together the latest insights from hominin fossils, geology and palaeoclimatology to explore the evolution of our ultrasocial brains. He was included in Who’s Who for the first time in 2009 and was granted a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Scholarship in 2011 for his work on human evolution.

Professor Mark Maslin on a research expedition to the Suguta Valley (Northern Kenya) in 2010 to understand the timing of when the palaeolake was active, whilst being looked after by the wonderful Samburu people – who love to sing and dance.

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

My research interests are very wide, from human evolution to the development of the global green economy.  I very much see myself as a natural scientist, using scientific methods to investigate important subjects such as human evolution, the Anthropocene, climate change and the other major challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.  My areas of expertise can be summed up as understanding the fundamental causes of past and future climate change and their consequences for evolution, biodiversity, people and policy-making.  

What originally drew you towards climatology?

I have always been fascinated about how the world works and took Geology and Geography at University.  However I have a holistic view of the natural world and hence would describe myself as an Earth System scientist – because biology, climatology, ecology, biogeochemistry, oceanography, and geology are just some of the sciences we need to combine if we are to understanding how our planet works and our influence on it.

A very excited Mark in the Omo National Park in south-western Ethiopia (2018) at the site where one of the earliest anatomically modern Homo sapiens was found and dated to 195,000 years ago.  This is one of the most important sites in the study of human evolution.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My PhD was at Cambridge University and supervised by the late Professor Sir Nick Shackleton FRS and Professor Ellen Thomas who is now at Yale University – both brilliant in their own ways.  My PhD topic was on the palaeoceanography of the North Atlantic Ocean trying to understand quasi-cyclic collapses of the North American ice sheet during the last ice age.  These so called ‘Heinrich events’ sent huge armadas of icebergs crashing into North Atlantic Ocean disrupting the circulation of the deep ocean and affecting global climate.

The Cambridge PhD process was at that time very Darwinian – the survival of the fittest – there was a lack of regular supervision, no real official support, no one ever explained to me how one should approach a PhD or what were the expectations.  But this experience was very valuable to me because when I become the Director of the London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership it meant I could develop a completely new way to training and supporting PhD students across the whole of London, simply by avoiding the failings of my own PhD training and empowering students. 

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

After my PhD I was very luck to get a couple of post-doctoral positions in marine geology and palaeoclimatology at Kiel University in Germany under the mentorship of Prof. Michael Sarnthein who trained a whole generation of brilliant scientists. It is also where my friendship and collaboration with Prof. Martin Trauth started and has led us to some startling findings regarding the causes of human evolution.  After Kiel University I was offered a position at UCL where I have stayed ever since.  At UCL I have had the privilege of being Head of the Geography Department, Director of the UCL Environment Institute and now Director of the London NERC DTP.

Travelling across the Chew Bahir palaeolake which lies between the Ethiopian and Omo-Turkana Rifts in 2018. It has been extremely dry for at least the last 100 years but was 20m deep around 5,500 years ago. First drilled in 2013/14, it has produced a stunning record of palaeoclimate covering the last 650,000 years. 

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

This is probably the most difficult question to answer – as I have many different projects on the go in many different fields, from climate change health adaptation to the carbon footprint of coffee.  One human evolution project I am very excited about is the work of one of my PhD student Cécile Porchier who is working on annually laminated diatom lake sediments from Kenya dated at 80 to 100 kyrs ago.  She is co-supervised by colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London and if successful she will be able to understand past climate changes in East Africa at a yearly resolution to really understand what drove the evolution of modern humans and their dispersal out of Africa.  I am also very excited as I am starting a new project called ‘Human Evolution in the Anthropocene’ with a friend and colleague Prof. Peter Kjærgaard, the Director of the Natural History Museum of Denmark and who knows where that project will take us.

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

In the field of human evolution, I think the work I am most proud of is the synthesis of all the data from East Africa and the realisation that the exciting story our evolution could only be understand by bringing lots of different research areas together. Martin Trauth and I realised that a combination of tectonics and orbital cycles created periods of time when deep fresh water lakes appeared and then disappeared within the East African Rift Valley.  The climate cycled from extremely wet and very dry and coincided with major period of human evolution and dispersal. For example the evolution of Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo sapiens and their dispersal out of Africa. We called this the ‘Pulsed Climate Variability hypothesis’ as it built on the work of Rick Potts and provided a temporal framework within which human evolution could be understood. The central idea that peaks in precession forcing are linked through lakes to human evolution was radical 15 years ago when Martin and I suggested it but now it is so accepted that many forget to attribute it to the original research.

Mark giving a Royal Society talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2012 on the causes of early human evolution with hominin skull props!

What is your favourite memory from the field?

My favourite memory from fieldwork was the first time we took the helicopter from our camp on the Rift shoulder and swooped down into the Suguta valley in Northern Kenya.  It was then for the first time I really understood how the geology and the tectonics had created this amazing landscape and how changes in the Earth orbits could fill or drain these massive lake basins.  There is also a strange feeling when one is camped on the Rift shoulders as the climate is perfect for humans – not too hot, not too cold with ample vegetation and water – it feels like home.  

Glorified fieldwork taxi (the helicopter) lands ready to take the next group of scientists into the Suguta Valley in. 2010. They starting research early in the morning before it gets too hot in the Valley, so travelling around by helicopter means that they can work from 7 am till ~3 pm and, if a site is a write-off, then they can move quickly to the next site of interest.

If you were not an earth scientist, what would you be?

As an Earth System Scientist or a natural scientist, I do not really believe in the compartmentalism of science.  I also do not believe in boundaries between science and social science and have worked on both.  But as a second year undergraduate in the summer I did a six weeks internship with a leading international London Law firm – so I might have ended up being an environmental lawyer – now that is a scary thought.

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

I have the best job in the world and people laugh when I say this – but I am serious.  I am surrounded by some of the brightest people in the world both colleagues and students.  It get to teach and training some of the most interesting students in the world at all levels from undergraduate to PhD. I get to choose exactly what subjects I want to research and no one worries when I stray far from my supposed areas of expertise to support students research the global green economy or food insecurity in Nicaragua or global health and climate change.  My University is extremely supportive of public engagement and has allowed me to write 8 popular books (including “The Cradle of Humanity“) and many articles for New Scientist, Guardian, The Times and The Conversation.  I also co-founded a company in 2012, Rezatec Ltd, which has grown to over 40 staff and a turnover of over £5 million per year. What other job would allow me to be teacher, trainer, mentor, researcher, author, presenter, explorer, and entrepreneur – and to work with the best of the best from every field of human endeavour.

