Conversations with: Professor Susana Carvalho

I am very pleased to introduce this week’s guest, Professor Susana Carvalho, a primatologist and palaeoanthropologist at the University of Oxford! Susana is the head of Primate Models for Behavioural Evolution Lab at Oxford, and has directed the Paleo-Primate Project Gorongosa in Mozambique since 2015, leading an interdisciplinary team to carry out an unprecedented approach to understanding human origins and adaptations. She was also one of the main founders of the field of primate archaeology, studying the stone-tool use of non-human primates to understand the origins of cultural behaviour.

Professor Susana Carvalho at Gorogonsa in Mozambique. Taken by Luke Stalley

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

I am very interested in early human evolution and fascinated by extant non-human primates. So far, I have focused my career studying the origins and evolution of technology, of bipedalism and currently I am interested in using extant primates to understand more about the evolution of predatory behaviours in hominins.

What originally drew you towards archaeology and human evolutionary studies?

My first degree was in archaeology and I worked for 7 years as an archaeologist before deciding to pursue an MSc in Human Evolution. I was always fascinated with exploration and discoveries. I dreamed of exploring inaccessible places, and truly loved history, how powerful and ground-breaking was the knowledge of our ancestors. I still think that is the case! I think I could have pursued multiple paths, as long as it would include some quest to explore something difficult and new. I grew up in Portugal, just after the dictatorship ended, during a time when David Attenborough documentaries started to expand our horizons about the natural world, and when Indiana Jones stirred an entire generation (it is true, no matter how shallow that idea now sounds!). I was also an avid reader, and loved travel stories, early explorers’ diaries, books on the pre-classics and classic societies, and basically any mysterious account of a faraway place. But, archaeology per se became, to some extent, a disillusionment. I realised I was much more interested in the lives of the humans behind the objects that we were digging. The first degree in Human Evolution in Portugal had recently opened in Coimbra and I decided to take my chances and apply. Somehow, I convinced Prof. Eugenia Cunha that I could do the degree despite my background in Humanities. 

Why did you decide to do a PhD? Was your PhD experience what you had expected? 

I did not decide to do a PhD and I had little intention of pursuing a career in academia! For my Masters, I ended up spending 6 months in Guinea Conakry to do my dissertation on the chaine operatoire of wild chimpanzee nut-cracking. I presented the results at a conference in Lisbon. I got an email from Bill McGrew a few days later asking me if I had considered doing a PhD in Cambridge…it is a long story, but I left my permanent job and my house and went to Cambridge to start my PhD in 2007. My experience was way beyond anything I could have imagined, even in my wildest dreams! I spent about 2 years in Guinea with the chimpanzees, punctuated by summers at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, a 3-month fellowship in Japan, and so much more. It was a full immersion in everything I love to do, studying wild primates and exploring paleoanthropological sites, surrounded by an excellent group of colleagues and mentors, with the feeling that I was truly pushing the boundaries of something. Of course, retrospectively this all sounds great, but field work time was really hard and challenging, and personal life changed substantially during this period, so there were many adjustments and balls to keep in the air! I did feel that starting my PhD at an older age and my previous working experience may have buffered me against some of the stresses of multi-tasking and gave me a different perspective on the ‘relative’ importance of doing a PhD.

Studying wild chimpanzee stone tool use in Bossou, Guinea (2009)

What were the findings from your PhD?

Overall, my discovery that the nut-cracking sites of chimpanzees matched, to a great extent, the strategies of use and exploitation of resources that had been described for early hominin sites. I reported for the first time the variation of tool types depending on the nut species targeted, the chimpanzee preference for reusing composite-tools, and the distribution and density of tools at chimpanzee nut-cracking sites. Of relevance were also the new chimpanzee nut-cracking sites I found in a very unexplored forest of Guinea (Diecké). In terms of technological-related behaviours, I found that chimpanzees increase their bipedal locomotion when transporting foods (nuts/papayas) that are valuable and unpredictable – that was a nice test of the carrying hypothesis done in the wild.

Susana measuring chimpanzee tools with her colleague, Boniface Zogbila. Taken by Jules Dore

After your PhD, what positions have you held and on what kinds of projects? 

I was a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) at Clare Hall College, when I was still a PhD student at Cambridge, then briefly moved to a Post-doctoral position at Oxford on an ERC project named “Primate Archaeology”, and from there I moved to the USA where I was a post-doc at George Washington University, with Bernard Wood (that you just interviewed here!). This corresponds to a short period of less than 3 years, and the projects were all expansions of my Primate Archaeology original work, now thinking of applying the methods and principles to perishable tools, comparing sites, and taking the search for the ‘Older than the Oldowan’ seriously in eastern Africa.

You are one of the main founders of the field of primate archaeology: what exactly is primate archaeology? Why is it important for understanding human evolution?

Primate archaeology (unlike the archaeology of primates!) requires scientists trained in both fields. It aims to model the evolution of technological behaviour in the primate 0rder through a combination of methods to record behaviours and tools while they are being used and after use. It also addresses processes of site formation in vivo and focuses on strategies of exploitation of resources in the tool using areas. Technological evolution has been intrinsically linked to hominin evolution, but we have written our archaeology books without considering our primate living relatives, who can be excellent tool users and are leaving behind important archaeological sites. I can just name a few ‘micro-revolutions’ that have happened since 2007, directly related with the research developed by Primate Archaeologists: systematic surveys to find archaeological sites older than 2.6 Ma — and the acceptance that technology is not an exclusive of our genus; excavations of non-human primate sites that date back thousands of years; the discovery that monkeys unintentionally flake tools leaving those ‘archaeological’ signatures behind and, more recently, the discovery that perishable tools may be detected in the archaeological records via durable scarifications left in the raw material sourced – this will open an entire new branch within Primate Archaeology. I think the best and more impactful is still to come, as we start to accept that not all archaeological sites have to be human, and we do not have to continue restricted to behaviours encased in stone tools. I like to think we are picking up on an interdisciplinary spirit started by Louis Leakey. He was at the forefront of the first primatological field studies with great apes, while working in the East African Rift System (EARS) and focusing on studying past evidence of human evolution.

Susana with Rene Bobe and Zeray Alemseged at Gorongosa (2017). Taken by Luke Stalley

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

My main project now is the Paleo-Primate Project Gorongosa (PPPG). I like to think this is a truly interdisciplinary project in the EARS where researchers working with present and past data are collecting very different sets of information that will contribute to answer common questions about our origins. To do this you need a “Gorongosa”: a place with a modern mosaic of habitats and exceptional biodiversity, but also with fossil sites and with a diversity of contexts, including open air sites and caves. Gorongosa has it all and is located in a geographic zone that is critical to understand our biogeography. Within the PPPG, I co-direct excavations at our Miocene fossil sites, and I also conduct primatological research (with baboons), focusing on bipedalism and predatory behaviour. I continue to work in a series of projects within the Primate Archaeology framework, with ongoing collaborations in Guinea, Kenya, South Africa and Germany. I like to focus on the present, but I hope the Paleo-Primate Project will open novel ways of working and, most importantly, that I may see my Mozambican students leading our research and bringing prosperity to the region linked to the many discoveries we are making!

Following baboons at Gorongosa (2016)

What is the Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate Field School? What have been your favourite memories from this project? 

Our field school started in 2018 and is a collaboration between the University of Oxford and Gorongosa National Park. We provide training in primatology, paleoanthropology, archaeology, geology, speleology and ecology – and I think we may be the only field school covering all these disciplines. The field school is well integrated with the PPPG and students are able to develop their own UG or PG projects in connection to the project and mentored by a senior expert in one of the disciplines. I wanted this to be as inclusive as we can: we don’t charge tuition fees, and we help students applying to small grants to cover the expenses. 50% or more of the students are from Mozambique. I have too many wonderful memories, the day when we found our first fossil site, the day we found our first primate fossil, the first time we were able to follow baboons and actually see what they do, the nights around the campfire, that day when I found a lion on foot about 20 m from me…all the wonderful people that I have been able to meet and work with in Gorongosa – I have the best time there working with the best people.

Fieldwork at Gorongosa (2018)

What other projects are being conducted in the Primate Models for Behavioural Evolution Lab at the University of Oxford?

The lab has grown so much since 2016. We have almost 20 researchers at present. What is common to all is a shared interest in primates, the evolution of behaviour and human evolution. There are so many exciting projects, just to name a few: the archaeology of the perishable (Alejandra Pascual-Garrido), the ecology of stone tool use (Katarina Almeida-Warren), chimpanzee technological efficiency (Sophie Berdugo), behavioural responses to predation pressure (Philippa Hammond), cognition and culture in primate play (Alex Mielke), computer vision and machine learning approaches to finding fossil sites (João Coelho), our ancestors climate as a predictor of habitat change (Thomas Püschel). I recommend visiting our page and exploring all the ongoing research!

If you weren’t a primatologist/paleoanthropologist, what career would you choose?

A naturalist – it is sadly going extinct due to the pressures of this crazy world that does not allow scientists to take time to study their subjects in much depth. But I used to be a DJ in my free time (!) and I would have been happy working in the music world or cooking (Portuguese food!).

Conversations with: Professor Bernard Wood

I am delighted to introduce today’s guest, Professor Bernard Wood, a comparative anatomist and palaeoanthropologist at George Washington University (GWU). Bernard originally trained in medicine at the University of London before moving into full time research and teaching. He also previously worked at the University of Liverpool and was appointed Dean of the Medical School before moving to the USA in 1997. As well as holding the position of Professor of Human Origins at GWU, he is an Adjunct Senior Scientist at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution. His research focuses on hominin systematics, and in particular on ways to improve the reliability of hypotheses about the relationships among fossil hominins. He is also interested in improving the accessibility of information about the hominin fossil record.

Professor Bernard Wood of George Washington University (Image: George Washington University).

What is your particular area of expertise within anthropology?

