Conversations with: Dr Briana Pobiner

This week, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Briana Pobiner, a palaeoanthropologist and the Education and Outreach lead at the Smithsonian Institution Human Origins Program!  Briana joined the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in 2005 to help establish the Hall of Human Origins, where her role now includes the management of public programs, website content, social media, and exhibition volunteer training. Briana is also an Associate Research Professor of Anthropology in the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at the George Washington University. Her research is focussed on the evolution of the human diet, though she has studied topics as diverse as human cannibalism and chimpanzee carnivory.

Briana in the field at Olorgesailie, Kenya

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

My research focuses on the evolution of human diet, particularly surrounding meat-eating in our evolutionary history. I’m most interested in the earlier part of this dietary shift, between about 3 and 1 million years ago, documenting and trying to understand how meat became a more important part of ancient human diets. I do this by studying fossil animal bones that have butchery marks (cut marks from slicing off meat and percussion marks from breaking bones to access marrow) left by ancient humans. I also study the chewing patterns left by non-human predators on the bones they ate, so I can understand what parts of prey animals both humans and other predators were getting access to in the past.

Briana studying hominin fossils at the National Museums of Kenya

What originally drew you towards human evolution?

I started my undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr without a strong interest in science – I was planning to be an English major and possibly pursue a career in creative writing. As I was looking for a fourth class to round out my first semester, my advisor, a dean who was a former Anthropology professor, suggested I take an Anthropology class called ‘Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology’. I had never heard of anthropology, but it sounded interesting, so I signed up. I really enjoyed it, and then during the next semester I took a Primate Evolution and Behavior class with the professor who would become my main advisor (Dr. Janet Monge). I spent that summer doing a paleontology internship at the American Museum of Natural History, including fieldwork collecting invertebrate fossils, and loved it – but I was still really drawn to our own evolutionary history. I ended up creating an independent major called “Evolutionary Studies” which included classes in biological anthropology, biology, ecology, geology, and paleontology. After my third year of college I attended a field school in South Africa through the University of the Witwatersrand run by Lee Berger, got fully hooked on paleoanthropology, and I never looked back!

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

My PhD research included two separate components. The first one was collecting and studying bones chewed on by free-ranging carnivores at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, to try to document predator taxon-specific tooth marks and chewing damage patterns, with an aim to eventually look for similar patterns in fossil assemblages. The second one was studying collections of fossils with butchery marks and carnivore tooth marks from Koobi Fora, Kenya and Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania – I did multiple years of excavations with larger teams working at both locations while I was a PhD student. I really loved doing both aspects of my PhD research. I remember my PhD advisor – Rob Blumenschine – telling me as I finished classes and started doing my PhD research full time that I would never have the same kind of opportunity again, to be solely focused on research (with no other professional obligations) – and to make sure to savour and enjoy it!

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

I was invited by Rick Potts, the Director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, to become a predoctoral fellow even before my PhD was finished – and I have been working here ever since! My predoc fellowship became a postdoc fellowship once I finished my PhD, and during my postdoc I spent a lot of my time as a member of the core team that developed the permanent Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. I got very interested in public engagement with science during the exhibition development process, and after my postdoc ended I got a unique permanent position at the museum that includes both research and public engagement. I lead the education and outreach efforts of the Human Origins Program, which includes content development for our website, managing social media (Facebook and Twitter) accounts, training and helping to manage volunteers in the exhibit, facilitating public programs, and participating in museum-wide education and outreach teams. I’ve also started an additional research program in the teaching and learning of evolution in high school biology classrooms! In addition to all that, I am an Associate Research Professor in the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at the George Washington University, where I regularly teach classes in both zooarchaeology and science communication.

 Briana talking to students during a Smithsonian outreach program

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

I have several current projects! I’m not technically finished with my postdoc project, which is collecting data on the fossil animal bones excavated from the oldest layers of the excavations at Olorgesailie, Kenya. I directed the field camp there for several years under the leadership of Rick Potts (who is also my supervisor), until my son was born – over 8 years ago now – and I decided that three months in the field every summer was too long to be away from my family. (You can read about how I attempt to balance motherhood with a career in paleoanthropology, including bringing my son to Kenya with me to do research in 2018, in this blog post). Hopefully the Olorgesailie research will be all wrapped up in the next few years and will result in a comprehensive monograph.

Briana doing fieldwork at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya, in 2011 while 7 months pregnant

I’m leading a long-term taphonomy and ecology research project on modern bones at Ol Pejeta Conservancy that I began during my PhD research there (BONES: Bones of Ol Pejeta, Neotaphonomic and Ecological Survey) together with wonderful research collaborators Fire Kovarovic, Kari Lintulaakso, and Ogeti Mwebi. I even did one field season there when I was very pregnant with my son! More recently, I’ve also been invited to work with a research team led by Claire Terhune and Sabrina Curran restudying previously excavated Pleistocene fossils from the Oltet River Valley in Romania to look for possible butchery marks, and I’m working with Michael Pante on some potential early evidence for human cannibalism (in the form of butchery marks on a Pleistocene early human fossil from Kenya).

Since I can’t currently travel for research due to COVID-19, I’m also making progress on a few data-based research projects with various other collaborators.

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

I’m really proud of all of my research projects and publications, but I’m currently still basking in the glow of having a sole author review paper “The zooarchaeology and paleoecology of early hominin scavenging” published in Evolutionary Anthropology. Ever since graduate school I’ve really enjoyed the mix of comprehensiveness and accessibility of the review papers in that journal, and it feels like a real accomplishment to have now written one myself. Since I’m not in a traditional tenure-track faculty position I don’t directly supervise graduate students, but I regularly take on undergraduate and graduate students as interns. I am always so proud to see them going on to do exciting and fulfilling careers, either in paleoanthropology, science education, or whatever makes them happy!

What is your favourite memory from the field?

Wow, I have so many, because I’ve spent so much time in the field and had so many field adventures that it’s hard to choose just one! Here’s a good one: I pride myself on being a skilled field driver who can maneuver a vehicle out of almost any situation – although my old Kenyan Land Cruiser was not always in the best shape (I can just hear some of my colleagues who have driven in it snickering right now). Once, when I drove it from Kenya to Tanzania to participate in fieldwork at a Pleistocene human footprints site called Engare Sero, several things went very awry while I was driving several of my collaborators out to the field site in a place where the word ‘road’ is a loose interpretation. One was that the rear axle – well, one of the half shafts – snapped, so I had to drive in low range, and whenever we leaned too far to that side one of my colleagues had to stick himself out the window to bang the half shaft back in with a shovel so it wouldn’t slide out entirely. Then, my brakes failed – but I decided to see how long I could drive without any brakes and not have the passengers figure out what was happening, just by downshifting to slow down. After about 20 kilometers I came to a part of the road where the lack of brakes became very apparent, and when they asked me why the vehicle was rolling backwards back down the hill we were on, it took me a while to stop laughing so I could explain the situation!

Briana’s Kenyan Land Cruiser temporarily stuck in a hole at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya

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

I loved my field ecology class in college and so much enjoy the field seasons at Ol Pejeta Conservancy – I think I’d probably be a field biologist. Or maybe a teacher, since I also get really jazzed seeing other people’s faces light up when they understand something for the first time or make a new connection.

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 love this question! I was a member of the team who studied the butchery-marked fossils from Kanjera South, Kenya, where the earliest evidence of repeated transporting to the same location for butchery has been documented at about 2 million years ago. I’d want to watch those early humans, or really any early humans from around this time period, when this important behavioral shift happened. How were they cooperating? How did they communicate? How did they decide which animals to transport and butcher, and what parts to process for meat and marrow? How important were animal foods to them within the rest of their dietary choices – and what else were they eating? And who decided that already dead animals might make a good meal – who were those early scavengers? Basically, I’d want to see what was on the paleo-menu, and how the early humans made those decisions!

Briana standing next to a replica of the “Lucy” skeleton in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins

Conversations with: Professor Rainer Grün

It is my pleasure to introduce today Professor Rainer Grün, a world-renowned geochronologist and Professor of Archaeochemistry at Griffith University! Rainer is the former Director of the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution and is an acknowledged leader in the field of electron spin resonance (ESR) and uranium-series (U-series) dating. His work has contributed immensely to our understanding of the timing of human evolution, for example through the development of non-destructive dating methods and the discovery of new, surprisingly young, dates from Broken Hill skull from Zambia, which revealed that Africa and Eurasia were inhabited by a whole range of hominin species just a few hundred thousand years ago!

