Conversations with: Professor Fiona Jordan

This week, I am very happy to introduce Professor Fiona Jordan, an evolutionary and linguistic anthropologist from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Bristol! Fiona’s research primarily seeks to understand the evolution of cultural diversity using data, methods and theory from a variety of disciplines, such as biology, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. She is the leader of the excd (Evolution of Cross-Cultural Diversity) lab, based at the University of Bristol, which investigates how the staggering, yet not infinite, variety in human culture has evolved. Prior to her professorship, she has also worked at University College London in the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguists in the Netherlands.

What are your current research interests and particular area of expertise within biological anthropology?
Kinship, stories, and plants. Not quite as random as it sounds! My lab’s name (Evolution of Cross-Cultural Diversity) tells the overarching interest we have in explaining human cultural variation from different angles and in different domains. And I say “we” because all the research I do is highly collaborative. We’re in our last year of a 5-year ERC-funded project ‘VariKin’, using cultural evolutionary, linguistic, and developmental perspectives to understand kinship system diversity. We’ve also been wrapping up a project on the cultural transmission of stories in order to investigate what makes a story memorable: the tale, or the teller? In the last few years I’ve been involved in a number of cross-cultural database initiatives: KinBank for our VariKin project; D-PLACE (the Database of Places, Languages, Cultures & Environments); CHIELD (see below); and NumeralBank.

What originally drew you towards biological anthropology? 

I was a very ‘humanities’ student in high school–lots of art history and English and drama–but I had a seventh form biology teacher who did a great job teaching human evolution and introduced me to the notion of anthropology. I did my undergraduate and masters at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, at a time when Anthropology was very ‘four-field’ and for a while I thought I might be an archaeologist–even took a geology course! But I was also enjoying the psychology in my degree and that was at the time when the ‘evolutionary turn’ in the social sciences was just starting to take off. So biological anthropology seemed like a brilliant crossroads of all the things I was interested in. So much so that instead of being happy with my BA in Anthropology, I also did a BSc in Biology. Always keen…

What is the Varikin project? Where do you hope this project will go in the future?

The project’s full title is “Cultural Evolution of Kinship Diversity: Variation in Language, Cognition and Social Norms Regarding Family.” A bit of a mouthful, but the project is a multi-disciplinary attempt to understand why human societies differ in who they class as family. In particular, to understand why across the world we see a variety of ways of categorising kin, and what patterns this variation. For example, in English we have different words for siblings and cousins. But in many languages (Maori from New Zealand is a nice example), speakers use the same words for cousins and siblings. And some languages–Hindi, for example– distinguish types of cousins by the relatives you’re related through. But the variety isn’t endless. Kinship term patterns have fascinated anthropologists for decades, but cross-cultural studies fell out of favour before we really cracked the puzzles. And now, we have new methods from evolutionary biology, big datasets of natural language use across a range of cultures, and the ability to conduct systematic fieldwork and study how children learn. So we’re taking advantage of these new approaches and data to build a global database of kinship terminology patterns, and to use the methods I mentioned to tackle the questions anew. 

We’ve a number of findings in the publication pipeline, but some of our early results showed that shared ancestry (i.e., what language family or group your language is a member of) is a strong predictor of the kinship pattern, and has more of an effect than social norms like marriage or inheritance rules. Anthropologists have argued for one or both of these explanations for many years but our global analysis quantified the trends. We also tested the claim that the more a word is used, the slower it is to change. This appears to hold for kinship terms–terms for close family members are used more, and they change slowly (actually, super-slowly, compared to other vocabulary. And in work with Datooga children from Tanzania, Alice Mitchell has shown that adults adopt the child’s point of view when using kinship terms. Further work comparing across a range of languages has shown this phenomena (e.g. “Where’s Granny’s bowl?”) to be consistent, so it looks like adults have to help kids figure kinship terms out: they’re difficult to learn.

Dolls used by Alice Mitchell in 2018 in Tanzania to elicit kinship terms from children during their natural play

What other projects are the excd lab currently working on?
Our Transmission project, investigating storytelling from a cultural transmission perspective, has just come to a close. We’ve a big paper in submission showing how we compared different kinds of social learning biases in the telling of a creation story. We designed a novel experimental paradigm that drew on the fact that as listeners we have “accent prejudice”. We used this as a way to establish social status or “prestige” as one of the biases. And right now I’m working with other researchers to set up a new project to investigate these social biases in stories cross-culturally. Another project, led by Dr Sean Roberts now at Cardiff, is CHIELD – an exciting database that brings together hundreds of hypotheses about language evolution. Sean marshalled together an extensive team of contributors (some number of excd.lab members, including our undergrad researchers) to systematise causal hypotheses about how language evolves. Future work will continue my interests in natural resource management. I’m combining my personal love (plants and gardens) with research questions about the cultural uses of plants–what is often called ethnobotany. With colleagues at Reading and Norway, I have new projects that use phylogenetic methods to understand traditional medicinal uses of plants in Oceania and in the Viking world.