I am a biological anthropologist who is interested in the earlier stages of human evolutionary history — once fossils look at all like modern humans, I lose interest. I use my training and expertise in primate and human anatomy to interpret the human fossil record. My main questions are how many taxa are represented, and how are those taxa related. I would dearly like to know how you can reliably tell the ancestors of modern humans from their non-ancestral close relatives. The early hominin taxon that intrigues me is Paranthropus boisei. They are especially weird creatures that lived at the same time as early Homo. Most researchers steer clear of them because they are almost certainly not the ancestors of modern humans, but that is precisely what makes them appealing to me. What were they doing so successfully for a million years, or so?

You have pursued a dual career in Human Anatomy and Palaeoanthropology.  How did you become interested in evolutionary questions?

That interest began when I was taking classes for an undergraduate degree in Anatomy when I was a medical student. I enjoyed, and was good at, anatomy, so I figured I should do something I was likely to be successful at. I had studied evolution in A-level biology at school, but I had no special interest in natural history, nor was I one of those children who was fascinated by natural history museums. But I enjoyed learning about living and fossil primates in a class taught by John Napier. Michael Day taught a separate course about human evolution, and I was intrigued by the idea that fossil evidence might help us understand how we, modern humans, came to be such an odd ape. Michael Day gave me a foot bone from Olduvai to analyze for my project, and it resulted in a paper — not a very good one — that launched my career as a palaeoanthropologist. I was still planning to be a surgeon, but for a whole bunch of reasons palaeoanthropology won out.

What was your PhD experience like?

I realized that if I wanted to be an academic I needed to have a PhD, but I was already working as a Junior Lecturer teaching anatomy to medical students, as preparation for taking the first part of the FRCS exams. I lectured five or six times a week in the morning, and we spent every afternoon, except Wednesdays, teaching in the dissecting room, so I could only collect the data for my PhD during the student holidays. I had been assigned the task of making sense of the cranial remains from East Turkana, so decided to try to understand as much as I could about intraspecific variation, and in particular sexual dimorphism. The conventional wisdom was that most of the differences within species were size differences, whereas among species the differences were a mixture of size and shape. It turns out that shape differed within as well as among species, but the shape differences within species were mostly predictable, because they were due to allometry acting on size differences. I am not a naturally quantitative person, so I was especially grateful to a colleague, Michael Clarke, who became a close friend, for helping me understand multivariate analysis, which in the early 1970s was still in its infancy.

Looking at newly-recovered hominin fossils, brought down to Nairobi by Don Johanson from Hadar in 1973, at the old Center for Prehistory and Palaeontology at the National Museums of Kenya. From left to right, Tim White, Richard Leakey, Bernard Wood and Don Johanson. Photo by Bob Campbell

At Liverpool, you developed a hominid palaeontology group over several years. What were the interests of this group?

It was part of generally ramping up research in what was mainly a teaching-oriented department. I tried to recruit people for the Hominid Palaeontology Research Group with interests that complemented mine. Robin Crompton was interested in functional morphology, and Gabriele Macho in life history. We also had post-docs — for example Fred Spoor and Alan Turner — and graduate students who also broadened the HPRG’s research interests. Joan Taylor in Archaeology and the folks in Earth Sciences added to the breadth of research interests relevant to human evolution at Liverpool, and Joan helped recruit John Gowlett.

At East Turkana you worked alongside other well-known scientists, especially Richard Leakey and Glynn Isaac.  Do you look on that as a ‘golden era’ of exploring for early hominins?

I am more interested in the analysis of fossil evidence, than in its discovery and recovery, but the opportunity to spend time at East Turkana gave me an invaluable perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the fossil, archeological and contextual evidence for human evolution. First Richard, and then Glynn and Richard, assembled an impressive group of mainly young researchers to help collect and interpret the evidence. Apart from my role in interpreting the fossil hominins, I was mainly an onlooker with respect to the fieldwork. But, the chance to be out in the field with Kay Behrensmeyer surveying the locations where hominins had been found, and working on the team with Glynn on his ‘Scatter between the patches’ project, provided me with crash courses on stratigraphy and archeology. More than that, discussions in the field, and over the dinner table, with these and other fine scientists, provided me with a valuable scientific education. Richard Leakey’s generosity enabled my career; Glynn Isaac was a major influence on the way I approach my research.

Consultations in the field during the Earliest Man and Environments in the lake Rudolf Basin conference in 1973.  From left to right, John Harris, Richard Leakey, Meave Leakey, Glynn Isaac, Ian Findlater and Jack Harris. Taken by Bernard Wood

What projects are you currently involved with? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

I enjoy sifting through fossil evidence, and then identifying tractable research questions. I come up with many more questions than I have the talent or time to pursue, so my strategy has been to try and interest students and post-docs to do the real work. My current research interests are the ones I listed in response at the beginning. How can we squeeze more information out of the fossil record to help us be less ignorant about human evolution? With respect to phylogeny reconstruction, I would dearly like to know what aspects of hard-tissue morphology are ‘signal’ and what are ‘noise’? If I had my time again, I think I would have paid more attention to ‘evo-devo’ questions. For example, how is development modified in P. boisei to make its dental enamel so thick, and its premolars into molars?

What do you enjoy the most about being a paleoanthropologist?

Although I ended up taking mostly science classes at school, my real interest was history. I liked reading about, and trying to understand, what happened in the past, but most of all, what was it like in the past. Being a paleoanthropologist is like being a historian. You are trying to reconstruct evolutionary history from scraps of evidence. You need to understand the limitations of that evidence, as well as the opportunities it provides. You also need to be aware of the different scales involved. How can you responsibly extrapolate from an individual, or even a few individuals, to a species, or from evidence from one lake basin to a continent? The other enjoyable aspect of being a paleoanthropologist is working with other paleoanthropologists, who, with a few exceptions, are smart and generous people.

Richard Leakey in 1972 at the National Museums of Kenya. In his right hand he is holding KNM-ER 406, belonging to Paranthropus boisei, and in his left KNM-ER 1470, belonging to Homo rudolfensis. Photo by Bob Campbell

Which of your several major monographs, and an encyclopaedia, do you regard as your most worthwhile accomplishment?

That’s a tough one. I worked on the research that was summarized in the monograph about the cranial remains from East Turkana (aka Koobi Fora) for about 15 years. My interpretations of the evidence were not necessarily the same as Richard Leakey’s, so it was a lonely, and at times a stressful, task. But I saw it through to its conclusion, and that pleased me then, and it still pleases me now. I get satisfaction from taking a complex problem, and reducing it to a relatively simple question, so my publications that do that are the ones I take most pride in. The encyclopaedia of human evolution was borne out of my frustration that there was no human evolution equivalent of a medical dictionary. Like a most of my publications, it was written for me. I write papers about topics I don’t understand. Why would I bother to write about something I think I understand?

In his 1991 monograph on the cranial remains from East Turkana, Bernard argued that KNM-ER 1470, on the right, and KNM-ER 1813, on the left, were unlikely to belong to the same species.

Do you have any advice for current PhD students, like myself? 

Work out what you are good at. Pick a topic that plays to your strengths, not your weaknesses. Conventional wisdom is fertile ground for PhD topics. Once something is conventional wisdom, people stop thinking critically about it. You can look at it afresh. My only important advice is to find an advisor you respect and admire, and who you think you can get on with. They will be your colleague for life, so choose wisely.

Conversations with: Dr Stephen Rucina

This week, I am delighted to introduce Dr Stephen Rucina, a senior research scientist at the National Museums of Kenya! Stephen specialises in palynology and East African palaeoecology, leading the Palaeobotany and Palynology Section at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. He completed his PhD at the University of Amsterdam, examining Late Quaternary palaeoenvironments of Mount. Kenya and the Amboseli Basin in southern Kenya. His research primarily concerns eastern African quaternary environmental and climate change, which often links to human evolutionary questions.

Dr Stephen Rucina, a palynologist from the National Museums of Kenya

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

By profession, I am a palynologist so I study fossil and living plant pollens. However, I am interested in quaternary climate and environmental change, the dynamic history of tropical ecosystems, the long-term evolution of diverse floras in a geological and climatological context, the comparison of palaeodata with model output and human civilisations and climate change.

What originally drew you towards studying palaeoenvironments? 

There was job advertisement for a technician position at the East African Herbarium at the National Museums of Kenya, which I applied and fortunately got. This initial work in the Herbarium was mostly curatorial, which included identifying plants, curating plant collections from the field and getting involved in the study of plant ecology. Later, I transferred to the Palynology and Palaeobotany Section after becoming interested in working on plant fossils, including fossil pollen grains and other fossilised plant material. My experience working with diverse flora, both in the Herbarium and the field, was then enough experience to start applying to the study of palaeoenvironments, as I did in my PhD.

Dr Stephen Rucina

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

My PhD topic was “Kenya Ecosystem dynamics: Perspective from high and low altitude ecosystems” and was completed at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. My supervisor was Prof. Robert Marchant who is a lecturer at the University of York in the UK. My promoter was Prof. Henry Hooghiemstra, then a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam who is now retired. I used palaeoecological data, specifically charcoal and pollen, from sediments extracted from swamp cores at one highland and two lowland sites to compare and contrast ecosystem response to Late Quaternary environmental change and human interactions in Kenya.

What current projects are you working at the National Museum of Kenya?

Currently, I am working on the Kilombe project, a large Acheulean hand-axe site in the central rift valley of Kenya, in collaboration with Liverpool University. It’s headed by Prof. John Gowlett.

Excavating with colleagues at Kilombe
Taking a break after a day of hard work (John Gowlett)!

Describe your role at the National Museums of Kenya.

I am an affiliate of the Department of Earth Sciences at the National Museums of Kenya which has four sections, namely Archaeology, Palynology & Palaeobotany, Palaeontology and Geology. I head the Palynology & Palaeobotany Section; a position I have held for the last 25 years. My main responsibility in this role is the broad planning and provision of efficient and effective research services within my section. I also carry out research and curatorial functions where applicable. At times, I head the Earth Sciences Department in acting capacity within the Directorate of Research and Collections. I also undertake any other duties as assigned by the Director General and Director of Research and Collections.