Conversations with: Professor Rick Potts

Today, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Rick Potts, the Director of the Smithsonian Institution Human Origins Program! Rick joined the Smithsonian in 1985, and has since focused his research toward understanding how Earth’s environmental change affects early human adaptation. He formulated the well-received Variability Selection Hypothesis, proposing that hominin evolution responded to environmental instability, an idea that lead him to develop many international collaborations among scientists interested in the ecological aspects of human evolution. Rick also leads excavations at early human sites in the East African Rift Valley, including the famous handaxe site of Olorgesailie, Kenya, and Kanam near Lake Victoria, Kenya. 

Smithsonian Institution Human Origins Program Director Richard Potts holding an Olorgesailie hand axe. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

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

I am a paleoanthropologist with a PhD in Biological Anthropology. My main area is the long-term ecological history of human evolution, with a focus on behavioral adaptations to changing environments. Much of my work involves excavation at field sites in East Africa and China. So, the research I carry out depends on a stimulating fusion of evolutionary biology, paleontology, archeology, ecology, sedimentary geology, stratigraphy, geochronology, and diverse environmental sciences. I need to know as much as I can about these fields.

What originally drew you towards human evolution?

The roots of my interest go back to my teenage years. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was drawn from an early age to the origin of things: what were the predecessors of today’s musical instruments, how did the rules of baseball develop, how did our solar system originate? Around 15 years of age, I began reading books about primate (including human) fossil discoveries. Once I found out I could explore the origin of “us”, I was hooked. It wasn’t any particular television special or National Geographic article that captivated me.  It was basic imagination – who were those early ancestors? 

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

It still astonishes me I had the opportunity to know Dr. Mary Leakey, who (along with one of my thesis advisors, Dr. Alan Walker) paved the way for my thesis on early hominin activities and paleoecology at Olduvai. Another of my PhD supervisors, Dr. Erik Trinkaus, was (and is) incredibly fun to work with – and I assumed I would work on Neanderthal anatomy for my PhD. Yet Erik and Alan – and other graduate school mentors such as Steven Jay Gould – imparted a wondrous vision of the interdependent fields that has become present-day paleoanthropology. The best way to begin was made feasible by Mary’s permission (offered very warily) to study the fossil and tool remains from Bed I Olduvai. I was lucky to have this type of PhD opportunity, an exhilarating time befitting my initial teenage imagination where it all started.

Rick excavating an elephant tusk (around 1990). Photo Credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

What has changed in academia since you did your PhD?

Let me answer the research side of this question first. The ease, speed, and breadth of communication has revolutionized the ability to convene worldwide groups of scientists, students, and the people who assist logistics and give permissions (leaders of local field crews, community leaders where we do fieldwork, international organizations, government officials, fund managers). Email and computational ability have made it feasible to transform individual or small teams into an opportunity to communicate with dozens of motivated collaborators and to find colleagues passionately devoted to solving questions on human evolution. One has to be tenacious about cooperation and treat everyone fairly and with respect. The technology of communication, when used with goodwill, helps to get people together and motivated on shared scientific goals.

As for academia, like western society in general, there is a long way to go to assure significant leadership opportunities where diversity is lacking. There’s much greater awareness about it since my graduate school years. The opportunities must also reach students and early career academics internationally, in countries where we work.

What current projects are you working on at the Smithsonian Institution? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I appreciate the challenge of herding cats – that is, I delight in bringing teams of colleagues together on projects. For instance, more than 30 colleagues are working on a long sediment core drilled near Olorgesailie, in southern Kenya, very close to our excavations that uncovered a major shift in early human behavior and ecological setting that began roughly 500,000 years ago. We’re developing an incredibly precise ecological record of vegetation, water supply, and other things that mattered to how hominins and other mammals survived. The long-term goal is to inspire large teams of researchers to contribute to understanding the long-term ecological history of human evolution. I’d like to have a few years left to get that ball rolling down the hill – or, rather, making progress up that hill.

Field team at Olorgesailie. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

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

Probably my 1996 book that no one has read – Humanity’s Descent: The consequences of ecological instability. It was a 5-year project of researching, thinking, and writing. It was a delightfully lonely time that led to unexpected areas of thinking about evolutionary processes. The resulting concept of variability selection launched quite a few publications, head-shaking (the disapproving kind), and (I think) novel ideas about how ecological instability can lead to the evolution of adaptability. I consider adaptability to be an overarching theme in the study of human evolution. But I hadn’t thought much about this theme until I took the time to learn and write about it.

Rick with Maasai students in South Kenya. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

What is your favourite memory from the field?

Without a doubt, sitting at the camp table at Olorgesailie with my friend Muteti Nume, the foreman of our Kenya field crew until 2018, when he passed away.  We worked together 35 years, spent every summer together. Over breakfast, we planned the day; at lunch, we barely spoke as the temperature climbed; by lantern light at dinner, we told stories of life, crops (his), memories, and hopes. Later on, it was great to have other researchers around the table; but those early days of fieldwork with Muteti are woven into the story of my life.

Rick and Muteti Nume excavating fossils and stone artifacts at Olorgesailie, Kenya. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

If you were not an archaeologist/paleoanthropologist, what would you be?

Possibly a school biology teacher exciting my students about photosynthesis and boring them about philosophy (how do we know things?). I’d have considered that a wonderful life.

If you had a time machine, how far would you ask to go back, where would you go, and what would you want to see?

I think if I went back (temporarily, of course) to one particular time, one particular place, to see one or several particular hominin species – I don’t think I’d have a clue about what or who I was looking at!  My guess is that the past is so different from my assumptions, any time (back far enough) would prove fascinating… and truly befuddling. In a time machine, I’d prefer to head at least 100 years into the future and be amazed by what the students and colleagues I’ll never meet will have discovered and learned about our species’ ancestry.  

Rick with students at the Human Origins Program. Photo credit: Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

Conversations with: Dr Simon Underdown

This week, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Simon Underdown, Reader in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University! His research primarily focuses on the co-evolution of humans and disease, specifically how patterns of past human-disease interactions can help reconstruct human evolutionary processes. He’s undertaken fieldwork across the world, including South America, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. He is a passionate science educator, holding the position of Chair of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Education Committee and is a Chartered Science Teacher, alongside appearing on radio, TV and in newspapers to discuss human evolution. He is former Chair (and current committee member) of the Society for the Study of Human Biology, and a member of the QAA Anthropology subject bench-marking panel.

Dr Simon Underwood of Oxford Brookes University.

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

I’m something of an academic magpie really – interested in everything. Broadly my research focusses on the co-evolution of humans and disease and how patterns of human-disease interaction in the past can be used to reconstruct human evolutionary patterns and processes. I’m especially interested in the role played by diseases in shaping the adaptive environment during human evolution and the impact of disease exchange during contact between hominin species. If I was being more philosophical I suppose my research tackles questions about how humans in the past have responded to challenges presented by their environment in its widest sense. The evolution of the human mind has provided us with a unique (at least in extant hominins) ability to adaptationally grapple with selective pressures on a cognitive as well as biological level and only through designing collaborative inter-disciplinary research can we hope to understand how human evolution works. I take a holistic approach, combining information from fossils, artefacts, and ancient and modern DNA to attempt to reconstruct hominin behaviour and its underlying processes. But if I was being pithy and thinking in terms of one-liners then my research explores the intersection between human biology and cultural adaptation.