Professor Rainer Grün, a geochronologist at Griffith University.

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

I’m a geochronologist and the main thrust of my research relates to further developing dating techniques, in particular U-series and ESR dating. This requires expertise in geochemistry for U-series and radiation physics for ESR. In recent years, I mainly focussed on developing virtually non destructive dating, which is essential for the analysis of ancient human remains. I’ve also ventured out to work on the use Sr isotopes for the reconstruction of human migrations and provided a Sr isotope map for France. Another side track is working on palaeothermometry, which is a tool that can assess how fast valleys erode and estimate the denudation rates of mountain ranges.

Rainer meeting with Martin Aitken during Sr isotope fieldwork in France.

What originally drew you towards geochronology and human evolution?

I was lucky to spend my first postdoctoral fellowship at McMaster University with Prof Henry Schwarcz. He got me interested in archaeological applications. In December 1986, I attended the International Colloquium L’Homme de Neanderthal in Liege, where I met Chris Stringer with whom I struck a lifelong friendship. He really got me into palaeoanthropological dating applications. Jean-Jacques Hublin attended the same meeting and our collaborations started at the same time.

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

My PhD was entitled “Contributions to ESR dating”. It was pretty much a random selection of experiments on the underlying principles of ESR dating and applications on whatever samples I could get hold of. As an undergraduate student, I was not very focussed on studying. I held several pinball machine records in the pubs around the Department of Geology in Köln. I thought my fate was becoming a taxi driver. However, once I discovered research during my Diploma thesis work, I got hooked. I worked pretty much around the clock and did my PhD in less than two and a half years.

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

I was a postdoc fellow at McMaster University from mid 1985. In 1987, Ann Wintle asked me whether I was interested to take over her thermoluminescence lab at Cambridge. In the late 80s I met John Chappell who was the professor for Biogeography and Geomorphology at the ANU in Canberra. He encouraged my to apply for the directorship of the radiocarbon dating laboratory, which I commenced in early 1992. I stayed at the ANU for the next 23 years until I was offered to set up what later became the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University in Brisbane.

ESR team at Cambridge: John Chappell, Yuske Shimoyama, Ed Rhodes, Jack Rink, Henry Schwarcz.

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

I am close to retirement. I have several projects that I pursue, in particular to understand the diffusion processes of uranium into bones and teeth and to see whether there are uranium concentration dependent correlations with the alpha efficiency in tooth enamel. I also continue to collaborate with a wide network of researchers on the direct dating of human remains. This work is presently divided up between Mathieu Duval who does the ESR analysis and I carrying out the U-series work.

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

They relate to original ideas. Truthfully, one does not have many of those in ones career. Two of the publications will be very obscure for the readers of this website and they relate on the possibility of dating mollusc shells without the need to measure the external dose rate, the other one is on the palaeothermometry of the Eldzurtinsky Granite. The most important idea relating to palaeoanthropology was combining U-series and ESR systematics for the simultaneous modelling of the age of a tooth as well as the uranium uptake history of its various dental tissues. This publication is the underpinning of all dating applications of teeth using these methods.

Rainer measuring samples from Broken Hill skull with Professor Chris Stringer. Photo by: Katherine Griffiths.

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

Of course, the discoveries of several new human species such as Homo naledi and Homo luzonensis as well as the Denisovans. In particular, DNA work has brought a completely new dimension to our understanding of the complexity of human evolution: the interbreeding of what was thought to be different species, and the time depth of the occurrence of the various species.

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

I had a very satisfactory career and don’t think I’d change a thing, mistakes, warts and all. Considering my somewhat forceful driving style, I don’t think I would have made a good taxi driver.

Fieldwork in Namibia 2007.

Conversations with: Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes

Today it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes, who is an evolutionary anthropologist! Duncan works with the Hadza in northern Tanzania, who have traditionally subsisted through hunting and gathering. Duncan is interested in food-sharing, the use and abuse of signalling theory and forager egalitarianism. He previously won the Ruggles-Gates Award from the Royal Anthropological Institute as well as a grant from the Leakey Foundation for his PhD project: Reading the signals: What does Hadza hunting success honestly convey? Duncan recently finished a teaching fellowship at Durham University, where he lectured in evolutionary anthropology. He is about to begin a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania for the ‘Culture of Schooling’ project, investigating Hadza engagement with formal education.

Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes, an evolutionary anthropologist at Durham University/University of Pennsylvania

What are your research interests?

My subject area is called ‘hunter-gatherer studies’. Although there continues to be much debate about whether ‘hunter-gatherer’ even makes sense as a category, the name has stuck. I work with a population called the Hadza, who traditionally hunted and gathered for most of their food. I’m interested in the motivations underlying hunting and food-sharing. I’m interested in unknotting the reasons why, despite a spectrum of differences, there are some critical similarities between hunter-gatherer groups who are united by nothing other than a shared mode of subsistence. I’m interested in the ways by which forager populations adapt when traditional subsistence practices become less viable. Finally, I am interested in forager egalitarianism. Our history books are full of kings, queens, khans and emperors. How then, despite the manifold incentives to seize power, do populations like the Hadza manage so effectively to curtail attempts at aggrandisement and prevent people from naming themselves ‘leaders’?

What originally drew you to evolutionary anthropology?

Although we like to see ourselves as exceptional, humans are as much the products of evolution as any other species. And while there are many valid frameworks with which to view ourselves, no account of our actions, our minds and our forms is wholly complete without recourse to evolutionary logic. Given this fact, it is a constant source of consternation that evolutionary anthropology is not a larger or more well-known discipline. Why isn’t evolutionary anthropology on the national curriculum? I enjoyed learning about the Tudors in school, but the origins of bipedalism are surely more universally elucidating than the English reformation. The Catcher in the Rye has a lot to say about the human condition, but perhaps not quite as much as The Origin of Species. So that’s the draw of evolutionary anthropology. Humans do not make sense without it. Not completely.

How did I get into evolutionary anthropology in the first place though? The unglamorous truth is that it was an accident. I applied to Cambridge’s now defunct ‘Archaeology and Anthropology’ course, with the idea of studying social anthropology. I was interested in learning about the full range of human experiences and cultures. As the course progressed, I did not always enjoy the sometimes high-minded epistemological wrangling of social anthropology, nor the unrelenting self-reflection and self-censure. Sometimes I felt I was learning more about what social anthropologists thought of each other than I was learning about the world and the people in it. At the same time, each lecture in the evolutionary anthropology course was a revelation. I remember reading Kristen Hawkes’ original paper on the grandmother hypothesis one day in the library. It was such a clever and interesting piece of evolutionary logic that I decided then and there that I was sold. And that was that.

What was your PhD topic and what were the findings from your PhD?

My PhD research examined the costly signalling hypothesis of human hunting, specifically the idea that hunters procure and share the meat from large animals as a way of showing-off their hunting skills. If hunting is a way of showing off, or signalling, then being known as a good hunter should be closely related to actually being a good hunter.

So is it? I found that, among the Hadza, in aggregate, people’s assessments of their peers’ hunting skills were actually pretty accurate. However, at an individual level, there was much error and noise. This is an example of a crowd wisdom effect. If you ask lots of people to guess the weight of a jar of sweets, the mean of their guesses is often freakishly close to the actual weight. But this can happen even when most individual estimates are pretty wide of the mark.

Duncan’s field vehicle parked under a thorny acacia tree.

What do my results tell us about signalling? This is open to interpretation, but my personal take is that individual assessments of hunting ability are too error-prone for hunting and sharing to be a good way of signalling skill. But the good news is that aggregated reputation scores seem pretty accurate, so we should continue to use them as a proxy variable where actual skill is unknown!

My PhD research also addressed another question. There has been extensive debate about food-sharing and family provisioning. Do Hadza hunters share their food indiscriminately? Or do they keep the lion’s share for their own families? I looked at the relationship between hunting reputation and nutrition and found that well-reputed hunters and their spouses had no better nutrition than did anyone else. As discussed in the paper, it is difficult to prove a negative, and there are some finicky barriers to inference. But results are nonetheless consistent with generalised food-sharing, in line with previous reports by Nicholas Blurton Jones, Kristen Hawkes and James Woodburn.