Describing the core recovered from a swamp

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

My favourite thing about my role at the National Museums of Kenya is working with collections — the preservation and conservation of these collections, carrying out research using these collections and participating in collaborative research with both local and international researchers. If I could change anything, I would put a lot more funding into the research done here in Kenya, especially to support upcoming young researchers. Some of these young people from this part of the world have very good ideas that unfortunately end up going to waste.

What do you hope to work on in the future?

I think when the time comes, I will leave active research and concentrate on writing my biography, from village life in rural areas of Kenya up to when I retire as a palynologist. I might also get involved in working with rural communities, such as improving school infrastructure in the community where I come from, something that is ongoing now too. I would like to give back to my community.

Describing the sediments. Stephen with local children in the background

Conversations with: Dr Isabelle Winder

I am very pleased to introduce this week’s guest, Dr Isabelle Winder, who is an evolutionary anthropologist! Her research covers a wide range of topics, from primatology, comparative anatomy, primate responses to climate change and, of course, human evolution! Isabelle currently holds a lectureship in Zoology at Bangor University where she teaches a number of specialist modules, including a field course in Uganda. She has also worked at the Palaeo Centre at the University of York and is an Honourary Research Associate in the Department of Musculoskeletal Biology & Institute for Ageing and Chronic Disease at the University of Liverpool.

Dr Isabelle Winder from Bangor University

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

I have quite broad research interests, and usually describe myself as a “question-driven” researcher. By that I suppose I mean I prefer to focus on a question and learn the methods I need to tackle them rather than develop a particular methodological expertise which I could apply systematically to different species or topics. The questions that most interest me have to do with how primates (and within that group, humans) came to be the way they are, and what the implications are for understanding ourselves and our future.

Within that, I have a longstanding interest in how interactions with the environment have shaped primates, including hominins. I use mapping approaches (GIS or geographical information systems) to analyse patterns in the distribution of a primate and explore its ecology and associations with different environments. I also work on anatomy. This started out as an interest in how anatomy is shaped by the environments organisms grow and evolve in. It has since turned into a broader interest in the relative importance of environment and other factors like structural constraint, chance, use and behaviour in shaping body structures. Just recently, I have also expanded my ecological work to look at how primates are responding to anthropogenic habitat change.

Isabelle (left) and colleague Vivien Shaw (right) with their students presenting posters at the Anatomical Society Meeting in 2019

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I didn’t have a direct route into human evolution: my interests always seemed to cross disciplinary boundaries, and I didn’t focus on palaeoanthropology at all until my Masters. I think my fascination with evolution and humans’ place in the natural world (past and present) was always there. Certainly I don’t remember any particular event which could represent a starting point for it. I ended up studying Geography at University, because it was the subject that seemed most likely to let me study both the natural and human worlds. Then I did a Masters in Palaeoanthropology and a PhD in Archaeology.

I do remember always enjoying museums, including natural history collections and places that focused on people, and was always drawn to non-fiction reading (especially about evolution). I suppose I have been thinking about the big questions I study now for a very long time – it just took me a long time to decide that they would be part of my career.

What was your PhD topic? How did you choose this and who was your supervisor? 

My PhD was on the role of landscapes in human evolution, and how the spatial structure of the places our ancestors have potentially shaped our deep history. It was another example of my tendency to pick a question and follow it wherever it happened to go: the chapters were a series of case-studies that each unpicked different aspects of the same problem. For one I mapped extant African environments to see how these were patterned and which underlying processes drove landscape structure at different scales. Later on, I had chapters looking at how smaller scale variation in landscapes shaped the anatomy of humans and non-human primates, and how our habitat preferences had shifted through hominin history. The main argument was that spatially heterogeneous, complex, dynamic landscapes were significant parts of our evolutionary history.

I chose the topic and supervisor together. My supervisor, Prof. Geoff Bailey, had proposed in a paper in 2006 that the fact that many hominin fossils come from the Rift Valley and the Cradle of Humankind was not just an artefact of preservation bias, but a key to understanding our evolution. Tectonic landscapes are spatially heterogeneous and dynamic (fast changing), and their potential role in primate evolutionary history had otherwise not been studied. The paper captured my interest, and Geoff became my supervisor – my work was part of his ERC-funded project DISPERSE (Dynamic landscapes, coastal environments and hominin dispersals).

After your PhD, where have you worked and on what projects?

I did a post-doc at the University of York, also on the DISPERSE project, and then moved to Bangor as a lecturer after that. My postdoctoral project followed up the same theme, but with more emphasis on evolutionary processes (my PhD had looked mostly at patterns). In particular, I worked on evolutionary complexity and got interested in whether human evolution had been neatly tree-shaped or more reticulate – with hybridisation playing a more significant role than we had previously thought. I also looked more closely at primate behaviour and particularly the kinds of choices non-human or human primates make, with an eye to seeing how our ability to choose how we behave might have shaped our evolution.

What current projects are you working on at Bangor University? What results have you got from these projects so far? 

One of the main projects I’ve got on at the moment is looking at non-human primate responses to climate change. This is a new line of research since I arrived at Bangor, and is proving really interesting. The first bit of it was a project one of my 2017-18 Masters students (Sarah Hill) did looking at baboons. She picked baboons partly out of interest, but also because we’ve all see the news about baboons raiding crops, encroaching on cities and stealing food from tourists – we tend to assume, as scientists and more generally, that they are resilient creatures. They live all over sub-Saharan Africa, and are all IUCN-listed as being animals of “Least Concern” for conservation, with the single exception of the Guinea baboon which is “Near Threatened” but not yet endangered.

It seemed to us that baboons would be a good test case for modelling future climate change. We assume they’re ecologically resilient and flexible, but does that mean they will be all right in the Anthropocene? As it turns out, Sarah found that three of six baboon species were at higher risk than we thought, likely to lose more than a quarter of their suitable habitat by 2070 under most or all of our climate change scenarios. And since we didn’t include anything really extreme – all the models were based on models of fairly likely situations with either 2.6 or 6 degrees of warming, not the extreme predictions of 8 degrees – this was obviously concerning.

Since Sarah’s work, we have started to look at other taxa too: lorises, gorillas, macaques, south-central American monkeys and more. The results are rarely entirely as we would expect – closely related species won’t necessarily respond the same way! Along the way, we are also finding out more about other human impacts, ecological patterns and how communities will change. It’s really interesting!

My other big project at the moment is on human evolution more specifically, and follows up the ideas about landscape that I wrote about during my PhD and postdoc. I’m working on synthesising a cluster of ideas about the Extended Synthesis of evolutionary theory, and exploring how these concepts might add to our understanding of our own past. This is still just getting started, but will include some nice bits of modelling that try to expand on simple niche models like the ones we’ve been building for non-human primates, to try to add more complexity and see how other factors might interact with the ones we already have data on.

Why is your research important for understanding early hominin behaviour and evolution?

I’d argue that without understanding evolutionary patterns and processes in the non-human primates, we will never be able to understand our own evolutionary history. We think of evolution as being shaped by environments and ecology (including behaviour), but we still have so much to learn about how that works, in specific cases and in general!

Blue Monkeys from Central and East Africa. Photo taken by Isabelle

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Oh, that’s a difficult question! It’s usually the most recent one. Overall, I think I’m going to cheat and pick two…

Firstly, I’m very proud of the paper about baboons and climate change (Hill and Winder, 2019, Journal of Biogeography). This is the first published bit of that research programme, and is based on Sarah’s MZool dissertation – which I think is fantastic. It’s really unusual to get a paper like that one out of an undergraduate project and I’m an extremely proud supervisor. Plus, I think it has a really important message: apparently resilient, flexible species may be at much higher risk than we thought from anthropogenic impact.

Secondly, the paper I wrote in 2014 about the importance of reticulation in primate evolution (Winder and Winder, 2014, Annals of Human Biology) is one I have a real soft spot for. I found doing the research absolutely engrossing, and got to present the ideas at the 2013 Society for the Study of Human Biology symposium and have a great discussion with others there. It was really fun to write, and also (I think) has an interesting message about just how complicated the history of the primates really is.

Does your research have impact outside of academia? 

I suppose that depends what you mean by impact. In terms of practical application, the climate change projects have the most potential. In some of them, we actually suggest places where species will persist and where protected areas might usefully be located, for instance. So far I don’t know of specific instances where these suggestions have been taken up, but it will be interesting to see if we can help more with practical conservation in future.

Otherwise, I think what I aspire to is more about engaging with people outside of academia than necessarily changing what they do. Human evolution is fascinating (OK, I’m biased) and I’ve always loved the fact that people find it interesting. I enjoy doing things like public lectures, writing for a wider audience and getting outside of the University to talk to people. That’s one of my favourite bits of the job, and I like to think it has an impact at least on some of the people I talk to!

What is your favourite and worse thing about academia? 

My favourite thing is the fact that no two days are ever the same, and I get to do so many of the things that I enjoy: research, supervision, fieldwork, writing, reading and teaching are all activities I really value and would want to find time for even if I weren’t an academic. The fact that I get to have them as my job is just wonderful.

In terms of least favourite things, I think the fact that I know so many brilliant scientists and teachers who are stuck on casual contracts is probably the worst. It seems such a shame that with more students than in any previous generation the sector is increasingly relying on people who are not paid enough to support themselves, and have no security. It seems particularly unfair when you remember how much time, energy and money many of those people have already invested in their education.

Isabelle in the field in Kibale National Park, Uganda, with her students. Photo by Alexander Georgiev (@BangorPrimates)

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

I tried very hard to think of something profound to say here, with limited success. I do think it’s important to recognise that the really interesting problems in human evolution are often on the boundaries between disciplines – so having broad interests, and being willing to learn new ways to think and work as you go along, is vital.

It’s also important to enjoy what you do. By that I don’t really mean enjoying the products (though the elation from a paper finally coming out can be a great short-term motivator). I mean you need to enjoy what you do every day, the process of getting to those results. If you find the work you’re doing is consistently boring or frustrating you, you may need to find another method or approach. Avoiding things that make you miserable, at least when that is within your control, is important!