What originally drew you towards biological anthropology?

Dinosaurs, and a certain celluloid American archaeologist with a fedora, leather jacket and a questionable understanding of excavation and international law.  My first degree was in archaeology and it was that which stoked my interested in human evolution. In our first lecture we were told to put down our pens and just listen, then spend the next week reading Analytical Archaeology by David Clark; both left a lasting impression on how I think about research and, indeed, how I approach teaching (a great lecture will always trump a million powerpoint slides). Bio anth is such a brilliant subject because there are no limits to the questions we ask. It’s allowed me to work with great colleagues and carry out fieldwork across the world.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

I did my PhD at Cambridge on Neanderthals with Rob Foley. I had a great time in a really exciting department. It’s always joked that the whole world seems to pass through Cambridge but it’s really true. Seminars from almost every leading figure in the field became normal very quickly. I learnt a lot from Rob,  but above all the importance of not being constrained by a narrow definition of a subject or methodology. Another Cambridge alum, Roger Bacon, said much the same thing in 1620 – just because something has always been done in a particular way is not a good reason to keep doing so unquestionably.

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

In the current job market I’ll whisper this… I was fortunate enough to get a lectureship at Oxford Brookes right out of my PhD. I’m still there, now Reader in Biological Anthropology and Director of the Research Centre for Environment and Society. I’m also a visiting fellow at the Center for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at the University of Pretoria.

Simon at Wadi Faynan, Jordan.

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

My research projects at the moment are mostly focussed on sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Arabia. Obviously Covid-19 has had a massive impact on fieldwork and we’re still trying to adapt and adjust. We’ve been working on ancient sedimentary DNA from sites across Southern Africa and Arabia (including Jebel Faya) and have just secured major funding for  a three year project in Oman. With my good friend Riaan Rifkin I’m also working on a project in Namibia exploring the  Kalahari San hunter-gatherer skin and intestinal microbiome composition. Busy but fascinating work!

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

I think the best ‘thing’ I’ve ever found has nothing to do with human evolution. I was visiting a friend’s project in Nazareth many years ago and found a beautiful pair of Crusader era column bases that had been flipped over to create a crude step. My favourite publication is a 2016 paper I co-wrote with my good friend and colleague Charlotte Houldcroft; Neanderthal Genomics Suggests a Pleistocene Time Frame for the First Epidemiologic Transition. Not only was it great fun to write and attracted a pleasing amount of press coverage, the ideas we developed about differential pathogen resistance and the impact of genetic exchange between closely related hominin species are being borne out almost weekly as new research reveals the impact of Neanderthal genes on the Homo sapiens genome – not bad for an idea we sketched out over a coffee.

What do you think is the most revolutionary discovery in human evolution research over the last 5 years?

There are too many to chose from! Human Evolution is a subject that benefits (and suffers) from a single find being able to radically change how we interpret the past. Obviously this makes it really exciting to research but does mean frequent lecture updates! The analysis of ancient biomolecules has had a huge impact on how we think about human evolution as a process and the wide range of new ‘species’ discovered over the last 20 years has similarly knocked long-held theories on the head. But I think the most revolutionary change has not come from bones or stones but rather the way in which technology has transformed how we study human evolution. I’m old enough to remember fieldwork before Wifi and mobile phones and while I do sometimes miss the experience of remoteness we had in those days, the ability to be able to instantly discuss finds with colleagues from a site and share data (and of course being able to keep in touch with family) is transformative. Likewise the boon in sharing 3D scans of fossil material instantly has changed the rules of the game. ‘Ownership’ of a fossil is quite rightly becoming a thing of the past.

Simon at Pomongwe Cave in Zimbabwe.

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

Working with amazing colleagues from a huge range of disciplines and getting to explore huge swathes of the world. If I had to pick the very best thing about being an academic I’d have to say complete freedom to explore things that interest me (as long as I can bring in the money!). Being an academic is very odd in the 21st Century. I’m extremely lucky to be able to spend my time researching things that fascinate me and then tell people all about them. But it would be naive to think that the groves of academe do not have problems.  If I had a magic wand I would use it to provide a clear route towards long-term financial security for the hundreds if not thousands of doctoral, post-doctoral and associate lecturers in human evolution who are competing for jobs in an increasingly hostile environment.  As a subject we are brilliant at attracting interest from the public (barely a week goes by without a human evolution story being in the news) but we do struggle to translate this into more full time permanent jobs.

Conversations with: Professor Lynne Isbell

Today, I am very pleased to introduce Professor Lynne Isbell, a primatologist at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis)! Lynne currently holds the positions of Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at UC Davis and President-Elect of the American Society of Primatologists. Her research program is focused on primate socioecology, particularly on aspects of food competition, predation, dispersal, and ranging behaviour. She is field-oriented, and has engaged in multi-year fieldwork in Uganda and Kenya, with briefer forays into Madagascar, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She also is the author of the award-winning book, The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well (2009).

Professor Lynne Isbell, taken by the Leakey Foundation at the AAPA meeting in 2019

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

I am broadly interested in animal behavior and my specialty within that is primate socioecology, the study of how ecology influences primate social organizations. In addition to observing the animals themselves in their natural habitats, I have explored the qualities of food that influence intragroup and intergroup competition and relationships between primates and their predators. 

What originally drew you towards primatology?

Jane Goodall started me on that path. I had always been interested in animals and animal behavior but when I saw the cover of her book, In the Shadow of Man, that showed a young woman much like me following chimpanzees in a forest, I immediately bought it and read it. Before that, I thought the only way to work with animals was as a veterinarian. As an undergraduate, my opportunities were with ungulates such as captive bongos and desert bighorn sheep. My focus on primates began after I moved to Davis and volunteered to work on a year-long behavioral project with captive bonnet macaques. I was hooked! Primates are so much more active than ungulates!

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My dissertation title was “Influences of Predation and Resource Competition on the Social System of Vervet Monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops)in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.” It wasn’t what I set out to do but I took advantage of a unique opportunity. It’s very difficult to plan a study of the effects of predation on prey animals but when leopards kept eating my study animals toward the end of a slow die-off of the trees that vervets prefer to feed from and sleep in, it gave me a wonderful chance to explore the relative importance of predation and food resources on the lives of vervets.