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

I did my PhD at Cambridge University. My supervisor was Frank Marlowe, who tragically took early retirement due to ill-health during my degree. His students wrote a collection of remembrances about his life and work for Human Nature which you can read here. When Frank retired, Robert Attenborough kindly took over as my supervisor, and continues to be a good friend and an occasional agony uncle.

What are you currently working on? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

I currently have a few things in the works. The first piece of upcoming research reconsiders James Woodburn’s theory that egalitarianism might be the consequence of democratised access to lethal weaponry – the idea that you shouldn’t boss people around when they’re armed and dangerous! I conclude that the evidence doesn’t support this theory, but that it might hold some explanatory power in more limited contexts. In the second piece of research with Coren Apicella and Kris Smith, we asked many Hadza directly about what motivates them to hunt, to gather and to share food. Contrary to theoretical debates, most people, both men and women, highlighted that family provisioning and signalling were both important motivators for foraging work. Finally, I’m about to start work on a project looking at the changes brought about by increased participation in formal education.

Where do I hope this research will go in the future? I hope it will go into your endnote or Mendeley libraries!

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

My review article on Costly Signalling theory published in Evolutionary Anthropology precipitated some friendly but occasionally forthright email exchanges with a couple of my academic heroes. However, I think the article raises some important questions. I would like to see greater opportunities for the interrogation of established theories and frameworks by young scholars and I was very grateful to the editor for giving me the chance to publish these ideas. However, the article I am proudest of is ‘A Noisy Signal’, which I have discussed above.

Taking shelter from the midday sun in the shade of a baobab. 

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

In my own field of human behaviour, with a few exceptions, I think things most often progress through a process of gradual evolution and not revolution. It’s pretty difficult to dig up a new behaviour! My top four papers from the last five years are Sceleza et al’s eye-opening recent paper on diversity in human reproductive strategies, Ringen et al and Ember et al’s cross-cultural investigations of the association between risk/resource stress and food-sharing, and Singh et al’s review paper on self-interested norm enforcement. Closer to home, Alyssa Crittenden’s group have published some really good recent research about recent Hadza dietary changes, e.g. Pollom et al’s just-published paper about how a mixed-subsistence diet might actually have some advantages over a purely foraged one. I mentioned the importance of interrogating established theories, and I also want to highlight how much I liked Dan Smith’s recent paper on cultural group selection. It’s super compelling. Check it out.

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

The easy answer is that you should follow your passions. The harder answer is that a research career can be stressful. PhDs can, for some students, feel like doing low-paid work for your supervisor. Moreover scholarship, especially anthropology, is an oversaturated industry and the number of qualified applicants exceeds the number of jobs. So, make sure you know the downsides, make sure you’ve talked to people and make sure you’re going in with your eyes open. Make sure you have a backup plan. And if you’ve done all of that then go ahead and follow your passions!

What would you be if you were not an evolutionary anthropologist?

One of my greatest regrets in pursuing anthropology was that I had to abandon my nascent professional wrestling career. Though if not a wrestler, probably a journalist, maybe a foreign correspondent.

Duncan and the 2015 field team, Charles and Ibrahim

Conversations with: Professor Rebecca Ackermann

This week’s guest is Professor Rebecca Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town (UCT)! Rebecca was the founding Director of the Human Evolution Research Institute at UCT, and is currently Deputy Director. She is also Deputy Dean of Transformation in the Faculty of Science at UCT. Her research focusses on evolutionary process, and specifically how gene flow, drift and selection interact to produce skeletal diversity through time, with a focus on human evolution. Rebecca is also engaged in discourse and policy development around sexism, racism and transformation of the discipline more generally.

Professor Rebecca Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town

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

I am a biological anthropologist who studies morphological – primarily skeletal – variation. I’m interested in knowing why we vary, why lineages diverge evolutionarily. This obviously involves getting a firm grasp of both within and between group variation, and I have looked at a lot of different organisms – from mice to gorillas to hominins – to do this. In particular, I’ve studied the relationship between patterns of variation and the evolutionary processes that produce them, i.e. the relative roles that selection, drift, and gene flow (hybridization) play in producing diversity

What originally drew you to biological anthropology? 

I’ve always been interested in bones, since I was small. Someone recently reminded me of the story of how I was reading a magazine describing a child’s struggle with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones) when I was about 8 or 9, and decided I wanted to find a cure for it. Although I didn’t go into that line of research, clearly I have remained hooked on bones! But more than that, I wanted to understand what makes us different and why. That included trying to understand everything from human variation (and race and racism) all the way through to fossil hominin taxonomic diversity. I was very lucky to have great mentors when at The University of Chicago as an undergraduate (special shout out to Jane Buikstra), who really helped me to explore all of anthropology and come out with a more holistic approach to considering this question. That was the time when I decided biological anthropology was for me.

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

I studied facial variation in what were then the earliest known hominins – the australopiths. A large part of that research examined how our underlying assumptions about how and why hominin taxa vary shape our species-determinations. I grew up in the United States, and my PhD work was the first time I was privileged to travel to Africa, first to South Africa in 1995 for preliminary work, then to South Africa and Kenya in 1996/7 for data collection. Like most foreigners coming to these spaces for the first time, I found it incredible. To be able to see and touch the fossils for yourself, meet people such as Phillip Tobias, and experience a very different culture. 1995 was also when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in their first participation post-apartheid, and that was an experience I will never forget. But my PhD experience was not all rosy. Multiple times during my academic training I experienced sexual harassment, and this forever shaped me. I changed universities because of it, avoided certain academics and curators, and ultimately modified my choices going forward. During that time and for many years after, I also felt the weight of being a woman and not being included or taken seriously in the discipline, and was repeatedly bullied at conferences and in other academic spaces, even when I was supposed to be the authority. Luckily I always felt able to stand up to those people, but nevertheless the experiences had a profound effect on me and on my choices going forward, and on my mentoring especially.

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

I did a two-year postdoc at the same institution where I received my PhD – Washington University in St Louis – under the supervision of James Cheverud. Halfway into that, the advertisement for a Lectureship in the Archaeology Department at the University of Cape Town crossed my desk. I only realised later that the post was advertised with what we now call transformation goals in mind – i.e. to hire a black or female South African. I applied, and ultimately was offered the position. While in South Africa previously I had been to Cape Town and said I would move there in a heartbeat if I got a chance. So I did. In 2000, I moved with myself, my husband, and our three old dogs, and have been here ever since. But the fact that there were no qualified South Africans to take up the position bothered me from day one, and I made a commitment to myself that one of my primary goals would be to make sure that next time there would be. I am now Professor and Deputy Dean for Transformation in the Faculty of Science, and my job is to continue the work of transforming our institution to one that reflects the demographic and cultural diversity of South Africa.

Rebecca at home in Cape Town, with Table Mountain in the background

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

I am involved in quite a lot of research projects, many of which are in collaboration with current or former students. In addition to my focus on skeletal morphology, I am involved in issues around decolonisation in palaeoanthropology. Disparities in wealth, opportunities and privileges in the discipline have meant that the demographic of who gets to ask and answer research questions has historically been, and still is, skewed to the West. These disparities have grown out of colonial/patriarchal practices, and their correlates, racism and sexism. We’re paying more attention to this globally, especially right now, but need to look at ourselves more critically, and especially how we as individuals and collectives continue to prop up these systems and impede the transformation of our discipline.  

Rebecca with her colleagues and her son in the field (left to right: Rebecca, Nomawethu Hlazo (PhD candidate), Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Dr. Job Kibii, her son Zane, Dr. Robyn Pickering) at the Cradle of Humankind in 2019.

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

My students, right through from undergraduates to PhD students. I am proudest of them and everything they have achieved, some despite considerable adversity that people in the Western world can’t fathom. I am especially proud of my PhD students, who are a beacon of hope in today’s world. 

Rebecca with some her current and former PhD students (left to right: Dr. Tessa Campbell, Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Dr. Riashna Sithaldeen, Rebecca, Robyn Humphreys (PhD candidate), Nomawethu Hlazo (PhD candidate), Dr. Kerryn Warren)

What is your favourite memory from your career?