Conversations with: Professor Felix Riede

Today’s guest is Professor Felix Riede, a climate change archaeologist at Aarhus University! Felix’s research concerns the shifting interactions between humans and the environment, exploring how environmental changes, especially extreme events like volcano eruptions, have impacted past human societies as well as how humans have impacted the environment. He also promotes environmental ethical engagement and Open science. At Aarhus University, Felix leads the Laboratory for Past Disaster Science, which focuses on cultural transmission and climatic resilience within prehistoric European populations, as well as an ERC funded project CLIOdynamic ARCHaeology (CLIO-ARCH), which is developing computational approaches to Final Palaeolithic/earliest Mesolithic archaeology and climate change.

Prof. Felix Riede from Aarhus University in Denmark

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

My research has two main trajectories. On the one hand, I try to understand how past climates and environments have interacted with past humans and, on the other, what role archaeology plays in contemporary climate change. All of this is bound together by an underlying evolutionary framework that sees culture as the product of evolutionary processes and that sees humans as sometimes subtle sometimes powerful niche constructors (the so-called Extended Evolutionary Synthesis or EES approach). 

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?

This is a great question! I was born and raised in Germany where at that time you had to pick four subjects for your final school-leaving exams. I chose Latin, English, History and Biology. My school background is really very much in the Classics – I took Latin, Ancient Greek as well as, for my sins, also Ancient Hebrew – but got entirely hooked on the Palaeolithic and on palaeoanthropology during my first few weeks as a bushy-tailed Joint Honours Arch & Anth BA student in Durham. So, while I was never, somehow, really in doubt about pursuing a career in archaeology, I found myself surprised just how fascinated I became with our earliest prehistory. But then again, it did allow me to in fact continue the blend of interests that I had already hit upon in my last years at school!

The interesting thing is that I then quite early on in my studies also came across the EES or, as it then was known, niche construction theory. This has really stuck and provided an Ariadne’s thread throughout most of my career.

What was your PhD topic? How did you choose this and who was your supervisor?

I took my PhD at Cambridge, dabbling in archaeogenetics, and looking at the human re-colonisation of Northern Europe at the end of the Pleistocene. Peter Forster was my supervisor in the lab – and it was really instructive to experience bench science – and Preston Miracle my supervisor in all things archaeological. As much of my work goes across the biological and environmental sciences, and as I draw a lot on North American approaches, this was a fairly good combination. Guided by niche construction theory, I used genetic, palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data in parallel to juxtapose these three foundational domains of change and inheritance. The attempt to really bring these data into sync failed, I think, but tons of interesting new insights arose nonetheless. I did find a neat method to study niche construction archaeologically using quantitative comparative approaches and, most productively of all, discovered the presumably causal connection between the Laacher See volcanic eruption some 13,000 years ago and cultural change in southern Scandinavia. That discovery – made in triangulation between volcanological insights, models of cultural evolution and the data I had collected – has since stayed with me and has given rise to follow-up projects that are keeping me busy even today. What more can you ask from a PhD thesis?

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

The week after I handed in my thesis, I took up a non-stipendiary Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge – all glory, no money – and also served as Faculty Teaching Assistant on the old Cambridge Tripos. Rob Foley at the then shiny new Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies kindly took me in and gave me an office, which I shared with like-minded graduate Stephen Lycett. I was desperately writing up my papers and applying for jobs and fellowships. After getting close at both UCL and Durham, I landed a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship – that was amazing! After a final post-PhD year in Cambridge then, I began this new role, which took me to Stephen Shennan’s AHRC-funded Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity at UCL. And while commuting was hard, this was an intellectual home-coming. It really was a hive of cultural evolutionary thinking with a lively journal club, superb seminars and conferences. A great bunch of bright minds were there at the time, for instance, Fiona Jordan and Enrico Crema whom you’ve also interviewed but many more. Besides the intellectual atmosphere, it was also the first time I really experienced the power of team science in archaeology – and that has really stuck with me as well.

In late 2008, merely a year and a bit into my three-year fellowship, I got offered, to my honest surprise, a tenure-track Assistant Professorship at Aarhus University. There was a lot of ‘right time, right place’ to this appointment, but it was just perfect. My wife is half-Danish and I do focus on this region in much of my research. Thanks to an extended data collection stay in Denmark during my PhD – and my persistence – I also spoke some Danish. The department there was going through a critical generational change at that time and my appointment was part of this process. Over my ten-plus years I have now been here – with sabbatical stints at Cambridge, MA (Harvard Anthropology) and at Cambridge, UK (Geography) – I have been fortunate enough to witness, contribute to and partly shape that development. We’re now an international and diverse Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, rank 27 globally, and have active research in an exciting variety of fields – not least the Palaeolithic. Since 2019, I also hold a secondary affiliation with the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities where I’m working actively to bring more deep-time perspectives to our new understanding of human-environment relations. I call it the Palaeoenvironmental Humanities.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m an ideas person, so I’m involved in a bunch of awesome projects at any one time and definitely also now. Some projects are big, others small. I get excited about all of them. For some years now and almost without interruption, I’ve had funding from the Independent Research Fund Denmark to pursue this hypothesis about the Laacher See eruption and its human impact. My current project on this called “Apocalypse then? The Laacher See volcanic eruption (13,000 years before present), Deep Environmental History and Europe’s geo-cultural heritage” not only seeks to better understand the ecological and cultural relations at this time but to use the isochron of the ash fallout to think hard about what may have made Final Palaeolithic societies resilient or not to such sudden impacts. The project is its final phase and we’ll end on a special exhibition at the amazing Moesgård Museum here in Aarhus and an edited volume to be published with Berghahn Press. What we’re trying with both the exhibition and the edited volume is to translate some of our scientific insights into public debate and actionable insights with regard to future vulnerability. The COVID-19 crisis really highlights just how poorly also European society actually is prepared for major shocks and even mild prognoses of future environmental change foresee many more extreme events. The archaeological record of the deep past can, we argue, be used to help prepare for these.

The other main project I direct at the moment is called CLIOARCH funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant. This really is a dream project that combines my interest in cultural evolution, classification, computational archaeology and environmental archaeology to address some major outstanding issues in the Late Palaeolithic of Europe. You can read a crash summary of the project in Antiquity’s Project Gallery. The generous funds from the ERC have allowed me to put together a great team and we’re having a blast doing really good science. It’s still early days in that project, but major papers addressing foundational conceptual and research historical issues have already appeared.

Beyond those, I’m also involved in some more applied work, where we provide a climate-historical perspective as part of the large EU-funded project Coast to Coast Climate Challenge. Based on the insight that narrative is an effective way of discussing and debating climate issues and of stimulating action, we present coupled climate-culture stories from Central Jutland’s past. I’m also involved with some nifty Neanderthal work spearheaded by my former PhD student Trine Nielsen. Starting whenever COVID-19 allows, that project will look further into the northern range expansions and contractions of Neanderthals and what these can tells us about their adaptive envelopes. I’m so excited to be part of this project because Neanderthals are really what got me properly hooked on the Palaeolithic in the first place and because the project’s PI Trine was my first PhD student – she’s now becoming a PI in her own right and that makes me quite so proud.

But there are more projects still, on prehistoric play objects and how they feature in cultural evolution, on culture change in Arctic Norway, on individual material culture signatures in the Hamburgian culture, on Anthropocene archaeology, and not least on early cognitive evolution – I’m excited about all of them, but let’s leave these for another time.

A silly photo of an eager young Felix sorting animal bone fragment at the post-ex station at Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), one of the many amazing sites Palaeolithic archaeology can take you. The other person in the picture is the formidable and fun Manda Maples, now curator of African art at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Why is your research important for understanding prehistoric human behaviour?

I seek to combine to combine an attention to theory (especially epistemology and systematics) and research history with solid empirical work. I do think that Palaeolithic archaeology needs theory – cultural evolutionary theory – and properly, logically consistent systematics. I also believe that much of the method development we’re engaged in at the moment, exploring phylogenetic and comparative methods as well as distribution models, can lead to much wider applications and major insights.

I also do believe that what we do isn’t just important for understanding prehistoric human behaviour but also for understanding our present quandaries vis-à-vis climate and environmental change. There’s a clear ethical dimension to what we do.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Eek, you’re asking me to pick a favourite amongst my little darlings! In terms of sheer effort, it’s got to be my monograph – but I’m not sure this is the text I most enjoyed writing…

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

In thinking about this question, I read Enrico Crema’s excellent answer. He recounted how he relatively late in his archaeological career discovered quantitative approaches and how he has learned to love them. I have had precisely the same experience – and beyond some important theoretical developments and of course the refinement of natural science techniques and field discoveries, I think the true frontier of archaeological research rests in quantitative, data-driven approaches; and I’m all in. But Enrico also referred to the difference between (domain-specialist) T- and (domain-specialist plus quantitatively enabled) π-shaped researchers. To this I would add that we really no longer can see researchers, of whatever shape, as individual units anymore and that all these T- and π-shaped folks now need to get much better at holding hands: at pooling their skills and do good archaeological team science. The world as such and archaeology as well have become so complex in data and methods that individuals no longer can do it alone anymore. So, my advice to students would be to take collaborative work seriously, try to join a research team, and to seek out a good mentor.

Felix’s cartoon of π-shaped researchers that boast both knowledge (K) breadth and depth as well as statistical acumen learning to ‘hold hands’ and do archaeological team science, also with colleagues of others shapes

What is your favourite thing about being an academic in archaeology? What would you change if you could?

My favourite thing about being an academic is the privilege of learning something new every single day. I have had jobs previously that were mere routine and I quickly discovered that I just can’t hack it. Being in a position, paid no less, to actively seek knowledge about a subject that I am passionate about makes me profoundly happy. What would I change? Well, there are many structural problems in academia on the whole and also in archaeology. There are still very uneven conditions for men and women, for scholars from different nationalities, ethnicities, languages and life orientations. It’d be nice to see such matters change for the positive. I would also very much like universities and the archaeological sector to take more a more forceful stance on sustainability and climate change.