My Ph.D. experience was one of the best times in my life. I was older when I started grad school and by then I knew it was the right place for me. But I also had the perspective that if I stopped enjoying it I could always leave and do something else with my life. That mindset gave me a sort of freedom from grad school’s often oppressive structure. I’d spent two years in the field in Uganda before I started grad school and my intention at first was to write my dissertation on aspects of red colobus monkey behavior and ecology, but I had been bitten by “the Africa bug” and when the opportunity arose to go back for another couple years to follow vervets around, I jumped at it. I will always be grateful to so many people for giving me a chance: Tom Struhsaker, who taught me field methods; Peter Rodman, who took me on as his grad student; Meredith Small, who, one day while offering me my first ever academic job as a Reader for her class, looked me in the eye and said, “you’re good”, something no one had ever said to me, and; Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, who trusted me to be their field manager. I’m not even mentioning those who made my Ph.D. experience possible in other ways but they know who they are, and I thank them, too.

Lynne standing in front of the tent where she stayed for a time in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, when she conducted her dissertation research (1986).

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

Right after I earned my degree, I was hired as the lab coordinator for a huge introductory organismal biology course at UC Davis. I was in charge of the labs and of 35 TAs who taught the lab sections, and I had to make sure they knew the material. I did that for four academic quarters. Then I was offered a tenure-track position at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which I held for three years before being invited back to UC Davis.

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I have to say that my research has ended up taking a back seat to my administrative work as Chair of my department these past several years. So, I’m eager to wrap up my last year as Chair and get back into the literature. Does that count as a project? What I’d like is to have the time to think deeply about what I’m reading and make connections that I didn’t know were there before. Then I’d like to write a book or two about those connections, preferably in beautiful places such as on the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya and in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I think it would be a good use of my sabbatical time.

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

I really can’t narrow it down to just one. Three are equally weighted, all taking many years of my time and energy but in very different ways. After working at two field sites that others had developed, I was really proud to be able to develop and maintain my own long-term field site at Segera in Kenya where my students and I could study the behavior and ecology of vervets and patas monkeys, the latter being very difficult animals to habituate to human presence. That field project ran for 10 years.

Lynne following habituated patas monkeys during a long-term field project at Segera Ranch, in Kenya (1999).

I am also proud of developing the Snake Detection Theory. Once the question popped into my head — could snakes have favoured the origin of primates and the subsequent diversity of the major primate clades? — it took about 10 years to investigate and understand the literature from multiple disciplines about which I knew next to nothing at first, in order to convince myself that there really was something to that question, and then to think about what I was reading in order to synthesize it into a coherent theory, and finally to write it all down so that others could see what I was seeing.

Finally, I’m proud of one particular field study that on the surface lasted one year, but, in fact, took 30 years to complete. As I already mentioned, leopards decimated my study groups in Amboseli when I was conducting my dissertation research. I’d wanted at that time to put radio-collars on the leopards I kept seeing very fleetingly but it didn’t happen. Then, 14 years later at my Segera field site leopards did the same thing again, and yet we were no wiser about leopard/primate interactions because leopards wait until we’re gone to do their killing. Another 13 years passed and then GPS technology and grant support made it possible to remotely investigate in fine detail how GPS-collared leopards interact with GPS-collared olive baboons and vervets. Logistically it was a very difficult project to initiate but with a great team in the field, including Laura Bidner, Dairen Simpson, Mathew Mutinda, George Omondi, and Wilson Longor, we pulled it off with surprising results, e.g., leopards spent a lot more time near vervets than baboons but baboons were at greater risk when leopards were nearby, and when leopards hunted, they killed vervets during the day, but baboons, at night.

Lynne with a female leopard that they had finally trapped and anesthetized to put on a GPS collar at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya (2014). The goop on her eyes prevented them from drying out.

What is your favourite memory from the field?

My first thoughts turned to events that are stuck in my mind because they were scary. They’re good stories to tell but I wouldn’t call them favorite memories. For a happy favorite memory, I always smile in awe when I think back to the moment when I stood in the dry river bed of the Mutara River at Segera and turned to see the beginning of the fresh new river trickle toward me from its origin as rain in the Aberdare Mountains. How many people ever get to see the front of a river? I am a very lucky person! The times I touched a leopard were also very special, almost spiritual, moments for me.

If you were not a primatologist, what would you be?

I think maybe an investigative reporter. I like the truth and I enjoy searching for clues to puzzles.

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?

It would be really cool to see Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei in the wild and to study its behavior and ecology.

Conversations with: Professor Ben Marwick

I am delighted to introduce today Professor Ben Marwick, an archaeologist from the University of Washington! Specifically, Ben‘s research interests are focussed within Southeast Asian and Australian archaeology, such as hominin dispersals, forager technologies and ecology. He also is interested in how archaeology engages with local and online communities, in addition to popular culture, as well as techniques and methods for reproducible research and open science. Based in Seattle, Washington, he is locally affiliated with the eScience Institute, the Burke Museum, the Center for Statistics and Social Sciences, the Quaternary Research Center, and the Southeast Asia Center. He has also been recently elected as a Vice President of the Society of Archaeological Sciences.

Professor Ben Marwick at the University of Washington

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

I’m interested in the emergence of modern humans, specifically the dispersal of hominins into the Eastern hemisphere. I’m interested to understand how they adapted to new environments, and what their relationships were with other hominin groups and other species. My technical archaeological expertise is in stone artefacts and geoarchaeology. I also love to explore, analyze, and visualize any kind of archaeological data using the free and open source R programming language. I like to help others do their research with R also, because I think using open source code to do, and to communicate, scientific research is important for the sustainability of our field.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I am drawn towards studies of human evolution because of how it helps us understand our experience as humans, and how our cultures and societies came to be the way they are today. As a young kid I was interested in history, and the material traces of history. I spent a lot of time during school holidays working in remote sheep shearing sheds in the southwest of Western Australia. Probably a bit too much of that time was spent wondering about all the old rusty bits and pieces accumulated on the farm, and what life was like for people who used those antique tools. Later I was delighted to find out that researchers were analysing artefacts like these with chemistry, statistics, and so on, to understand past human behaviour. Then I knew I’d found the perfect combination of studying history, doing science, and working outdoors. I’m fascinated by scientific analysis of material culture as a way to learn about human behaviour and relationships in situations where we can’t ask anyone directly. The unifying qualities of evolutionary theory are very inspiring to me, and the application of cultural transmission theory and behavioural ecological theory to understand changes in material culture appeals to my intuition. I think the understandings that come from studying material culture of the past are important for defining our individual and collective identities in the present, and how we identify ourselves is important for determining what we think is good, right and important, and how we behave to each other.

Ben working at the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi, Vietnam, with Prof. Lam My Dzung, Dr Pham Thanh Son, Dr Nguyen Doi and Eric Kelley.

What was your PhD topic? 