One of the happiest days of my life happened in September 2009, when I sat my then four PhD students (Riashna Sithaldeen, Lauren Schroeder, Tessa Campbell and Wendy Black… all South African women who have since completed) down in my office to tell them I was going to have a baby for the first (and only) time. I was 40, and quite anxious to be pregnant. I know that may not seem like an academic highlight, but the outpouring of sheer joy that came from them really drove home the fact that we had created this supportive and inclusive space together. They also assured me that having a boy was for the best as none of them would have wanted me as a mother (LOL). I have been deeply privileged to have the opportunity to know them, and the cohort of young South African palaeoscience students more broadly

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in human evolution studies over the last 5 years?

Why, the fact that human evolution is so complex, of course! Hybridisation and chance have played a huge role in shaping hominin diversity. But let’s be honest, although this has received a lot of attention in recent years, the reality is that researchers – many from non-Western spaces – have been challenging simple models of hominin evolution (and especially human origins) for some time. We have simply gotten to a point where the genetics have supported previous hypotheses and made them more mainstream.

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

I love giving students opportunities and watching them grow. I love the freedom and flexibility academia gives me, and them, to explore their ideas, and to change. I don’t like the slow pace of social change in academia, and the fact that it is still largely a white man’s world. I deeply dislike the continuation of practises that prop up the systemic inequalities that resulted from colonial practices. It bothers me immensely that helicopter research is still rampant, with Westerners bringing their money and people into African countries, in many cases with relatively little engagement with Africans as peers (and not just workers). I would change that in a minute.

University of Cape Town Inaugural lecture for Full Professor

Conversations with: Dr Yoshi Maezumi

This week, I am delighted to introduce Dr Yoshi Maezumi, a palaeoecologist currently working at the University of Amsterdam! Yoshi is a Marie-Curie Fellow and National Geographic explorer, currently working on a project called: “FIREFire Intensity in Rainforest Ecotones”. Her research involves applying interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies to advance our understanding of long-term natural and anthropogenic paleoecological variability in the Neotropics. Yoshi also writes a blog called “Her Science”, which documents her experiences, adventures, and inspirations as a woman in science!

Dr Yoshi Maezumi, a palaeoecologist at the University of Amsterdam. Photo taken by: Jamieson Daley

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

I study human impacts on past and present ecosystems using an interdisciplinary methodology combining archaeology, archaeobotany, palaeoecology, and palaeoclimatology. While my primary research centers on past crop cultivation, agroforestry, and fire management in the Amazon and Caribbean, I am also involved with diverse collaborative projects utilizing similar multiproxy datasets to address questions of human-environment interactions in the United States, British Isles, Mediterranean, and Australia.

Yoshi examining rock art in Para, Brazil

What originally drew you towards palaeoecology? 

I started University as a dance major. However, after a bad car accident that ended my professional dancing aspirations, I decided to go to college to be an Archaeologist. I completed a double BA in Anthropological Archaeology and Religious Studies. During this time I conducted archaeological fieldwork in Jordan, Italy, Spain, and throughout the US. I completed a MA in Analytical Archaeology at CSU Long Beach. While conducting fieldwork in Guatemala, I had the opportunity to collect my first sediment cores in the mangroves near El Baul archaeological site and became increasingly interested in past human impacts on the environment. As I was learning palaeoecological proxies during my Masters, I went to train in charcoal analysis with Dr. Mitchell J. Power at the University of Utah who later became my PhD Supervisor.

What was your PhD topic and what were the findings from your PhD?

My PhD topic was: Climate, Vegetation, and Fire Linkages in the Bolivian Amazon. During my PhD, I used multi-proxy analytical techniques to reconstruct long-term natural and anthropogenic drivers of palaeoecological change in the Bolivian Amazon. My research represented the first long-term palaeoecological study from the Amazon cerrado savanna ecosystem.

After your PhD, where have you worked? Where has been your favourite place to work?

Following my PhD, I held a 3-year Post-doctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Exeter, UK with Prof. Jose Iriarte. During my post-doc, I began to integrate my training in archaeology and palaeoecology to examine past human land use as a driver of ecological change. Implementing an interdisciplinary approach combining palaeoecology, archaeology, archaeobotany, palaeoclimatology and botany, our team published one of the first multidisciplinary, high-resolution reconstructions of past human land use and fire management in the Amazon.

Following my post-doc, I held a one-year Lectureship position at the University of the West Indies teaching courses in Palaeoclimatology and Environmental Change. During this time, I was awarded an Early Career National Geographic Grant for my project Jamaica a Last Island Frontier. This project investigates the impact of human colonization on island biodiversity and fire activity on the island. Jamaica is one of my favorite places in the world. The people are warm and friendly, the research potential is extraordinary, and the surf is excellent.

Yoshi with a lake sediment core in Jamaica
Yoshi caving in Jamaica, collecting speleothems for palaeoclimatic reconstructions

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

Currently, my Marie Curie funded project FIRE: Fire Intensity in Rainforest Ecotones, investigates the role of ancient fire management in shaping the Bolivian rainforest-savanna boundary. Fire intensity (the maximum temperature of a fire) is a key component of post-fire recovery, however to date there is not a way to reconstruct fire intensity in past fire events.  My Marie Curie research is aimed at developing a state-of-the-art method using Fourier-Transform InfraRed (FTIR) spectroscopy to chemically analyse fossil charcoal to provide the first proxy to reconstruct past fire intensity. This research will be used to evaluate long-term ecological impacts of past indigenous fire use.

Yoshi conducting fieldwork in the Amazon, collecting samples from the 2019 fire season

I am starting the job hunt for a permanent position. My “dream-job” will enable me to continue my interdisciplinary research program and integrate this methodology into my teaching  curriculum to train the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists.

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

I think one of the things that opened-up the most doors for me was networking. I know not all students will have this luxury because of financial circumstances, but in each stage of my education,  I was willing to pay out of pocket to travel to meet researchers I wanted to work with and attend workshops on things I wanted to learn that were not offered in my home department.  This was how I met both my PhD and Post-doc supervisors and I met my current mentor, Dr. Will Gosling at a conference (the OSM/YSM meeting in Spain). We brainstormed the idea for my current Marie Curie project over coffee during that meeting. Additionally I applied for every little pool of funding I could to help pay for my research and travel to conferences. Small grants for two hundred dollars here and five hundred dollars there really builds up over time and looks great on your CV.

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in human evolution studies over the last 5 years?

Environmental DNA. To me, its like a paleoecology time machine sprinkled with unicorn magic (I joke). But seriously, the advances in ancient DNA over the past few years has revolutionized our understanding of the palaeorecord.

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

I taught yoga for about 10 years (one of my jobs in grad school). I would love to continue teaching yoga if I was not a scientist. I think I almost have enough free time to start teaching yoga again, so maybe I’ll get to do both!

Yoshi sampling sediment cores in Para, Brazil

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Conversations with: Professor Lluis Quintana-Murci

It is my absolute pleasure to introduce today’s guest, Professor Lluis Quintana-Murci, a population geneticist at the Pasteur Institute and Collège de France! He has led the Human Evolutionary Genetics Unit at the Pasteur Institute since 2007, and also currently holds the position of Professor of Human Genomics and Evolution at the Collège de France in Paris. Lluis is internationally renowned for his research on the genetic architecture of human populations and the role of genetic diversity in human adaptation. His team are particularly interested in how genomic data can be used to infer the past demographic history of our species, to explore how natural selection influences human diversity and to understand how pathogens have shaped human evolution.

Professor Lluis Quintana-Murci from the Pasteur Institute and Collège de France (Paris)

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

My area of expertise is human population genetics, with an emphasis on understanding both the demographic past of human populations and the various ways through which they have adapted to local environments – climatic, nutritional or pathogenic – all along their journey around the world. I am particularly interested in two areas of the world: Central Africa, which hosts the largest group of living hunter-gatherers (the so-called rainforest hunter-gatherers or ‘pygmies’) and, more recently, the Pacific.

I also have a strong interest in how pathogens and infectious diseases have shaped human evolution, since infectious agents have accompanied humans since their emergence in Africa. Understanding how natural selection imposed by pathogens has affected the diversity of our genomes is an alternative way to identify genes and biological functions that have play a key role in human survival against deadly infectious diseases, which highlights the value of dissecting the most natural experiment ever done: that of Nature.