Conversations with: Dr Emma Pomeroy

This week, I am very happy to introduce Dr Emma Pomeroy, a biological anthropologist and osteoarchaeologist! I first met Emma last year during my MPhil at the University of Cambridge, where she currently holds a lectureship in Department of Archaeology in the Evolution of Health, Diet and Disease. Her research considers how both past and present variation in human health, growth and morphology is shaped by evolutionary processes and interactions with natural and social environments. Previously, Emma has also held a Junior Research Fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge, as well as a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at Liverpool John Moores University, where she lectured in Biological Anthropology.

Dr Emma Pomeroy, taken at Shanidar Cave (photo by Graeme Barker)

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

I am a biological anthropologist who trained in human osteoarchaeology (the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites), but my research interests span work with contemporary populations, archaeological remains and our fossil relatives. What really fascinates me is how our bodies are shaped by our evolutionary past and the social, cultural and natural environments we live in, and so how we can learn about our past through studying the skeleton, as well as how our evolutionary history affects health and quality of life today. The potential for gaining new insights into life in past populations by studying the drivers variation in living populations, and equally studying past populations to better understand our modern health challenges, particularly excite me.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I was interested in the past from a very young age, and especially bones and skeletons. One of my favourite toys at primary school was a rubber skeleton (which is sitting on my desk right now) and my parents say I used to go and look for bones in the garden. I grew up near Canterbury in Kent which has fabulous medieval city walls, a ruined castle, beautiful cathedral and ancient churches, as well as Roman remains beneath the city which really captured my imagination. I was fascinated by how people lived in the past, and what they were like. As an undergraduate I planned to study Archaeology, but got introduced to Biological Anthropology. Reading books in preparation for my admissions interview (I particularly remember Rob Foley’s ‘Another Unique Species’) opened up a whole new world I had barely heard about – human evolution. My fascination grew through my undergraduate course and I was drawn into Biological Anthropology. My interests broadened into understanding human variation in the past and present in light of our evolutionary heritage and how our biology interacts with our environment to generate the huge diversity we see in humans, past and present.

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

My full PhD title was ‘The Bioarchaeology of Adaptation to Andean Environments: A combined osteometric and anthropometric approach’. I wanted to understand how humans have adapted to the incredible, varied, and challenging environments of the South American Andes, and how biological and cultural adaptations interact and changed across space and time. Originally, it was going to be an osteoarchaeological study, but as is so often the case with research there were unexpected challenges which disrupted my original plans, but also unexpected opportunities, which I grabbed and ran with. These opportunities saw me working with contemporary populations in Peru to understand the impact of the environment on morphology as a way of giving more insight into the causes of skeletal variation in the past. I studied with Jay Stock at Cambridge (now Professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada), and through Jay came to work with Professor Jonathan Wells at UCL during my PhD as well. They were the best supervisors I could have hoped for – immensely supportive and generous with their time and advice, and constantly challenging me to explore new ideas, learn new methods, and push myself beyond what I thought I could do. I still work with them a lot now, and still learn from them constantly!

Emma conducting lab work in Argentina (2007)

What current projects are you working at the University of Cambridge? Where would you like these projects to go in the future?

One of the major projects I am currently involved in is the Shanidar Cave Project led by Professor Graeme Barker, which is conducting new excavations at this famous Neanderthal site in collaboration with the Kurdistan Regional Directorate of Antiquities. Although the project was never intended to find new Neanderthal remains, I was asked to get involved when some Neanderthal bones unexpectedly came to light. Over the last couple of years we have been working to recover remarkable new articulated Neanderthal remains found right next to the famous ‘Flower Burial’ discovered by Ralph Solecki’s team in 1960. This discovery is a rare opportunity to tackle questions around how Neanderthals treated their dead, whether this had a symbolic or ritual component, and how this varied over space and time, using an array of modern archaeological techniques (e.g., soil micromorphology, pollen and starch analysis, eDNA). There is also great potential for various analyses of the skeleton itself, including aDNA, diet and origins through stable isotopes and calculus, and assessments of age at death, health status and morphology etc. With my colleague Dr Lucy Farr, I have also been working on Ralph Solecki’s Shanidar Cave archive at the Smithsonian Institution to revisit some of the original evidence, interpretations and debates concerning the site. All in all I hope that the Shanidar Cave Project, through making use of new and archive data, will help advance our understanding of our close evolutionary relatives in multiple ways, and add to the already major contributions that have emerged from discoveries at this site.

Excavating Shanidar 5 (photo by Graeme Barker)

I recently completed some work on the evolutionary origins of low lean mass (organ and muscle mass) in contemporary South Asian populations. Part of this project involved finding ways to estimate lean tissue and body composition from the skeleton. We were able to estimate lean mass fairly reliably, but markers of body fat and obesity in the skeleton are far less reliable. So one of the things I am starting to work on now, with colleagues from Cambridge, is how we might be able to identify body fatness more reliably from the skeleton. People often assume that most people in the past were much more active and had a poorer diet than we do today so would rarely have become fatter or obese, but various lines of evidence, such as depictions of very curvaceous women in the European Upper Palaeolithic (think of the famous Venus of WIllendorf) suggest this may not have been the case. It would be really exciting if we could study body fatness in the past, as this would enable us to investigate a whole range of questions around the evolution of human body composition (even the leanest humans have high body fat compared with our closest great ape relatives), the impacts of dietary change on body composition, and give us new insights into health in the past and the present.

I would also love to go back to working in the Andes at some point – it’s such an amazing part of the world and fascinating from the point of view of human variation and adaptation.

Does your research have any implications outside of academia?

I think trying to understand how we came to be who and what we are as a species is something that has wide popular appeal. I also believe learning about the incredible human variation we see around us and yet appreciating all the things that unite us as well has immensely important implications for how we live our lives. More practically, our evolutionary history can have important implications for our health and lives today, and that is something that interests me greatly. So for example, our recent work which investigated the evolutionary origins of low lean tissue among contemporary South Asian populations. Low lean mass is implicated in the elevated susceptibility to non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes experienced by people with South Asian ancestry today, and non-communicable diseases have become one of the biggest health burdens and killers in the modern world, so understanding what influences disease susceptibility is very important. We looked at long term trends in South Asian lean mass using the archaeological skeletal record, and were able to show low lean mass has probably characterised these populations for at least 11,000 years. Therefore it’s unlikely to change greatly in coming generations, and so planning treatments and prevention for non-communicable diseases in South Asian populations will need to take this into account.

Emma working with Dr Veena Mushrif at Deccan College (Pune, India)

What project or publication are you most proud of?

That’s so hard to answer, I have been incredibly lucky to be involved in a number of fantastic projects and work with brilliant people. The Shanidar Cave Project is yielding such exciting finds and results, and it’s an incredible privilege to follow on from the work of greats like Ralph Solecki, T. Dale Stewart and Erik Trinkaus, and to work with the brilliant current team led by Professor Graeme Barker in collaboration with Kurdistan Directorate of Antiquities. I am still very proud of some of my PhD work on limb proportions as a marker of early life environment: the data were very hard earned but showed really interesting patterns in how different parts of the body are affected by environmental challenges, and what this might tell us about the mechanisms underlying trade-offs in growth and health. I was also really proud of the work we did on the origins of low lean mass among contemporary people of South Asian ancestry, which is implicated in their elevated susceptibility to chronic conditions. As I said, using the archaeological record, we were able to show this was a characteristic dating back at least 11,000 years in South Asia, despite the challenges of small numbers of archaeological skeletons available to study (warm and wet conditions, as South Asia widely has, are not great for preserving bone) and inferring soft tissue characteristics from the skeleton. 

Sorry, that’s 3, which is cheating…

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

Another hard question! One thing I love about human evolutionary studies is that it’s such a dynamic field, with major discoveries and new twists and turns in the human story happening all the time. The discovery of new species, both through fossils (such as Homo luzonensis, Homo naledi) and DNA (those elusive ‘ghost species’) is fleshing out our family tree to an extent we hadn’t anticipated and is fundamentally reshaping our picture of how humans evolved.

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

Do what you love, go in with your eyes open, and make the most of every opportunity. Academia is not an easy place to find long term, secure employment, and there are many more highly qualified researchers than there are long term jobs. Part of it comes down to luck, and the right job coming up at the right time. But I always took the view that even if I didn’t settle in academia long-term, I loved research and fieldwork, and would never regret the time I spent studying and in the field. So grab the opportunities that come up, and don’t be afraid to branch out and step out of your comfort zone – you never know where those opportunities will take you and some of the work I have found most exciting and productive is where I took those unexpected opportunities and ran with them. Above all, make the most of time doing what you really enjoy.

If you weren’t a biological anthropologist, what career would you pursue and why?

If I wasn’t in academia, I think I would love to be a vet (though not sure I have the stomach and natural skill for it!). I think I would have liked to be a hill shepherd and sometimes dream of doing it when I retire (if I am still fit enough!). I love being outdoors and with animals, and although I know shepherding or veterinary practice is not an easy life, the chance to be outside and working with animals appeals hugely. Plus it would also be a great excuse to observe and think about the natural world, and how different organisms have and continue to adapt to their environments. If I were to still be an academia, I have always been excited by paleontology and enjoyed chemistry…so who knows!

Conversations with: Professor Shanti Pappu

I am very pleased to introduce this week’s guest, Professor Shanti Pappu, the founder and director of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting research in archaeology and developing educational programmes for children and teachers of Indian heritage. She is a former Professor or Prehistory at the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, where she also completed both her MA and PhD degrees and was awarded the Prof H.D. Sankalia Gold Medal. She also has a law degree, with a dissertation based on cultural heritage laws of India, and is a registered advocate! Her research interests span a wide range of topics within human evolution studies, such as palaeoenvironments, ethnoarchaeology, the history of archaeology and public archaeology.