The title of my PhD thesis is “Stone artefacts and human ecology at two rockshelters in Northwest Thailand“(data and R code are on Dataverse). I studied stone artefacts and oxygen isotopes from shellfish to see how technology changed as climate changed. I found that technology didn’t change much, but the way the landscape was used changed a lot. Although this is an arcane topic about a time and place that is exotic for most people, the results are immediately relevant to handling our contemporary problems relating to climate change and global warming. The message is that technological solutions don’t need to play a major role in adapting to climate change, the big payoff is in changing human behaviours and routines.  

Ben at Khao Toh Chong Rockshelter, Thailand, after excavations co-directed with Dr Cholawit Thongcharoenchaikit and staff from the Krabi Department of Culture.

Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? 

I had a great time doing my at the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University. My primary supervisor there was Professor Sue O’Connor, who was wonderfully supportive and a really inspiring role model. Professor Rasmi Shoocongdej generously allowed me to join her big project in northwest Thailand, and her support and encouragement has been vital to my success in archaeology. Professor Peter Hiscock was also my supervisor at the ANU, and he strongly influenced many of my views about archaeology and science generally.

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

I had the rare good luck to get a tenure-track job as an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington before I’d finished my PhD. My work there has been punctuated by some highly fulfilling fellowships, for example to spend time in Southern Thailand working with Rasmi and Cholawit Thongcharoenchaikit (thanks to ACLS/Luce), in Dublin with Helen Lewis, and in Tubingen with Chris Miller and the geoarchaeology group there (thanks to the DAAD). Most recently I was at the University of Wollongong as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working with the amazing group in the UOW Centre for Archaeological Science. Currently I’m back in Seattle working as an Associate Professor at the University of Washington.

Excavating on the Chauk Plateau, Myanmar, with co-director Kyaw Khaing and students from the Field School of Archaeology, Pyay.

What current projects are you working on? 

Two current projects I’m especially excited about are with colleagues and community members in northern Vietnam with Pham Than Son, Mai Huong Ngyuen and colleagues at the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi, and in Myanmar with Kyaw Khaing, Mae Su Ko and colleagues at the FIeld School of Archaeology at Pyay. We have a few locations under investigation that appear to preserve traces of early modern human activities in mainland Southeast Asia. Results from these projects will help us understand how people moved across the Eastern hemisphere, interacted with other hominin groups, and adapted to the unique conditions of this region. In these locations we are testing hypotheses from a model I proposed in 2009 to understand the ways that humans arrived in the region.  

To the north of these projects, I’m working on stone artefacts in southern China with Li Bo, Hu Yue and colleges that indicate prepared core and Levallois strategies. And to the south, I’m part of a big group led by Chris Clarkson and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, working on the analysis of materials we excavated from Madjedbebe, northern Australia, where people were living 65,000 years ago

Since COVID-19 brought lab and fieldwork to a halt early in 2020, I’ve been spending a bit more time on purely computational research, including reviving an interest I previously explored with Ian Kretzler. There have been some exciting recent developments in machine learning and text analysis that my lab group has been exploring and getting very interesting results with.

Where do you hope these go in the future?

In Vietnam and Myanmar we are excited to investigate some very promising locations with high-resolution excavation. We also are planning to combine this work with student training, in the form of undergraduate field schools, and local community participation, especially through local schools. We have grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Geographic Society to support this work. For the Chinese and Australian projects we have some pretty substantial publications in preparation to advance the debate and respond to critics.

Ben giving a keynote address at the conference “Digital Heritage in a World of Big Data”, Stirling, Scotland.

What is ‘Open science’ and why is it important in archaeology?

Open science is honouring the ideals of science that drew many of us to archaeology: transparency, reproducibility, objectivity, cooperation. As John Ziman put it, science ‘is a cooperative enterprise, in which the enemy is ignorance, not the [person] in the other laboratory’. In practice, open science means access to scientific research that is unrestricted by financial, technical or cultural barriers. As for many sciences, the historical transition of archaeology from vocation to profession introduced incentives that have made it tough for researchers to adhere to these values. However, many fields have adopted innovative practices and technologies to revive and strengthen these values. Posting preprints of papers to enable free access to papers appearing in paywalled journals has been standard practice in Physics for over a decade. Since 2016 the American Journal of Political Science will only publish papers that are accompanied by raw data files and computer code files to reproduce the results presented in the manuscript (because when a paper says ‘data are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request’, that’s often not true) Over 5,000 journals and scholarly societies are signatories to the Transparency and Openness Protocol, as a pledge of their support of the principles of openness, transparency, and reproducibility (including a handful of archaeology journals).  

Getting our papers, data, and methods into the hands of as many of our colleagues as possible, as easily as possible, is not just an idealistic vision. It is vital for the long-term sustainability for archaeology as a discipline, because it supports the rapid and efficient accumulation and evaluation of new archaeological knowledge. Disciplines that are slow to realise this are going to increasingly balkanise and fade from relevance to the broader research community and society (and so struggle to attract funding and students). Among archaeologists, it has often been noted that resistance to transparency, openness and reproducibility sometimes comes from anxiety about perceived loss of status because of fear that sharing leads to a poverty of currency to trade in the traditional prestige economy of knowledge. To me, this resistance is part of the colonialist baggage of archaeology – knowledge and power practices that reproduce a logic of subordination. We now recognise it is necessary to reject these logics from our discipline. Open science is important for decolonising archaeology

If we are serious about doing collaborative scientific work and producing results that are relevant to the communities we work with, we need to ensure they have access to our papers, data, and methods. This has a special urgency for human evolution researchers, because we are often working in parts of the world where our local colleagues lack many of the resources that researchers at Western institutions take for granted. Their university probably doesn’t have a site license for ArcGIS, and their internet isn’t fast enough to download a huge zip file from a dropbox. Many of our current ‘good enough’ practices for getting research done are not effective for properly including our collaborators. What do we need to change to ethically include our local collaborators in our research, and sustainably support the development of archaeological science and the study of human evolution in our host communities? Answering this question is a long term project, and will involve extra work for many of us. I reckon we can save a lot of time by adopting open science practices that have been already working well for other fields. Not all archaeological data are safe to share publicly (e.g. site locations, culturally sensitive images and objects), so doing open science thoughtfully requires consultation and planning to minimize risks of damage.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my publications that involve students, particularly undergraduates, and especially where we are part of a big team. That kind of work is more challenging and complicated than solo or small group work, but very fulfilling. Some of these include our paper on a 65 kya age for human activity in Australia, our paper on the transition from foraging to farming in Peninsula Thailand, and our paper on replication assignments for teaching archaeological science. 