In the context of selection and adaptation, I have a strong interest in how admixture, be it ancient or modern, has influenced human adaptation. In other words, when one faces a new environment to which they need to adapt, instead of waiting for an advantageous mutation to appear and increase in frequency in the population, why not rather admix with another population that already harbours the advantageous mutation in their gene pool? We have been quite focused on this topic over the last few years, in particular, on how ancient early Europeans acquired, though admixture with Neanderthals, advantageous variants involved in resistance to infectious diseases. 

What originally drew you towards evolutionary genetics?

A combination of many things. I grew up in Mallorca, an island of the Mediterranean, so my contact with nature was quite important. I liked the sea a lot and my mother used to show me documentaries about Jacques Cousteau and his sea explorations (that was the only way I shut up immediately…since I was a very, very chatty child). These things conditioned me to like nature and I wanted to be a marine biologist. At the same time, ever since I was a child, I have always been very attracted by other cultures and people speaking other languages. I remember listening carefully on the beach to the languages spoken by tourists. I did love that, it was my own way of traveling. I’ve felt attracted to human diversity since ever. All this, together with my strong interest in history and story-telling, naturally brought me to population and evolutionary genetics, where diversity, history and stories form the basis of it.

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

I did my PhD in the University of Pavia (Italy) under the direction of Silvana Santachiara-Benerecetti, one of the first students of Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Indeed, during the early 90’s where I was doing my PhD, Cavalli-Sforza spent a few months in the departments, swinging between Pavia and Stanford. It was a great place to do a PhD in population genetics, given the strong evolutionary and population genetics flavour of the whole department. Life-wise, it was less fun…having lived in Mallorca and Barcelona in the ‘post-movida’ 80’s period, living in a small provincial Italian city was like travelling back to the 50’s during my grandmother’s childhood! The topic of my PhD was the evolutionary history of eastern African populations through the study of mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome markers, which was the best you could do in population genetics in the early 90’s.

Lluis with Luca Cavalli-Sforza (the father of modern human population genetics) during his PhD in Italy (around 1998)

What were the findings from your PhD?

They were super cool. We first found a mitochondrial DNA marker of Indian origin in various Ethiopian populations, and we wondered whether it was the result of recent admixture or if it was an old lineage present in eastern Africa that was brought to India. By enlarging our sample sizes from eastern Africa and several Asian and European populations, we showed that indeed we had discovered an old marker that supported a coastal route out of Africa of modern humans 60,000 years ago, starting from the horn of Africa and following the coasts of south Asia. This was the first genetic evidence of a coastal route of exit of modern humans out of Africa, and was published in Nature Genetics in 1999.

After your PhD, where have you worked? Where has been your favourite place to work?

After my PhD, I have been essentially living in Paris all the time. In theory, I came here 20 years ago for a post-doc and I never left! Work-wise the Pasteur Institute is great, and Paris….is Paris! I immediately felt in love with this city. It is a good balance between a southern city and a northern city. Though don’t think that I am chauvinist, since I am not French! (well, I guess I am also French now). But seriously, I really like Paris both to work and to live. Having said that, I have spent periods in other cities as an invited researcher or professor. I have great memories of Tucson (Arizona) where I spent some months in Mike Hammer’s lab. I loved that city, a bit calm for my taste, but the nature was amazing. I also spent a summer at Rockefeller University two years ago…one of the best experiences of my life. I do love NYC!

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

We continue to work on the demographic and adaptive history of humans, but with a stronger focus now on the South Pacific. This region of the world is a land of contrasts, as it was first peopled just after the out-of-Africa exodus, around 45,000 years ago, then no immigration occurred until around 4,000 years ago when Austronesian-speaking peoples, most likely from Taiwan, entered the region. It is also super interesting that some populations from the Pacific present the highest worldwide levels of combined Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry. We are dissecting the demographic past of this region and exploring how the ‘archaic’ ancestry found in these populations participated in their adaptation to the island environments of the Pacific.

Lluis in Polynesia (2017), an area of the world where much of his research is now focussed.

On the other hand, we maintain a strong interest in immunity and infectious diseases. In particular, we are exploring the genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors that drive our differences in immune responses. We are all different, we are all diverse (fortunately!), and we want to understand the sources of such diversity. We are also studying how ethnic background, age, sex and metabolism influence our susceptibility to infection, using as a model influenza A virus and…SARS-CoV-2!

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

Just one. Be passionate. If you like science, all will come along perfectly. Because if you like science, you will naturally work hard on it. Some people really insist that we should maintain a good work-life balance. And this is very true. But sometimes I don’t really understand it, as I do many things in my life, science, writing, reading, gardening, watching movies, eating, etc…but when I do science, I don’t think “Now, time to work”. For me, science is totally integrated into my “life”. Hopefully that makes sense…. I guess what I mean is that the only healthy advice I can give is: if you like science, go for it, you will find a job and you will enjoy it. A bit of mobility also helps to find a job.

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

I am obviously biased but, for me, it has been the discovery, bolstered by the progress in paleogenomics, that admixture with ancient hominins like Neanderthals or Denisovans helped early modern humans to adapt to their local environments, a phenomenon known as ‘adaptive introgression’. As some of my colleagues say, ‘this part of Neanderthal that is within us’ helped early Eurasians to adapt to cold climates and pathogens, viruses in particular, among other phenotypes.

If you were not an evolutionary geneticist, what would you be?

That’s tricky. So many things. If I had to remain in science, I would be a marine biologist, my first passion, and work on the behavioural biology of Cetaceans. I am fascinated by the complexity of their social relationships as well as by their mode of communication. Outside of science, I would have liked to be a writer, which actually I do a lot in science anyway, and it is also something that I love. I like the mixed feeling of suffering and satisfaction that comes at the same time when writing. Yes, I would have liked to be a writer.

Conversations with: Professor Katerina Harvati

I am delighted to introduce today’s guest, Professor Katerina Harvati, a palaeoanthropologist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen! Katerina is the leader of the Palaeoanthropology group at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaoenvrionment (SCHEP), whose research focusses on Neanderthal paleobiology and modern human origins; functional anatomy, adaptation and relationship of skeletal morphology to genetics and environment in primates and humans; growth and development in human and non-human primates; and human skeletal analysis. Katerina’s research has contributed hugely to the understanding of how morphological variability relates to population history and the environment, and her recent work on the fossil human remains from Apidima Cave, Southern Greece, may have pushed back the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe by more than 150 thousand years!

Professor Katerina Harvati from the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen

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

In general I am interested in Pleistocene humans. I work mainly on Neanderthal evolution and paleobiology, as well as on modern human origins and the interactions between skeletal phenotype, population history and environment. But I find many topics fascinating, including primate evolution, life history, evolution of the brain and cognition, and more…

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I was always fascinated by the past. I always liked to imagine what it would have been like to live in another era and what the lives of past people would have been like. Growing up in Greece, I was of course surrounded by remnants of the past so this was something that was very natural for me. However I did not discover anthropology until University, and it became clear that this would be my major. I was hooked for good after my first experience in the field – at the Koobi Fora fieldschool back in 1993.

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

I did my PhD at the City University of New York and New York Consortium on Evolutionary Primatology (NYCEP). As part of NYCEP I worked mainly at the American Museum of Natural History, where I also held a PhD fellowship in Anthropology / Paleontology. I defended in 2001, and my topic was on the taxonomic position of Neanderthals using reference models and 3D geometric morphometrics approaches. My supervisor was Eric Delson.

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

I was very fortunate to secure a tenure track position at New York University. I was there from 2001 to 2004, when I was recruited to join the newly formed Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig as senior researcher. I stayed at the MPI until 2009, when I moved to the University of Tübingen as Full Professor, and I have been here ever since!

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

Well, there are quite a few! From trauma and stress patterns in the Paleolithic, to evolution of tool making behavior, to hybridization in the fossil record, to the paleoanthropology of Greece….and others.

I think there are so many interesting questions to be asked, especially in this exciting time of discovery in paleoanthropology, and I am delighted that my team and are lucky enough to work many different fascinating topics. 

What project or publication are you most proud of?