Professor Shanti Pappu, founder and director of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education

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

Looking back in time; travelling down the complex trails in the story of human evolution, and examining ways in which our bodies and minds have evolved, is something that fascinates me. Indian prehistoric sites primarily have stone artefacts, with sparse fossil remains, and the real crux of interpreting past behaviour lies in decoding these silent stones. This forms the basis of our studies at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education.

It is also really exciting to collaborate with scientists from different disciplines, each contributing a little piece to the puzzle of hominin behaviour in India, always realizing that the truth may be one step ahead of us. I am also fascinated by ethnoarchaeology and aspects of the history of archaeology in South Asia.

The research team at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in action!

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

The past has always held a great fascination. My parents, grandparents, and aunts plied me with books, not only on archaeology but also on evolution. The overall atmosphere in Kolkata, where I grew up, was one permeated with an appreciation of the past, and with a wonderful culture of reading. However, we never had a chance to actually visit excavations, or learn about prehistory, and that is one of the main reasons why we now focus on a lot of hands-on activities in workshops in our children’s museum.

My parents were very supportive, something very unusual for India, and later my husband and his family (with his father and sister also being archaeologists) were equally enthusiastic, especially with my long absences in the field. The primary interest in prehistory however, came from the Deccan College post-graduate and research Institute, Pune, where I did my Masters and PhD degrees.

The spirit of the ‘father of Indian archaeology’, Prof. H.D. Sankalia, was all around us, even though he had just passed away, and one could not escape the flavour of prehistory that permeated the old buildings and wonderful library. It was a time marked by intense intellectual fermentation in Indian prehistory, when debates on processual and post-processual theories, landscape archaeology, site-formation and ecological concepts brought the subject alive, moving away from the traditional listing of tool types and Quaternary sections. New dates were coming in and being vigorously debated. Doctoral theses and research on important sites like those of Bhimbetka, Samnapur, the Didwana complex, the Hunsgi-Baichbal complex, Mehtakhedi, among others were being actively discussed. Lectures by Professors V.N. Misra, K. Paddayya, S.N. Rajaguru, Sheila Mishra, Malti Nagar, P.K. Thomas, M.D. Kajale, G.L. Badam, amongst others, were deeply inspiring, more so at a time when the beauty of the subject was conveyed without any visual aids: just a blackboard, lab specimens, the museum, and the passion of the teacher. Attending excavations at Samnapur, Mehtakhedi, Budihal, and surveys in Western and Central India and the Hunsgi-Baichbal basin brought alive the questions of global importance that excavators were tackling. Visiting scholars from India and abroad added a global touch. Above all, the Deccan College library was marvellous, with all the latest books and journals keeping us updated before the age of the internet.

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

This had a rather prosaic title, and was later updated and brought out as a book entitled A Re-examination of the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record of Northern Tamil Nadu, South India (Oxford: BAR-International Series 1003, (2001), and I was enrolled at the Deccan College under Professor K. Paddayya. One of my examiners was Professor Derek Roe, whom I had the pleasure to meet years later, and his constructive comments were very useful in bringing out the book. Historically, the study area is a very important region in Indian archaeology. The first Palaeolithic artefacts in India were discovered here, in 1863, by Robert Bruce Foote, who also discovered the site of Attirampakkam (ATM), that our team is currently researching.

After Foote, the famous Yale–Cambridge Expedition of the 1930s proposed models of river terrace sequences and associated cultural phases in this region, as they did elsewhere in the subcontinent. Terms such as ‘Madras Handaxe Tradition’, or variants of this, as opposed to the non-biface ‘Soanian’ assemblages of South Asia, arose from discoveries in this region. Later, excavations were conducted here by the Archaeological Survey of India, with different insights. Despite all this, actually very little was published at the time, and I thought it would be interesting to re-examine issues related to the stratigraphic context of sites, landscape scales of understanding prehistoric mobility, lithic reduction sequences, and site formation processes, amongst other questions. With the help of Prof. S.N. Rajaguru, we could revise the old terrace models and propose new ideas for Quaternary landscape formation. Observations on local hunter-gatherers was very insightful, although how far these analogies may be applied to the Palaeolithic may be debated. This work set the stage for our later research in this region, now bringing in large collaborating teams of scientists.

After your PhD, what sort of positions have you held?

Well, I never got an academic job after my Ph.D! I worked for a software company for a while, a super experience in learning skills that have served me well today, and they helped me in developing a portal called Dig: Discover India Gallery, primarily on India’s ancient heritage. In 1999, with my family’s help, we began a non-profit educational Institute (Sharma Centre for Heritage Education) with the aims of promoting research in archaeology and developing educational programs for children and teachers of Indian heritage. We also established a tiny children’s museum. From this modest beginning, with the enormous support of my family, my colleague Akhilesh and I are focused on building our Institute for both research and outreach. For a short while, I joined as Professor of Prehistory at the Deccan College, but left owing to commitments in building up our own Centre.

An on-site workshop with a local school held by the team at the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education

What current projects are you working? Have you got any interesting results so far?

For several decades now, Akhilesh and I have been directing a long-term research project on ‘Prehistory and Palaeoenvironments in Southeast India’ with a number of sub-projects and a wonderful team of Indian and foreign collaborating scientists (see below). This rather simple title contains fascinating projects packed with exciting research into early hominin occupation in India, with surveys of Palaeolithic landscapes, excavations, experimental studies, geochronology, and studies of Quaternary environments.

Our team began with a project of excavating Attirampakkam (hereafter ATM) in 1999, and we are still researching this fantastic site. With numerous trenches, a huge sample size, geomorphological studies, and multiple dating methods, we could establish that these were early Pleistocene, pushing back the antiquity of occupation of South Asia by Acheulian cultures. Dr. Maurice Taieb was at that time in India, and greatly encouraged us in this project. We also found a wonderful stratified sequence of assemblages, with horizons displaying processes transitional to and of the early Middle Palaeolithic (MP), and were able to date these as well, generating new debates in South Asian archaeology. Studies of lithic assemblages and experimental knapping programs by Akhilesh, to replicate these technologies are ongoing, and already resulting in exciting thoughts on hominin behaviour at the site, cognitive abilities, skills at mastering technologies, for e.g. the Kombewa, and aspects of group sizes. With our colleagues, we are also slowly building up a picture of local environments at the site through geomorphology, mineral magnetics, clay mineralogy, and phytoliths. Now we are expanding our work with excavations at the neighbouring site of Sendrayanpalayam, which we hope will provide a better picture of regional scales of adaptation and varying facies of Indian Lower Palaeolithic cultures and technologies. Another forthcoming project involves exploring more recent prehistoric cultures at the southernmost tip of India, exploring how modern humans migrated and adapted to differing environments and sea-level changes. None of these projects would have come through without the help of our Centre and more so my family. My parents, husband and aunts are involved at every stage, with my father now reading extensively on human evolution, and aiding us in statistical analysis of the data. We have been very fortunate with obtaining funding from many organisations (Homi Bhabha Fellowships, The Leakey Foundation, Earthwatch Institute, National Geographic Society, CNRS, Institut Universitaire de France, Fundación Palarq), and the Archaeological Survey of India and Department of Archaeology, State Government of Tamil Nadu have always given us licenses to work.

Shanti leading a training programme for students in the field

What has been your favourite memory from the field?

There are so many memories and more to come, I hope: both from the long-dead and from the living. From a research perspective: the fascinating discovery of the Acheulian in a totally new and unsuspected stratigraphic context at ATM was exciting, as is everything else associated with this site. Our recent excavations at the neighbouring Palaeolithic site of Sendrayanpalayam is bringing out new results that we are currently examining. The excitement of finding conjoinable tools even as we excavate, and recent surveys of the landscapes with new discoveries of very rich sites are some of the many memories. On another level, it is the villagers we have worked with closely for over 20 years, the colleagues from India and abroad with whom we have moved from professional to personal friendships, and my family, who has spent many hours in the heat and dust at our excavations, trying to understand our research, and aiding in every possible way. On a further level, it is our outreach, with schools bringing children and teachers, to visit us and neighbouring villagers dropping in to see the excavations and our little on-site exhibition in Tamil and English. Not to mention the visiting cobras, whose peaceful life we often disturbed.

During excavations, Shanti and her team invite local schools and organise activities, such as hands-on sessions with fossil casts, art, story writing and explanations about excavations, the Palaeolithic and stone tools.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Well, I guess we are happy with our publications, some of which have been praised, others generating debates, but all written based on careful and cautious interpretations. Some of our hypotheses are gradually being supported by new research in India and elsewhere. The project at ATM is close to our heart, and we are very excited about the new project at Sendrayanpalayam. In the end, I think, we are grateful that a team led by us, with amazing colleagues from India and abroad, are placing place South Asian prehistory on the global map.

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

I am fascinated by the discoveries of fossil hominins, and stone tools from Africa and parts of Asia, and the global genetic studies that are resulting in our traditional time scales and textbooks evolving every minute! It would be unfair to pin down any one discovery. I rather see all our contributions, whether big-impact or small observations, as pieces of an intricate puzzle that only team work and joint efforts can aid in solving.

What would you be if you were not a paleoanthropologist?

I always wanted to be an archaeologist, not much doubt there, perhaps any field of archaeology. I still wish to explore rock art and early agro-pastoral communities. Outside this field: well, perhaps a struggling artist.

Shanti would like to thank Dr. Kumar Akhilesh and Professor Yanni Gunnell and her parents, for critically slashing through her early drafts of this piece!

The Sharma Centre for Heritage Education are currently running an online archaeology forum called Down Ancient Trails, involving regular discussion meetings, short online courses and a lecture series. This is aims to connect archaeologists during the COVID19 pandemic – be sure to check it out!