A distant second to these is my paper that Enrico Crema mentioned in his interview here, about computational reproducibility in archaeological science. That paper has enjoyed a wide readership far beyond archaeology, and led to many stimulating discussions and follow-up papers, for example with Suzanne Pilaar Birch, Sophie Schmidt, Li-Ying Wang, and others. It’s been very satisfying to see the influence of that paper on over one hundred archaeological journal articles so far, covering all kinds of topics and time periods, with authors making their data and R code available with their publication. This is vitally important for demonstrating the reproducibility of our research, to enable others to combine their data with previously published data, and for others to easily use newly published methods on their data.

Ben excavating at Madjebebe, Australia with the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.

What advice would you give to a student interested in your field of research?

For a student interested in Southeast Asian Palaeolithic Archaeology my main advice is to aim for a sustainable balance between contributing to the international community of archaeologists (e.g. through scholarly communications at conferences and journal articles, etc.), and contributing to the local communities of students, researchers and community members that host your fieldwork (e.g. by visiting local schools, giving guest lectures and workshops at local universities, etc.). There are many challenges to overcome in achieving this balance, and it can be tough to find fulfilling ways to make useful contributions. One possible starting point would be to find something you like about archaeology, and work on incremental ways to make it even better. 

More generally, for a student interested in archaeology and human evolution, my advice is to read widely and look for inspiration in related fields beyond archaeology, because “chance favours the connected mind”. Connect not only with ideas, but also with people, don’t hesitate to ‘cold email’ a researcher to ask a question about their research or seek advice about yours, and nurture good professional relationships with the goal of having them for your entire career. I reckon that computational and statistical fields are going to be a great source of inspiration for archaeologists in the coming years, but there are many other fields that will be productive also. I’d also suggest approaching your participation in the research community as an anthropological problem: a big part of succeeding in academia is finding answers to the question of what are the unspoken norms that guide the behaviours of the members of that community (publishing, presenting, teaching, etc)? Participant observation is one rather slow way to answer this question, a way to speed this up is to become familiar with research on writing for publication, presenting your research, teaching, etc. Some of my favourites include The Science of Scientific Writing, Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: A Case for Sentence Headlines and Visual Evidence, and Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. The Nature Careers blog posts are another great source of professional advice that I highly recommend for tips and inspiration on many of the little day-to-day things that we need to do in a research career.

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

Some of the most exciting and positive changes are the development of quantitative methods of analysing artefacts to formalise modelling of cultural evolutionary processes. Methods for discriminating among different kinds of cultural transmission, and the computational tools for using these methods, have been really impressive at reviving efforts to answer basic questions that are at the core of archaeology. The refinement and application of geochemical methods to archaeological questions, especially the identification of biomolecules with mass spectrometry, has been amazing and fascinating. And of course ancient DNA has improved our understanding of many major events in human evolution. Exciting organizational changes include the rise of team science and big projects with many participants, and open science, when the code and data are freely made public.

Perhaps the most striking change has been in demographics and diversity. It’s great to see how archaeology has become increasingly accessible to people from many backgrounds that I rarely saw in the research community when I was doing my PhD.  Community efforts to enable this accessibility through new teaching methods, new content in undergraduate classes, and dismantling the hidden curriculum, have been making a positive difference. These demographic shifts have highlighted the urgency of the task of updating and clearly communicating our professional ethics and norms of behaviour. For example, we have a lot of work to do to eliminate sexual harassment, bullying, and other bad behaviours that have been difficult to address because individual and institutional power and prestige have been valued more than our community’s wellbeing and its sustainability. Events of 2019-2020 have especially shown that our existing scholarly and professional organisations are struggling to manage how academia generally, and archaeology in particular, have changed over the last decade. Despite these rising waves of discontent, I’m optimistic that our organisations and their leaders will catch up with the new norms, and restore their relevance to the community. I’m inspired by other fields, including some bigger and older than archaeology, who have been very nimble with their professional societies to update their codes of conduct and professional practices. 

Conversations with: Professor Ravi Korisettar

This week, I am delighted to introduce Professor Ravi Korisettar, Senior Academic Fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi! Ravi is a key contributor to Indian Palaeolithic archaeology, specialising in geoarchaeological methods and approaches to understanding the relationship between prehistoric humans and their environments. He has published seven books in India and two abroad and is a Section Editor for Current Science, India’s leading science fortnightly journal. Ravi has also held the position of Honorary Director of the Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum in Karnataka since it’s establishment in 2010.

Professor Ravi Korisettar in front of the rock art site at Sangankallu, Ballare

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

In a couple of years from now, I will be completing fifty years of learning, teaching and researching archaeology. During the first half of this period, I experienced many ups and downs and institution-hopping to make a career as an archaeologist. This constrained me to work on diverse disciplines such as geoarchaeology, Quaternary geology, palaeoclimatology, radiometric dating, tephrochronology, the application of computer techniques, etc. This had enabled me acquire multidisciplinary skills, though carrying the tag of ‘jack of all and master of none’ was a frustrating and sometimes depressing experience.

I am particularly interested in understanding man-land relationships in prehistory and explain why the settlements are found where they are. Currently, I am interested in global migrations and public outreach archaeology. Though primarily an archaeologist, I specialised in geoarchaeological field methods to address the problems of the establishing the antiquity of Palaeolithic settlements, searching for hominin fossils, identifying refugia and critically assessing the correlation between climate and culture change.

What originally drew you towards archaeology?

I was born into a low-income family. My parents used to inspire me with success stories about my Cambridge educated maternal uncle, S. Settar, about whom Raymond Allchin took pride in calling him a polymath. Though Settar was a historical archaeologist, his Cambridge experience had given him a clear interdisciplinary vision of archaeology. And yet, my parents wanted me to take up chemistry and physics combination for my undergraduate studies, which I completed in 1971. At this point, my uncle had returned from Cambridge and rejoined the faculty of Karnatak University. My brief visit to his place and a brief meeting with the Allchins at his residence was a certainly a turning point for me.

Prior to this meeting, I used to spend my summer holidays in a small book store owned by my elder maternal uncle at Hosapete near  Hampi, the well-known world heritage site in south India. The store used to sell fiction and scholarly works on art, tourism and culture. Tourists, students and scholars of Indian art and architecture from all over the world visiting Hampi used to drop by the book store and, though unable to speak fluently in English, I used to enter into conversation with some of them and also learn from them about other sites like Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal (also a world heritage site), the cradle of Indian temple architecture. This exposure to such books and scholars from all over, in addition to the proximity of Hosapete to Hampi, where we used spend our weekends, had given me some idea of what archaeologists do and I was also familiar with the adage that though the ‘career of an archaeologist lies in ruins’, it is full of romance and excitement.