My first paper will always have a very special place in my heart, even though it was on a topic that I no longer work on, primate life history. This article was based on my Master’s thesis, and it was my first real research project, on colobine monkey dental eruption patterns. I submitted it in the late 1990s, and this was before submissions became electronic, so everything was sent in by post in hard copy, and the waiting times were very long. It was also before digital images, so I developed all the photographs myself from film at the American Museum of Natural History dark room, and had to do it over again a few times to get it just right! It was a labor of love and I was (and still am) very proud of it. 

Beyond that, I am also very happy and proud to have had the opportunity over the last two years to work, together with my team and my colleagues at the University of Athens, on the human fossils from Apidima, Southern Greece. These fossils are among the most important ever found in Greece, and it was a real pleasure and honour to be able to work on them and to produce our paper in Nature last year.

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

There have been so many new discoveries in recent years in paleoanthropology, including fantastic new fossils like Homo naledi or Homo luzonensis, or our own Apidima 1 early Homo sapiens specimen; as well as fascinating advances from paleogenomics and paleoproteomics that have been able to add such a great level of detail to our understanding of evolutionary processes in human evolution.  

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

I think that, given the scarcity of jobs in academia in general, and particularly in paleoanthropology, students really need to evaluate their priorities in life, especially if they are considering a serious and difficult commitment, such as a PhD. Students should be aware of the possibilities for funding and what the requirements for that would be. They should also research their prospective institution and supervisor: email this person and find out about their work and possibilities to work with them before making a decision. Talk to current students. Last but not least, say yes to opportunities that present themselves, and hunt every opportunity down: you never know the positive developments that they can lead to  – this has been my experience!

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

As I mentioned above, there have been tremendous changes in technology and the way we go about our everyday work, including the rise of the laptop computer, digital images and electronic articles and journals, and, more recently, open access publishing and digital data platforms, to mention a few big ones. There have been equally amazing advances in the scientific approaches and analyses that are now possible, from ancient DNA from fossil humans (considered impossible when I started my PhD in 1994) to microCT and surface scanning and 3d virtual anthropology. These are all amazing advances that have made it possible for our field to move forward by leaps and bounds. A downside of that is the increasingly rapid pace of scientific work, which reduces the time one can invest on digesting each announcement before the next one is made. 

There have been fewer changes in other aspects of academia: for example, although there are now more senior women than ever before in bioanthropology, paleoanthropology and human evolution remain male-dominated, and our field in general lacks in diversity. Nevertheless, I think some important steps have been taken towards addressing thorny issues in our discipline, such as sexual harassment or colonialist attitudes in research, for example. Twenty years ago even to talk about these issues would be nearly unthinkable.

Conversations with: Dr Shixia Yang

I am delighted to introduce today Dr Shixia Yang, a Palaeolithic archaeologist from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences! Shixia’s current research focuses on stone tool production techniques, raw material sourcing and human adaptation to different environments in East Asia. Recently, she was also granted a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to conduct research at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History between 2017 and 2019. 

Dr Shixia Yang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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

Generally, I am interested in human evolution in relation to climate change. I am a Palaeolithic archaeologist, and I devote a lot time to researching the evolution of human behaviour. Currently, my own research focuses on stone tools in Palaeolithic East Asia, and understanding how climate climatic change may have influenced stone tool production techniques, raw material sourcing and so on.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

During my first two years at university, I was fascinated by the exquisite bronzes of Shang Dynasty (also named Yin Shang, the Chinese dynasty in the second millennium BC). However, I changed my mind after my first field excavation in 2008 at the beginning of my third year of university, which is usually when students receive field training in China. We excavated a site containing cultural layers from historical periods to the Neolithic Age, but without Palaeolithic. It was then that I began to get curious to what the Palaeolithic age was like. To get more information about the Palaeolithic, I began to read more books about stone tools. I became deeply attracted to the different types of lithics and realised that Palaeolithic studies is closely related to geology, which was one of my favourite subjects in the high school. In 2009, I got the chance to visit the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). This is an institute where a group of archaeologists focus mainly on Palaeolithic and have large collection of lithics from different parts of China. In the following year, I entered IVPP as a PhD candidate for a five-year program.

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? How did you find your PhD experience?

I obtained my PhD at Institute of IVPP in April 2015. My PhD topic was on the Acheulean of the Dingcun site along Yellow River. I focussed on technique analysis and performed a knapping experimental study of the Dingcun assemblage.

At that time (2010-2012), the Acheulean in Eastern Asia was a big controversial issue. Only a few scholars in China supported my work. My supervisor, Yamei HOU, and I felt huge pressure from other colleagues but my supervisor really encouraged me to think and work independently. She also encouraged me to do exchange project with French research team. During my PhD, with the support of the Sino-French Program Cai Yuanpei, I had the chance to work and study in France with Prof. Jacques Pelegrin and Jacques Jaubert. They helped me learn a lot about stone tool manufacturing techniques and knapping experiments.

Finally, I published my paper on the Dingcun’s Acheulean and finished my PhD. My PhD was an important experience in learning how to break conventions and work hard on my own academic ideas.

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

After my PhD, I was still at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), however I moved to another institute, the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, and I began a post-doc research project within a geologic group. In that two years, I was the only archaeologist there, whilst others worked on chronology, geophysics, palaeoenvironments and geotectonics. It was a wonderful experience, as I learned how to work inter-disciplinarily and made some excellent friends. After two years, in July of 2017, I returned to IVPP, CAS, and became a permanent member there. In the same year, I received a Humboldt fellowship and so I worked at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History for two years till the end of 2019. Now I am back to China to continue my research work with the IVPP, CAS.

All of this has happened early in my academic career, during the first five years science I got my PhD. I feel very lucky to have been given the chance to work in different research institutions and learn from cooperative partners and enlightened supervisors working in different disciplines.

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

In the recent five years, I have been mainly working on a project titled: “Behavioral Adaptations of the Earliest Humans in East Asia”. I’ve been working on this project with Prof. Cheng-Long Deng (from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, CAS) and Prof. Michael Petraglia (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History) to understand early human behaviour and environmental influences on human evolution in the well-known Nihewan Basin. We have been trying to explain more details of Early Pleistocene hominin behaviour in eastern Asia, and link it to the changing climate in the region.

On the Losses Plateau, I have worked with Prof. Zhaoyu Zhu, Prof. Robin Dennell and Prof. Weiwen Huang. We recently reported the earliest appearance of hominins outside Africa at the site of Shangchen in Nature, and the oldest artefacts are dated to about 2.12 Ma.

Shixia taking part in field investigations in eastern Asia

Currently, I am also working with Dr. Jianping Yue and Prof. Li Youqian on the topic of “The Environmental changes and behavioral adaptation of hunter-gather in Northeastern China.”. Northeast China is situated at the crossroads between North China, Mongolia, the Russian Far East, the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, and the site is characterised by the high sensitivity to climatic fluctuations during the Late Pleistocene to early Holocene. It is a really great project!

I am looking forward to making more exciting archaeological findings and enriching the Palaeolithic story of eastern Asia. At the same time, I would love to know more about how human adapts to different environments in the future.

What do you like the most about being in the field?

For me, field archaeology is wonderful combination of manual and mental work, and it takes me close to the nature, which is important to me. My favourite memories from the field are always related to the beautiful sunset after a whole day excavation.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am very proud of joining the team that led to the discovery of the earliest stone tools in eastern Asia. I would also say that the Loess-Paleosols sequence is amazing and looking for stone tools in the deepest section is one of the best things I have ever done.

During the 2018 field trip to the Loess Plateau

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

Recently, with the development of ancient DNA techniques, I have seen a series of important publications which have really refreshed our knowledge of early humans. For example, the publication The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father in 2018 deeply changed what we can know about extinct hominins – I think this is a really revolutionary discovery

What would you be if you were not an archaeologist?

 When I was a teenager, my ideal career was to become a diplomat. After starting university, I found myself more inclined to work on something close to the nature (plants or animals), so maybe a botanist!