Conversations with: Professor Eske Willerslev

Today’s guest is Professor Eske Willerslev, a world-renowned evolutionary geneticist, director of the University of Copenhagen’s Centre of Excellence GeoGenetics and holder of the Prince Philip Chair in Ecology and Evolution in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge! His research spans a number of topics within evolutionary genetics, such as ancient DNA, environmental DNA and human-pathogen evolution. Much of his research also involves working with indigenous communities to better understand human history, leading to him being adopted into the Native American Crow tribe under the Indian name of “Well-Known Wolf“. He has appeared in a number of films as an expert on human evolution, such as “First Peoples”, “The Great Human Odyssey” etc, and has written a number of popular books .


Professor Eske Willerslev

What is your particular area of expertise within human evolution studies and what are your specific research interests?

My speciality within human evolution is ancient genomics, sequencing and analysing the genomes of ancient individuals to understand our demographic history. I am particularly focused on modern human history; the history of contemporary Homo sapiens. The main aim of my research is therefore to understand how we, as modern humans, obtained our genetic diversity through processes like migration and adaptation. I also do a lot of work on infectious human diseases in regard to human history.

What was your path into evolutionary genetics? What originally drew you towards this discipline?

I was educated as a biologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and I actually didn’t enjoy my studies very much! There were only two modules that I really liked: evolutionary biology and human palaeontology. So, I guess biological sciences were the trajectory I initially took to get into evolutionary genetics, but it was certainly not a straightforward path to get there. During my Masters, I wanted to do DNA-based research to better understand the peopling of America — that’s what I was really interested in — but nobody in Denmark at the time did this type of research as there were no ancient DNA laboratories. There was also no interest in my Department of Evolutionary Biology to expand into human evolution. So, I started working on extracting microbial DNA from ice cores, which was very interesting but not what I really wanted to do. It was when I first became a professor, and this happened quite early in my career, that I got the opportunity to finally pursue the area of research that I wanted and I’ve done so ever since!

 I think that it is not necessarily unusual to see this in science. Quite often, when you are a student, you cannot always pursue exactly what you dream and are passionate about. Instead, you gradually work towards that goal. So that’s what I did, every time I made choices that got me closer to this goal, even if they weren’t exactly what I wanted to do at that moment.

What was your PhD experience like?

Well, I don’t actually have a PhD! I started it but eventually I ended up submitting as a Doctor of Science thesis. Back when I wanted to do a PhD, there were very few around but I had been short-listed for a doctoral fellowship at my University – I was actually first on the list for this place. However, my supervisor ended up choosing another student instead of me! Of course, I was very upset at the time as I felt it was unreasonable, but my supervisor had decided on that other student because, ultimately, she was much more interested in the topic. But, I got so annoyed about not getting the fellowship that I decided I would submit my work as a Doctor of Science thesis! This is actually a bigger piece of research, where you have to provide more papers and, because I had worked really hard, I did end up having enough to submit in this format. You normally do a Doctor of Science towards the end of your career, so a lot of people thought it was very odd that I did this so early and got upset, my supervisor included as he hadn’t got a Doctor of Science… But it turned out to be a clever move in the sense that I already had a blueprint that showed I was capable of becoming a full professor, and so I achieved this just one and a half years after I did my thesis and defence.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on several projects currently, but my main focus at the moment is to understand the origins of diseases susceptibility — the genetic variants associated with disease risk in humans. For example, I’m trying to understand why some people have an increased risk of mental disorders or diabetes, as well as other diseases. To look at the origins of these problems, we have to go back into history and study genomes from the past. Therefore, currently my research aims to try and uncover why we face these pathological challenges that are so prevalent today. Where did they come from? Why did they evolve? These kinds of questions.

What project are you most proud of?

I’m definitely most proud of the third or fourth paper from my career, the one that established the field of environmental DNA. This is where you take environmental samples, such as soil or water from the ocean or lakes and sequence the DNA in these samples. Through doing this, you can find out what animals and plants were and are living in certain places despite not having any macro-fossil evidence. This paper was published in Science in 2003 and, even though it’s not my most cited paper, I am very proud of it because I believe it was really original at the time. Even in incidences where I was the first to do something, like sequence the first ancient genome, these were natural progressions — someone else would have made these next steps a few years later if I had not. This paper was not like that, as it was not only one step or two steps ahead, but multiple. It took 10 years before anyone trusted this research and I actually had a few problems getting subsequent papers published because of it! My supervisor thought it was the most stupid idea he had ever heard!

Eske collecting eDNA samples in Northern Greenland (2006)

Now, environmental DNA is a field that is widespread in genetics, and a lot of palaeontologists and ecologists rely on its fundamental principles, that DNA from higher organisms is present in the environment even if we can’t see it. This was a completely new way of thinking that had not been seen before — understanding that we might be walking around on DNA from the present and the past, be it from a leaf that has fallen from a tree and subsequently degraded or a dog that has left faeces on the street that has since washed away. Following this idea, I produced this paper which became the foundation of environmental DNA, and also made me more widely known in the scientific community. So yes, I’m very proud of it.

What have been your favourite and most memorable experiences of your career?

I think it has to be engaging with the indigenous communities. A lot of my research on ancient human remains have involved connecting these skeletons with their traditional owners, both in Australia and the Americas. For me, it’s some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in relation to my work, because not only has it given me perspectives on why many of these communities are reluctant to participate in scientific research but it has also changed my own way of looking at life and indeed the world around us. I am very grateful to have had these opportunities.

Eske visiting the Northern Cheyenne Reserve in Montana, talking to members of the Cheyenne and Crow Native American Tribes

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

This is tricky – good question! I think it’s the fact that you can obtain pathogens from human skeletons without any physical or morphological evidence for disease. This was actually a paper that we did back in 2015 in Cell where we found evidence for a plague epidemic at least 3,000 years before any other recorded epidemics. We had known that you could extract pathogens out of skeletons that have been infected and show physical signs of infection, but we also realised was that you also can obtain pathogens out of large number of skeletons showing no signs of infection; this is a real game-changer with regard to the possibilities to understanding human pathogen evolution, how they spread etc.

I think another one would be the work that has been primarily been done by my colleague, Enrico Cappellini, who has found a way to sequence enamel proteins to investigate evolutionary questions about the deep past — now known as the field of proteomics. I’ve been on some of these papers but others have primarily been driving this new wave of research. The first foundational paper was published just this year, and allowed us to investigate the evolutionary relationship between Homo antecessor and other hominin species. I think proteomics has powerful potential for understanding hominin evolution way further back in time than we are currently able to do with aDNA.

Conversations with: Professor Eleanor Scerri

Today, I am very pleased to introduce Professor Eleanor Scerri, an archaeological scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena! Eleanor is Lise Meitner Professor in Archaeology and leader of the Pan-African Evolution research group, where she directs a suite of multidisciplinary projects and fieldwork programmes based in Africa and southwest Asia. She also has recently initiated fieldwork projects on the island of Malta, where she is from! Eleanor’s research aims to establish how and to what extent archaeological, genetic and biogeographical data are related in order to develop new theories and methods for understanding human evolution. This led to her leading the publication that introduced the new ‘African structured metapopulations model’ for the evolution of Homo sapiens, proposing that it took place across Africa in interacting subpopulations as opposed to just in East or South Africa, as traditionally assumed.

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

At a broad level, I’m interested in where humans came from and how we got to this point. I’m particularly interested in the early periods of the prehistory of our own species, Homo sapiens, from earliest glimmerings up to the beginnings of settled societies who developed and practiced agriculture. I’m also really interested in developing methods to answer the sorts of questions we are interested in – methods that are capable of dealing with partial and often problematic archaeological data

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

As a child I was given a book about prehistory, which had wonderful illustrations by the Czech artist, Zneděk Burian. I quickly became fascinated by the dioramas of what I perceived as different past worlds within our world and wanted to understand the major differences and why they were there. This interest came back to me as an undergraduate, after attending an optional module on Physical Anthropology at the University of Malta where I was a student. I left the first lecture knowing that this was an area of science I had to pursue. The problem was that back in 90s Malta, we simply didn’t have the teaching and learning resources for anybody to major in this area. With the support of my professors and almost all my extended family, I managed to visit the Natural History Museum in London, and studied the collections there. The scientific staff in the Human Origins programme were amazing – they would take photo copies of journal papers and post them to me back in Malta to help me. Apart from giving me the literature I needed to develop as a scholar, it really helped foster faith in myself and believe that a girl from a small village in Malta could aspire to study this stuff on an international stage. If they believed in me, and helped me, then it helped me to believe in myself. I think that drew me to study human evolution as much as a personal passion for it. I think these sorts of actions from leading scholars are so important to ensure participation from young researchers coming from countries where – for a variety of reasons – opportunities are limited.

Eleanor (middle left) with her colleagues

Where did you completed your PhD and what was your PhD topic? What were the findings from your PhD?

I completed my PhD at the University of Southampton in 2013. My doctoral research ‘The Aterian and its place in the North African Middle Stone Age (MSA)’, defined the diversity of Aterian ‘tang’ hafted Palaeolithic stone tool assemblages. Aterian assemblages are associated with some of the earliest examples of symbolically mediated culture, and several sites evidence the use of shell bead ornaments and bone tool industries. The Aterian is therefore thought to represent one of the first examples of identity and ethnicity. Although related factors such as subsistence strategies and social organisation are also reflected in the use and organisation of lithic technology, there have been few comparative technological studies of Aterian stone tools to support or refine hypotheses invoking identity/ethnicity. One of the most significant outcomes of my doctoral research was the recognition that the Aterian shares many key technological features with other, poorly defined, stone tool industries in the same spatiotemporal bracket. The similarities and differences did not correlate with the names of these assemblage groups, but rather with distance and the spatial organisation of palaeohydrological networks in that region and timeframe. This suggested that groups of people often fell back into ecological bottlenecks, while others appeared to move around more easily. The key point is that they appeared to have a spatial structure which may have shaped the way groups of early humans interacted (or not) in North Africa between 145-70,000 years ago. The identification of aggregation sites indicates that some of these populations may have formed social networks.

After your PhD, where have you worked and in what positions?