During one of my conversations with Settar regarding the choice of a subject for post-graduation, it struck upon him that my science background will be helpful for an MA degree in archaeology. He advised me to go to Deccan College in Poona (Pune) and mentioned that great scholars like Iravati Karve, H.D. Sankalia and S.M. Katre, who have nurtured the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology and linguistics, built this world class institution. Undoubtedly, Poona had the reputation as ‘Oxford of the east’. This was the most motivating advice I received at the critical point of my formative years of life and career. Coming to Poona changed my idea of archaeology and two years of post-graduate study brought me closer to appreciating Pleistocene geoarchaeology, bio-cultural evolution of man and to S.N. Rajaguru, a geologist by training. The latter’s humble nature and exemplary attitudes drew me towards him and Pleistocene geoarchaeology and we built a lifelong relationship, academic and otherwise. Following my post-graduate studies, I enrolled for a PhD under his supervision.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

The topic was Prehistory and Geomorphology of the Middle Krishna, a braided stream network draining the Precambrian basement complex on the Indian Peninsula. It was both exciting and frustrating. In the 1970s, discovering Acheulian artefacts was very rewarding and great material for writing a prehistory dissertation. However, I did not find any! The most exciting part of my research was my introduction to the works of Robert Bruce Foote, the father of Indian prehistory, and several other colonial and European geologists and geomorphologists. Stimulated by their works, I learnt the fundamentals of geology, fluvial geomorphology and climate change and became a competent field archaeologist. Fluvial deposits known as High Level Gravels were widespread in the Raichur and Shorapur Doabs in northern Karnataka (Doab refers to land between two rivers). The gravels were chiefly composed of chert (flint) clasts and the chief clasts were the chief raw material for making Middle Palaeolithic artefacts. These deposits and the associated Middle Paleolithic chert artefacts were widely separated in time, provided little or no scope to determine the absolute timeline for human occupation of the area, other than the ‘Middle Paleolithic age’. The absence of biotic material further hindered behavioural interpretation of hominins’ in a resource poor region Raichur Doab (land between the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers). I became obsessed with the problem of the uneven distribution of Palaeolithic settlements across the subcontinent, their chronology and absence of hominin fossils.

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

I did not have a permanent job for well over a decade after completion of my PhD in 1979. Short-term research assistantships kept me engaged in work, which however did not promise a stable future and solid income. I was a Visiting Scientist (1980-82) at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad.  I was assigned the task of preparing  a  litholog  of Neogene-Quaternary sediments in the valley of Kashmir and laboratory processing of samples for Be10 dating, and process samples for palaeomagnetic, micropalaeontoligic and  palynologic analyses. Following this I had a post doc fellowship (1983-85) from the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi, and a Research Associateship (1988-89) at Deccan College. With intervening unemployed days. Finally, I was appointed Reader (1989-98), Professor (1998-2013),  at Karnatak Univeristy. Post retirement, I was  Dr. DC Pavate Chair Professor (2013-15) at Karnatak University, Dr VS Wakanakr Senior Fellow (Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh), UGC Emeritus Fellow (2015-17) and now I am concurrently ICHR  Senior Academic Fellow  (2019-21), Adjunct Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru (since March 2020) and Hon. Director of the Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum at Ballari in Karnataka (since 2010).

Replicas of human ancestors at the Robert Bruce Foote Museum

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I have multiple projects on going:  (a) understanding the cognitive content of prehistoric rock art, (b) re-examining of Late Pleistocene hominin fossils from rock shelter excavations and assessing their potential for aDNA studies, (c) preparing systematic catalogue of antiquities from surface surveys and excavations carried out during the last forty-five years, now handed over to the government at the Robert Bruce Foote museum in Ballari, Karnataka, (d) preparing a comprehensive report on Sangankallu Neolithic-Iron Age excavations.

My publications bear ample testimony of my many successful international collaborations and that I will be able to successfully carry out these research projects and contribute to a better understanding evolution of past human societies in a multidisciplinary framework in the future.

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

I am very proud of the following achievements:

The discovery of tephra marker bed in the alluvial sediments of the Indian Peninsula (1988).

The development of a Basin model to delineate man-land relationships (2007).

The establishment of Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum (2020).

The first dating of the Middle Palaeolithic and the oldest date for the microliths in India (at the time of publication, 2009)

The emergence of agricultural economies in the Suthern Neolithic of India (chief investigator Dorian Fuller now at UCL, London)

The Bellary District Archaeological Project (Co-investigator: N.L. Boivin, now at Max Institute Planck, Jena)

The Kurnool District Archaeological Project (Co-investigator: M.D. Petraglia, now at Max Planck Institute, Jena).

A down-scaled model of Sanganakallu Neolithic hills at the Robert Bruce Foote Museum.

What are your favourite memories of your career?

Memories have been sweet and sour, but more on the sweeter side. The early decades of my archaeological career were a period of anxiety and stress, compounded by not being able to contribute to the growth of archaeological knowledge through my PhD work. Job applications to the Archaeological Survey of India and several  institutions did not find me suitable because of ‘other considerations’…

My entry into Karnatak University in 1989, though helped breathe a sigh of relief, had moved me away from full time research in archaeology to full time teaching history and archaeology, where archaeology was a subsidiary component of postgraduate syllabus. During my harness at the university, I continued to confront non-egalitarian environments, both socially and academically. Yet winter and summer holidays were at my disposal to pursue my research interests and update myself with the developments in method and theory in global prehistory. During the settling in time of a year or so, I began to explore the scope of interdisciplinary collaborative research with scholarly friends from institutions in India and abroad.

The Ancient India and Iran- Charles Wallace fellowship (1996) at Cambridge, UK, gave me my first international exposure to intense and stimulating academic experience.

The Fulbright Visiting Scholarship (2001) at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC gave me greater international visibility and strengthened my wide network with archaeologists in India and abroad.

Ravi engaging in public outreach archaeology, with school children at Jwalapuram.

If you were not an archaeologist, what would you be?

Archaeology was my bread winner. If I were not an archaeologist I would have to opt for a undergraduate lectureship (if considered suitable) or turn towards local industry for a non-academic job.

What advice would you give to a prospective student interested in your field of research?

Though there have been great leaps in Indian archaeology, especially in the areas of  Palaeolithic and Neolithic, I see that Indian archaeology is more productive since the turn of the century. The application of processual and post-processual archaeological methods and theory have opened up new pathways of investigation aimed at holistic reconstruction of human bio-cultural and social evolution. Our priorities are the issues relating to (a) identifying  potential sites for geochronology of Palaeolithic sites, (b) reconstructing palaeogeography of Palaeolithic landscapes for a better understanding of site formation processes, (c) delineating man-land relationships during the Quaternary, (d) developing ethnoarchaeological interpretations of archaeological data sets and (d) helping place the Indian subcontinent at the forefront of global debates on peopling of the earth. So, I would advise students to concentrate on these topics.

If you had a time machine, how far would you ask to go back, where would you go, and what would you want to see?

I would be at the time of Big Bang, witness the formation of the atmosphere and the origins of first life forms and travel with the emergence of multiple life forms. Then I would also witness the emergence of hominins capable of making and using tools. It is a fantasy though, of course!