Conversations with: Dr Pontus Skoglund

Today’s guest is Dr Pontus Skoglund, an evolutionary geneticist at the Francis Crick Institute! Pontus is the group leader of the Ancient Genomics Laboratory , which applies and develops ancient genomics to understand past human diversity, primarily focusing on major evolutionary events and their impact on human societies and health. Originally from Sweden, he obtained his PhD from Uppsala University in 2013, and thereafter did his postdoctoral research in David Reich’s laboratory at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics. His research covers a range of topics within evolutionary genetics, such as the link between population migrations and the global transition to agriculture, archaic gene flow, early human evolution in Africa, the peopling of the Americas, and the origin of domestic dogs.

Dr Pontus Skoglund from the Francis Crick Institute in London

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

I work on ancient genomics, specializing in making sense of ancient DNA data, and the issues that come with it, to learn about genomic history, adaptation, and the human past.

What originally drew you towards evolutionary genetics? 

As a kid, I probably visited the Swedish Museum of Natural history in Stockholm over 20 times, but I can’t say that I always knew what I wanted to do. I was always interested in evolution because it relates to who us humans are, but also has a few almost-mechanistic forces (for example mutation) that makes it reminiscent of another topic I really liked in school: physics. So I was very drawn to evolutionary genetics but also conflicted about its historical legacy, which includes eugenics. There was a vibe of biological determinism associated with genetics that was uncomfortable, but it seemed genuinely interesting how we can understand ourselves as the product of both evolution/biology and our social surroundings. Today I think that the more people that enter fields with historical legacies like that, the better. Evolutionary genetics is very exciting in that it crosses perspectives: the past and the future, paleoanthropology and biomedicine.

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

I started my PhD with Mattias Jakobsson at Uppsala University in 2009, and finished in 2013. I had done an MSc project on ancient DNA with Anders Götherström before that and was very attracted to the temporal data that ancient DNA promised. In 2009, ancient DNA was almost laughed at, and seen as a niche pursuit among human geneticists. But for those who looked beyond that there was already evidence that genomic sequencing was possible in principle. In any case, I thought that it would be more important to learn to work with large-scale genomic data for that eventual future, and thought it could be a great opportunity to work with Mattias, and it was. When I started, I didn’t really have a project, just to study human genomes, probably from the present-day, to understand history. 

What were the findings from your PhD?

What ended up being the central project was that my thesis co-advisor Anders Götherström and his group had for long been interested in the question of whether farming practice spread through Europe by migrating human groups or as a viral idea, ’memes or genes’. In Scandinavia, people practicing farming and foraging coexisted close together around 5,000 years ago. At the time, there were no ancient human genomes and it seemed that ancient genomes were for huge projects like the Saqqaq genome and the Neandertal genome, both published later in 2010. How could we use this clearly amazing thing that was next-generation sequencing of ancient DNA to do ‘proper’ human statistical genetics, not just of mitochondrial DNA? It seemed nearly impossible to deal with the contamination issue, there was just no way to know nuclear DNA was real unless a high-quality genome could be obtained, or the genome was of a rare ancestry that could not be from contaminating people. Nevertheless, I suggested trying out the direct sequencing approach that we had worked on during my MSc thesis on Anders’ material, as a direct test of whether the two cultural groups reflected different populations.

Sequencing complete genomes would cost a fortune, since the DNA is so poorly preserved, but maybe even just about 1% of random sequences scattered across the genome of each individual could be enough. Since we didn’t have to directly compare each ancient individual to the others, we could use the medical databases of living people’s genomes to connect the dots, and Mattias was an expert in that type of data. The results were quite astonishing to us, prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Scandinavia did not match the genetic makeup of any populations in Europe today, but they were most similar to people in the northern parts of Europe. Farming-associated individuals shared close ancestry with present-day people in the Mediterranean. The data thus suggested Neolithic groups spread across the European continent without much influence from the local people. What I was most excited about was a solution to the contamination problem: I isolated the sequences that showed clear signs of ancient DNA degradation computationally and showed that the results were the same, which was a new approach that is now common. Then, I ended up spending the rest of my PhD working on improving these methods for dealing with modern contamination, and using the analysis approaches on collaborative projects with others, on questions ranging from present-day variation in southern Africa with Mattias and Carina Schlebusch, to remove contamination from a Neandertal sequenced by Johannes Krause and Svante Pääbo, and to help on Eske Willerslev’s projects on genomes from the Americas, which were all very exciting too.

After your PhD, where have you worked? Where has been your favourite place to work?

After my PhD I worked as a postdoc in David Reich’s lab at Harvard University which was a wonderful and highly rewarding experience, and then I moved to my current work at the Francis Crick Institute. As a place and building, my favourite would be the Crick, it is very inspiring and a great place to be a part of the UK archaeo-scientific community.

The Ancient Genomics Lab at the Francis Crick Insitute

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

One of our main interests is to study the past few thousand years of a region in some detail with full genomes: Britain. The reason is not only the detailed archaeological record and community here, but also that the #1 resource in medical genetics is the UK biobank of half a million people. We are hoping to understand genomic history in detail, but also bring ancient genomics and medical genetics together by learning about the evolution of diseases and traits over all the complexities of history. We are also interested in working on the frontier to obtain ancient genome and proteome information from times and places where it is very hard to get it to understand deeper human evolution.

As a geneticist, do you approach questions about the past differently to an archaeologist or anthropologist?

I think most similarly to paleoanthropologists, as we are often studying patterns that occur on the time scale of population history, hundreds or thousands of years. I have been in constant interaction with archaeologists and anthropologists since the beginning of my PhD. It is always very exciting, and face-to-face it is always pleasant to talk with the most genetics-sceptical of archaeologists. A lot of the perceived differences are communicative, but there are also differences in perspectives. To many, and to me as I considered starting in the field, genetics also has a vibe of the old politically-driven race sciences. It is our responsibility to overcome it. A person who was an early role model for me in this was Carina Schlebusch in Uppsala, in how she approached genetic studies of the past in southern Africa. 

Is ancestry the most important thing to understand about the human past? Probably not, but all archaeologists and anthropologists I know agree that it would be an amazing information resource to know the parents of everyone who ever lived, the grand weave of human ancestry. Ancient DNA is the closest we can get to that. 

Do you work on other projects outside of human evolution studies?

I have been interested in the origin of dogs for a long time, since I was an MSc student. When and where it happened is unknown, to me it is one of the major remaining ‘known mysteries’ of the Upper Paleolithic that should be possible to solve with ancient DNA. We have an ongoing project in the lab on ancient dog and wolf genomes and are hoping to understand the original domestication process, how wolves and dogs evolved over the past 100,000 years, and how tracking dog DNA can teach us new things about human history.

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

Setbacks and rejections are inevitable, and though it may seem so, almost no one is born with a thick skin. As Paul Nurse, our director here at the Crick, says, most hypotheses are wrong so research is about failing again and again, and university doesn’t really prepare you for that. I would also say that reading the best papers in your field is like cardio to a researcher, and the best way to lead you into developing the right technical skills and identifying interesting questions. Be sincere in your research, be proud of the scientific ethos of finding the truth. Finally I would invest some time in quantitative and computational skills, useful in any discipline related to human evolution.

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

For the readers here who may be most interested in deeper human evolution, I would say the finding of particular individuals such as the Oase 1 individual from Romania that has a very recent Neanderthal ancestor, and the archaic human person from Denisova cave that has both a Neanderthal and a Denisovan parent. Until these individual finds, admixture between evolutionarily distant human populations has been somewhat of a statistical abstraction, with many unknowns. While these finds confirmed processes that were in principle already known by statistical analyses of other genomes, I think they provide stable data points that are rare in a field where it can be difficult for many to distinguish between reliable and exaggerated statistical claims.

If you were not an evolutionary geneticist, what would you be?

Within research I would have a hard time picking another topic. I would have enjoyed studying computer science more closely, and perhaps worked on something more directly oriented towards the human future rather than the past.

Conversations with: Professor Michael Petraglia

Today, it is my pleasure to introduce my next guest, Professor Michael Petraglia, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History! Michael’s research is interdisciplinary and covers a range of subjects concerning human evolution, such as the evolution of cognition and behaviour, and the relationship between climate change and hominin dispersals. He has directed archaeological field projects in Africa and Asia, primarily in the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, and is also part of the Human Origins Programme Team at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History.