After my PhD, I worked for 6 months on a short research contract at the University of Oxford working on the analysis of data for a paper that was subsequently published in Journal of Human Evolution. During this time, I learned I was successful in obtaining a Fondation Fyssen postdoctoral fellowship, hosted at the PACEA lab at the University of Bordeaux. While I was there, I worked on developing my experimental analytical approached to lithics more while setting up a new fieldwork project in Senegal. Following this position, I returned to Oxford with a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. For this work, I primarily focused on the Middle Stone Age of North Africa and the Middle Palaeolithic of Arabia, but I also continued my pilot work in Senegal, conducting about three fieldwork seasons there during this time, as well as fieldwork in Arabia. I only stopped fieldwork to have my baby, but luckily I had a backlog of analyses to conduct then that meant I didn’t have to travel. I was also fortunate to obtain a Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (MCSA) Fellowship to follow straight on from my British Academy Fellowship.  For the MCSA position, I moved to Germany at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. This position was a bit of a departure from my previous work, because West Africa became the primary focus. I only held this position for seven months, because I was successful in obtaining my current position. However, that time was critical for pulling together a research network in West Africa and setting up joint investigations with partners in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria. Most of my fieldwork now focuses on sites in these countries and trying to understand human evolutionary processes in West Africa.

Eleanor in the field!

What current projects are you working at the Pan African Evolution Lab? Where do you hope these go in the future?

We have two main projects. The first is a fieldwork project across West Africa in the countries described above. This has already generated data for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, a range of archaeological analyses and a range of biological analyses, including ancient DNA. We have some phenomenal sites to work on and we hope to be able to return to the field as soon as the global pandemic is brought under complete control. We also have modelling and simulation projects that we are using to test a range of scenarios about human evolution in Africa, some using data and others purely simulating data and then comparing generated patterns to the record. We hope to have papers with some initial results on both these projects this year. In addition to this, I am also conducting fieldwork and related analyses in Malta, across a range of time periods, but I can’t say much more about that yet! There are a couple of new projects on the horizon too, one involving methods, and another involving fieldwork in a new African region. That’s all I can really say for now. We hope that these projects will soon yield important new insights on human evolution, and we’re excited, even if we’re not able to give much away yet!

Why is your work important for understanding hominin behaviour and evolution?

I think the main importance lies in trying to understand hominin behaviour and evolution from the perspective of regions that have historically been left off the human origins map, rather than continuing to extrapolate from small, well-researched regions. Back when I started my PhD, nobody seemed to be very interested in North Africa or Arabia and our work there helped to highlight how important these regions are. I think it’s going to be the same with West Africa. Whenever we look in regions that have not been considered important or considered to have been ‘empty’ until relatively recently, we find things that can totally change our understanding of the human story.

I also really believe in funding investment of new methods, and I think the work we are doing there is important. It takes time to develop new methods, but when they become available they really underpin the ability to make new inferences and new discoveries from the wealth of data we already have

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

There have been many revolutionary discoveries and so I have to pick the ones that most affect the area that I am interested in. Finding extremely early Homo sapiens fossils at Jebel Irhoud in northwestern Morocco has to be up there for me. I was also thrilled by our own discovery of the oldest directly dated H. sapiens fossils in Eurasia, east of the Levant, which was also the oldest human fossil to be discovered in Arabia.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Probably our work on an African structured metapopulation model for human evolution. It took a lot of patience and hard work across radically different fields of research, but it really demonstrated how communication and integration are key to advancing science.

Eleanor leading the ‘Human evolution in structured populations’ conference at the University of Oxford in 2016

What advice would you give to a student interested in archaeology?

I would advise them to love quantification! No matter how fascinated we might be by certain questions, or how in love we are with certain artefacts or fossils, to really get answers and/or understand what they represent, we need to be able to do the analyses. It’s amazing seeing quantaphobes turn into quantaphiles when they apply numbers and coding to something that interests them.

Conversations with: Dr Enrico Crema

This week, my guest feature is Dr Enrico Crema, a computational evolutionary archaeologist from the University of Cambridge! Enrico’s research covers a number of topics within archaeology, such as cultural evolution, Japanese prehistory and prehistoric demography. At the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge, he teaches the computational analyses of long-term human cultural and biological dynamics, and I took his ‘From Data to Interpretation’ statistics class during my MPhil last year! He has also developed a number of R packages, such as the rcarbon package which enables the calibration and analysis of radiocarbon dates for archaeological research.

Dr Enrico Crema from the University of Cambridge

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

My (current) research themes are the study of cultural change as the result of an evolutionary process, its interplay with demography, and the application and the development of computational and statistical methods in archaeology and evolutionary anthropology. 

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?

I was very interested in palaeontology as a kid (yes dinosaurs!) and it was a hard choice to decide between an undergraduate degree in biology or in history/archaeology. I eventually chose the latter and initially thought I‘ve completely shut down any possibility to study biological evolution. A few years later during my masters at UCL, I sat on a module in Evolutionary Archaeology taught by Ethan Cochrane and Stephen Shennan. The realisation that I can be an archaeologist, but at the same time have an evolutionary perspective to study human behaviour and cultural change blew my mind, so during the first year of my PhD I sneaked into as many undergraduate and graduate courses in biology and biological anthropology to catch up.

What was your PhD topic? How did you choose this and who was your supervisor?

My PhD (at UCL Institute of Archaeology) looked into settlement dynamics among the Jomon hunter-gatherers in Japan. I was particularly interested in long-term fluctuations between nucleated and dispersed settlement patterns (after I spent a year in Japan as an exchange student during my undergraduate degree), so I developed a simulation model of group fission-fusion dynamics (extending some earlier ideas from human behavioural ecology), and came up with some new way of analysing settlement data, inspired by how chronological uncertainty is handled in crime science! I was very lucky to be supervised jointly by Andrew Bevan and Mark Lake on this – both were terrific mentors, and they profoundly shaped the way I approach research and teaching. I was also one of the last students joining the AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity; there I met other students and post-docs that are now at the forefront of Cultural Evolutionary Studies around the world.

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

I was hired as a post-doc for Stephen Shennan’s EUROEVOL Project right after my viva (I did a Skype interview in the middle of the night while visiting the States for a talk). This was a great opportunity for me to dive into evolutionary archaeology with the support of an amazing team of colleagues. I particularly enjoyed weekly meetings with Stephen where he would suggest some obscure (to me) paper from another field, chatting about how some concepts can be adapted to study of cultural change. I then did an MSCA-IF at the Pompeu Fabra University in Spain with the CaSES research group led by Marco Madella (another great mentor!) and was involved in his ‘Simulpast’, a large collaborative project which focused on the theory and method of simulation studies in archaeology. I then came to Cambridge as a McDonald Fellow in 2016; I was supposed to work on a project on the emergence and evolution of cultural boundaries, but a few months later I accepted a lectureship that I am currently holding.

What current projects are you working on at the University of Cambridge?

I’m currently working on two projects. The first one is the Leverhulme-funded ‘Crops, pollinators and people: the long-term dynamics of a critical symbiosis (Buckbee)‘ project led by Prof. Martin Jones, with the collaboration with Prof. Richard Evershed (University of Bristol). We are looking at the origin and spread of insect-pollinated crops (buckwheat) using different approaches (e.g. DNA, organic residue analyses, etc.). I am working with my PhD Student, Marta Krzyzanska, who is doing some cool Bayesian analyses to model the ecological niches of Buckwheat.

The second project is an ERC-starter grant I’m directing called ‘Demography, Cultural change, and the Diffusion of Rice and Millet during the Jomon-Yayoi transition in prehistoric Japan (ENCOUNTER) ‘The project looks at the demic and cultural diffusion event that started about 3,000 years ago in the Japanese archipelago and brought a package of cultural and economic practices from mainland Asia. We are particularly focusing on how and why different regions reacted to this event, as we have evidence suggesting that some accepted the new practices immediately, while others resisted for several centuries, chose only specific cultural traits, or even reverted to previous practices after an initial uptake. We are also developing a series of bespoke methods for this project, and some are already giving us some new insights on prehistoric Japan. We just published a paper where we introduced a new approach for reconstructing prehistoric population dynamics and applied this to a case study from the Jomon period. The results showed that the timing of a major demographic event was 500 years earlier than we previously thought, questioning some of the climate-led hypothesis that suggested so far.

Enrico delivering a talk on the ‘Diversity of Jomon life-ways’ in the East Asia Seminar Series at the University of Cambridge (2017)

Why is your research important for understanding prehistoric human behaviour?

I think cultural evolutionary theory has still lots to offer in archaeological research. Many of the early works have focused macroevolution and there have been some attempts also to look at high-quality data from a microevolutionary perspective, reconstruing for example modes of transmission from frequency data (something I worked on a few years ago). But I think there has been less work between these two levels – in particular the study of horizontal transmission between populations. This is a tricky scale, but an exciting one that can help linking micro to macroevolution, and I hope the ENCOUNTER project can give us some new insights.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

That’s a tough question! I usually feel everything is a work in progress and start to see more and more flaws after papers get published! There is one paper I particularly enjoyed writing that was published few years ago on Human Biology though; it has an awful title (‘Cultural Incubators and Spread of Innovation’), but Mark Lake and I found some interesting dynamics on how adding uncertainty in payoff-biased transmission can be detrimental in larger interconnected groups.

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

When I was at high school, I hated math and computer science – now I teach both regularly, and enjoy coding. I think many fields are rapidly changing in this regard, and computing, quantitative skills, and open science are now becoming the norm. Ben Marwick wrote a great paper a few years ago where he argues for a shift from T-shaped researchers with an in-depth in knowledge in a particular domain to Pi-shaped researchers with in-depth knowledge in a particular domain and an in-depth knowledge in computing skills (see image below). So my advice is to be patient and learn those skills. Math and coding are like languages – you cannot enjoy learning one by just reading a book of grammar rules. But if you find the right content (mine was learning about spatial archaeology and cultural evolutionary theory) these skills will not be just useful but also enjoyable.

T-shaped and Pi-shaped researchers. Figure from a preprint of Marwick (2017)