Conversations with: Dr Ammie Kalan

This week’s guest is Dr Ammie Kalan, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology! Ammie is a postdoctoral researcher investigating chimpanzee culture and communication as part of the Pan African Project: The Cultured Chimpanzee. Over her career as a primatologist, Ammie has conducted fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau, Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Republic of Congo and Costa Rica. She has developed a passive acoustic monitoring system for primates living in tropical forests and continues to be interested in bridging the gap between behavioural research and applied conservation through the use of non-invasive monitoring. Next year, she will be starting as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada!

Dr Ammie Kalan in the savannah woodlands of Boé, Guinea-Bissau, researching the rare accumulative stone throwing behaviours chimpanzees engage in there. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

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

I am a primatologist who specializes in great ape behavioural ecology, with a particular interest in tool use, culture and communication. I also actively work on improving remote methods used to study wild primates, not just great apes, in the field, namely passive acoustic monitoring and camera-trapping.

What originally drew you towards primatology?

When I was in grade 5, so about 10 years old, I remember learning about endangered species, particularly the mountain gorilla and having the feeling that I wanted to do something to help and to know these creatures better. Not too long after I remember watching in awe as David Attenborough got up close and personal with wild mountain gorillas on an episode of BBC Life (I think?) and never being able to forget that remarkable moment. Growing up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest I knew I wanted to dedicate my career to wildlife ecology and/or environmental conservation but I could not get these wild great apes out of my head. So after studying Zoology for my BSc I volunteered for my first experience studying wild primates in Costa Rica as a research assistant and soon after applied for a Masters program that specialized in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. After moving to Oxford for this masters I was able to have my very own run in with wild gorillas (western lowland gorillas) when I conducted my first field research in Africa at the Lac Tele Reserve in the Republic of Congo for my dissertation project.

Ammie biking to the remote camp site in Boé after a brief visit to a nearby village to stock up on supplies and use electricity. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My PhD was on the social and ecological context of chimpanzee acoustic communication and its potential for biomonitoring. It was essentially two projects simultaneously since my supervisors were concerned by the riskiness of my biomonitoring project that they wanted to make sure I would have a backup plan, so to speak. This suited me just fine because I got the best of both worlds, I was able to do a project that was novel, technically challenging, but would be pioneering if it worked and also be able to follow habituated chimpanzees on foot to record their vocalizations and try to better understand what they might be communicating to one another. In the end, the biomonitoring project was generally a success, since I was able to show how remote audio recording units can be installed in a forest to record wild primate sounds that can later be extracted from these continuous forest recordings using semi-automated algorithms and thereby provide biologists with large-scale data on primate presence in an area. I was also able to make some interesting new observations about chimpanzee food calls and pant hoot vocalizations with the data I recorded following individual chimpanzees, not to mention the incredible privilege to be able to get to know individual chimpanzees as they tolerated my presence from the moment they woke up until they built their evening nests.

Ammie recording food calls and pant hoot vocalisations of the Taï chimpanzees in the Côte d’Ivoire. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I am currently a postdoctoral research for the Pan African Programme based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Here I work on integrating behavioural data we have collected from over 40 PanAf temporary research sites to better understand the ecological and environmental drivers and threats to chimpanzee behavioural and cultural diversity. Much of this work has already helped me to establish new collaborations and to start my own research projects, such as on chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing based in Boe, Guinea-Bissau with the support of NGOs such as the Chimbo Foundation. In the future I will continue to use the PanAf dataset as a means to investigate questions that have thus far been difficult to answer using only a handful of populations.

Overview of the PanAf project’s methodological approach. (Credit doc.station Medienproduktion GmBh,

Why is your research important for understanding human evolution?

Studying great apes such as chimpanzees provides us with the unique opportunity to observe and investigate the characteristics of a species closely related to humans that is still living today. The same cannot be said for the many fossils we have of our hominin ancestors, therefore primatology in general can provide great comparative insight into the course of human evolution given that we too are primates. For example, if we consider that the chimpanzee or Pan lineage split from the Homo lineage approximately 7-8 million years ago, then by comparing these two lineages today we can hypothesize which traits would have been present in our last common ancestor.

Ammie following habituated chimpanzees of the Taï Chimpanzee Project. They wear face-masks and maintain a distance of 10m to protect the chimpanzees from potential diseases that they may carry and vice versa. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What is your favourite memory from the field?

It’s very difficult to pick one but a particular moment does stick out.  While I was following the habituated chimpanzees of the Taï Chimpanzee Project there was one day when the individual I was following met up with other members of the group at a nice, open nut cracking site. As we arrived, I sat on a dead log to rest my feet while still observing my focal and as I did so one of the adolescent males at the time, called Ibrahim, started to walk directly towards me. Now Ibrahim was a bit naughty, as young male chimpanzees going through puberty often are, where he often displayed curiosity and interest in the human researchers and would at times come too close to us. So, I was a bit apprehensive about what his intentions were this time since I was well aware of the fact that I was in a sitting position and we were essentially eye to eye. As he got closer, I noticed he had a small stick in his mouth and was playfully running up to me. He then stopped about just a meter short of me and threw the small stick at my feet while making a lovely play face: he had just invited me to start playing with him using an object invitation as chimps commonly do amongst each other. I felt very honoured and happy inside but could not display any response since this is how we maintain a healthy separation from the chimps. He waited for me to do something and did look a bit disappointed when I didn’t move an inch but then quickly turned his attention to another more playful participant that had followed him and I could then move away from them to maintain a better distance. It took all my restraint to not react to his invitation that day.

Kuba, an adult male chimpanzee of the South group Taï chimpanzees. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

I love that I get to work in the field, immersed in wild places and wild animals where essentially anything can happen. It can be a little daunting at times, even scary or terrifying in some of the places/ circumstances in which I’ve worked, but it is never boring or repetitive. You never know what discovery awaits you when you are in the field and the excitement that comes from experiencing that is well worth the strenuous physical and psychological toll that being in remote, isolated places can bring. The one thing I would change if I could is that there would be fewer insects to contend with while collecting data, or at least that they would ignore us humans as potential prey. For example the little flies that go right into your eyes so that you literally cannot see, or the flies that lay eggs under your skin, or the ants that in a second will get underneath all your clothes and painfully bite you all over….

If you were not an primatologist, what would you be?

I would’ve become an environmental scientist, a route that I once seriously considered before choosing to do my masters degree in primate conservation. I was particularly fond of tropical forest ecology and interested in assessing and mitigating the effects of human disturbance on natural ecosystems so I’m sure I would have ended up not too far from what I am doing now.

A look out point over the Issa valley in Tanzania where the Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research and Conversation Project ( hosted one of the PanAf sites. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)