Professor Michael Petraglia taking a break with the iconic falcon in Saudi Arabia

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

I think of myself as an interdisciplinary archaeologist, meaning that I integrate a wide range of disciplines into my research. While the core of my research is in archaeology, my publications reflect collaborations with a wide range of researchers in the earth sciences, biological anthropology and genetics. I am currently involved in projects of all sorts, ranging from the earliest occupations of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, to the review of the Pleistocene hominin record of China, to the adaptation of Holocene pastoral communities in Arabia. In particular, I have an intense interest in the origin and dispersal of our species, Homo sapiens, so my projects involve the excavation of Panga ya Saidi in Kenya, the investigation of Middle Palaeolithic sites in Saudi Arabia, and research on the Late Pleistocene record of South Asia, now mostly centered on cave and coastal excavations in Sri Lanka. 

What originally drew you towards archaeology and human evolution studies specifically? 

My interest in archaeology began when I was very young, and I was somewhat obsessed with the cultural history of Egypt. My sister Maria gave me a book on mummies, and my bedroom shelves eventually filled with books on Egyptian dynasties.

My interest in human evolution began when I was a teenager and I was awed with the book, Origins by Leakey and Lewin (1977). My sister Maria frequently purchased tickets to attend public lectures on the evolution of primates and humans at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, where I got to hear first-hand accounts from Richard Leakey, Jane Goodall, Cliff Jolly and other famous anthropologists.

My first archaeological field work was in New York where I grew up. I had the chance to excavate Native American and historic sites with local museums and universities. While I was an undergraduate in Anthropology at NYU, I took archaeology courses with Howard Winters (a key figure in the ‘New Archaeology’) and Noel Boaz (who was working on the Pleistocene of North Africa, and who oversaw my dissection of a chimpanzee!).  During my undergraduate years at NYU, I volunteered at the AMNH working with the curator David Hurst Thomas, who set me up on a project in Nevada with Bob Kelly, then a doctoral student at Michigan. During my participation in the Great Basin surveys, I was positively influenced by Lewis Binford’s students, and soon after, I moved to Albuquerque as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico.

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? How did you find your PhD experience?

I attended the University of New Mexico for my Masters and doctoral degrees. One of the main reasons I went to UNM was to study with the ‘Father of the New Archaeology’, Lewis Binford. At UNM, I was enthused to listen to Binford’s stimulating lectures relating to many aspects of archaeology, human origins and early human behaviours. Binford’s lectures were rather astounding as he was a talented orator.

Though I had planned to do my PhD with Binford, Lawrence Straus invited me to work with him in France, which I took up immediately! My PhD topic was on site formation processes at the Abri Dufaure, a Magdalenian site in southwest France. In the 1980s, the topic of site formation was all the rage, so I designed field plot experiments in Jemez, New Mexico, to observe how natural processes interacted with artefacts, moving and burying them. I was able to write this experimental work up as part of an independent study with Straus and this is what eventually led me to his excavation in France. I centered my PhD on evaluating the formation of Abri Dufaure’s rockshelter and slope deposits, but more than that, I was exposed to Palaeolithic archaeology for the very first time, which I found completely fascinating.

Mike recording excavations at the Abri Dufaure, Southwest France (1984). Lawrence Straus in lower right hand corner. 

While at UNM, the well-known Indian archaeologist, K. Paddayya, came to Albuquerque to learn more about the topic of site formation. Paddayya invited me to India to help him assess his Lower Palaeolithic sites in southern India, and so I travelled there during my postdoctoral work at the Smithsonian, leading so some great discoveries of intact Acheulean sites.

 Excavation of the Acheulean site of Isampur Quarry, Hunsgi Valley, India in the 90s. K. Paddayya on lower left.

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

Towards the end of my PhD in New Mexico, I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship with Rick Potts at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. I landed the postdoc in 1987, and while this was only a one year fellowship, I have since been associated with the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program. The postdoc was a critical position for me, as had the opportunity to evaluate Bed I and II sites in Olduvai Gorge. It also allowed me to travel to India to conduct Palaeolithic archaeology over many years. At the same time, I became fascinated with the Palaeolithic collections, which were amassed since the 19th century, though poorly known to outsiders. Rick and I ended up writing a book on the history behind the Smithsonian’s Palaeolithic collections. Alongside my research at the museum, I got involved in Cultural Resources Management work, mostly centred in eastern North America, though also involving national and international work. I eventually became the Manager of the Cultural Resources Program in the Parsons Corporation, overseeing large-scale archaeology projects, providing me with valuable administrative skills I use to this day.

Though I was happily working in Washington, D.C. for 14 years, I felt the need to change direction, and teach. It was at this moment that an email from Rob Foley hit my inbox, advertising a Lecturership at the University of Cambridge. Soon after, I found myself as a Lecturer in the new Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge. The lectureship expanded my research horizons tremendously, as I designed courses which entailed teaching about hominin fossil record and genetics. As I was married to the archaeologist, Nicole Boivin, we were in search of a dual hire opportunity, which eventually landed us in the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. I took up the position of Co-Director of the new Oxford Centre for Asian Archaeology, Art, and Culture. Oxford exposed me to exemplary research in dating and environmental reconstruction, which I apply to my projects to this day.

While we were at Oxford, my wife Nicky was offered the post of Director of a new Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. We were offered an attractive dual hire package and so we took up our posts in 2016. We are currently based in Jena, where we engage with a vibrant community of archaeologists, including many interdisciplinary researchers from around the world. 

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

The core of my work in the last 10 years has been in Saudi Arabia, a key geographic bridge between Africa and the rest of Eurasia. This has been a terrific project, and our team has made a number of key discoveries. This project is expanding in scope in recent years thanks to the leadership efforts of Dr. Huw Groucutt and Dr. Maria Guagnin, and we are now turning to cave sites and to early and middle Holocene sites, which will provide us with important new information on climate change, dispersals, and inter-regional connections. 

Mike with team members in Saudi Arabia, pictured here are Dr. Huw Groucutt, Dr. Mathew Stewart, and Dr. Richard Clark-Wilson. 

I have been working closely with members of the IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences on the Pleistocene record of Eastern Asia. Together with Dr. Shi-Xia Yang and colleagues, we have published on the famous Nihewan Basin sites and now we are turning our attention to the extraordinary Late Pleistocene record, which is so exciting given how little we know about the dispersal of Homo sapiens into the region. 

Our work at Panga ya Saidi in the coastal upland of Kenya has been wonderful, as the cave site has revealed an impressive Middle and Later Stone Age record extending over 80,000 years. The cave is in a tropical ecotone setting, which suggests it may have been a refuge during difficult times, and so in the next few years we will expand our investigations to better understand human adaptations through time. 

Our work in Sri Lanka continues to draw my attention thanks to the talent of my PhD student, Oshan Wedage. Our work on cave sites, dating back to 45,000 years ago, has shown that modern humans were living in rainforests. We have now begun to excavate coastal sites, and this work is showing an even longer record of human occupation. In future years, we hope to conduct more field work, allowing us to compare and contrast rainforest and coastal records.

What has been your favourite memory from the field?

One of my favourite memories was when our team first visited the Jubbah oasis in Saudi Arabia. As soon as we began surveying, we found multiple, intact Middle Palaeolithic sites . These were some of the first stratified and dated Palaeolithic sites found in Saudi Arabia and in association with an ancient lake. We were previously told there were no palaeolakes in Arabia, and now our satellite work estimates up to 10,000 palaeolakes and wetlands were present, many with fossils and archaeological finds. 

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am particularly proud of our article on the Toba volcanic super-eruption, published in Science in 2007. This article set the tone for a number of debates that I am still involved in, including on the timing of out of Africa dispersals and the effect of the super-eruption on hominins and ecosystems. 

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

Though not without controversy, I think the discovery of 3.3 million-year old tools in eastern Africa is incredibly exciting. Given my own interest in primate archaeology, tool use and the evolution of behaviour, I would think that we are still missing an archaeological record that may go back millions of years earlier than we currently realise. One of my ex-students at Cambridge, Professor Susana Carvalho (featured here last week!) is doing fantastic work in this area.

What would you be if you were not an archaeologist?

I would likely be in a field having something to do with life on Earth. In high school and during my undergraduate years, I took a number of classes in marine biology and coastal palaeontology. Visits to ancient reefs, now in the forests of upstate New York, were mind-blowing experiences, and I continue to look back on these class trips with great fondness.