For you, what are the benefits and challenges of working in an interdisciplinary team? 
To be honest, I wouldn’t know any other way to work! I’ve never been satisfied with single explanatory frameworks for human behaviour, and while everything I do is rooted in the reality of evolutionary principles, I think dogmatism about disciplines constrains our ability to answer the big questions about culture. It’s a personal benefit because there’s always an interesting new perspective to take on a question: can we think about some cultural phenomena from different angles? And it helps alleviate the ego issues of being “wrong”. I’m always wrong, because there’s always some other part of the puzzle that another discipline can bring, but I’ve learned not to take that personally. It can be challenging to work with people across disciplines and to be patient while everyone learns each other’s dialects, but there’s also a real joy in being a translator for other people in that respect. The most challenging thing is never feeling that deep level of expertise in any one subject. I’m always learning (or struggling to catch up) on new methodological developments across biology, statistics, and linguistics, and keeping on top of the subject literature as well.

Fiona (front) and the excd (Evolution of Cross-Cultural Diversity) lab from the University of Bristol demonstrating the benefits of multidisciplinary teamwork to get out of an escape room!

You have worked and studied in a variety of countries across the world. Have you found that the research environment has differed and if so, how?

The different countries were all at different phases of my career: undergrad and masters, PhD, postdoc, and faculty, so sometimes it’s hard to disentangle differences from career experience. I worked in a Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands that was purely research-focused, and while it was amazing to have fantastic resources and research as my only responsibility, the pressure is intense, not all of it healthy. Universities are more balanced and allow people to use all of their skills in different ways at different stages, but that diversity of demands can also be challenging. One interesting reflection on national differences is that I think my New Zealand undergraduate experience was exceptionally high quality. I had amazing world-class lecturers (though I didn’t realise it at the time, of course!). It combined the rigour and depth of UK subject-focused programmes with the flexibility of North American-style teaching, and allowed me to pursue a number of independent study projects. Funding for pure social science research is tricky in New Zealand, though: there’s a small population base and a focus on applied research. 

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

It’s vastly more competitive, both due to the ever-increasing high standards and the sheer number of people with PhDs. But also a lot less tolerant of prejudice and status games, which is a good thing. It feels easier to speak out about cronyism, and bad behaviour. There’s a way to go on all fronts, especially race and class privilege, but those conversations happen in a way that just didn’t 20 years ago.

What is your best advice to an anthropology PhD student embarking on a career in academia?

In terms of a “career in academia”: don’t listen to people like me who got their jobs 10-20 years ago! We’re the product of survivorship bias. The numbers are against you from the start, even if you’re brilliant, even if you have all the passion in the world, even if your supervisor thinks “you’ll be fine”. Have a Plan A: Academia is Plan B. To keep things in perspective, think of your PhD as training to be a researcher and an expert. Society needs incisive anthropologists in so many walks of life, so grasp all the opportunities to broaden your skills and horizons. It’s the delight of learning new things that leads you to even contemplate the weird, strange life of a PhD – holding on to that is key. Finally: be a good colleague. Be kind and generous, be interested, and be interesting. 

Fiona (festively) working on computational aspects of her research at her desk

Conversations with: Professor John Gowlett

I am very pleased to introduce this week’s guest – Professor John Gowlett from the University of Liverpool! Like many of his students (see last week’s conversation with Prof Andy Herries), John was very inspirational to me as an Evolutionary Anthropology undergraduate, and continues to be a great mentor as I embark on my PhD in his research group. John is an African archaeologist and evolutionary anthropologist, a world leader in a number of areas of human evolution studies, such as the origins of fire use, the emergence of language and art and the evolution of early stone technologies. Recently, a number of colleagues came together from around the world to produce an edited volume titled ‘Landscapes of Human Evolution: Contributions in Honour of John Gowlett’, paying homage to his impressively extensive research profile.

Finding an Middle Stone Age core at Mweya (Uganda) in 1990

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise within archaeology and anthropology?

I have always been interested in one major issue of evolution – how we became human.  It always went beyond archaeology for me.  My first book  Ascent to Civilization was a shot at taking on the challenge, at a fairly popular level – it’s very hard to keep that up alongside detailed research, but recently in Thinking Big working with good colleagues such as Clive Gamble and Robin Dunbar, that spread the load and made it easier. David Cannadine, the historian, has quoted the French scholar Le Roy Ladurie to the effect that we are all fundamentally parachutists or truffle hunters – looking at the world, or seeking for detail.  In truth in archaeology we always need both, for ideas to be sustained by evidence.  In detail, I know quite a bit about parts of the Acheulean handaxe tradition, and aspects of fire studies, but I’m constantly reminded of how much I don’t know.  I like to explore how early humans came to assemble and manage chains of ideas. 

John (right) at East Turkana with (left to right) Kay Behrensemeyer, Jack Harris and Dinah Crader in 1972. Jack Harris calls it ‘the heroic age’!

What first inspired your interest in anthropology and archaeology? 

Like lots of us, I think, I started becoming interested in the past at an early age.  My father used to take us around castles on summer holidays, especially in Wales.  We also used to visit my grandmother in Essex, and alongside her house was a cart track .  We used to hunt for fossils in the gravel – I still have a couple of beautiful sea urchins derived from the chalk.  At nine a school prize had me taking a voucher to a bookshop -but my 5 shillings didn’t extend to any of the books – finally there was a little book on fossils, which I still have – I didn’t understand that you could make up the price – .the 7 shillings tag was a great concern.  Somehow the 2 shillings was found!

By 12 or 13 I was going on bike rides and sketching old houses and churches, then came the first chance to work on an excavation – in Chester, on the Roman fortress ditch outside the city wall.  Hugh Thompson provided a chance to work on the amphitheatre.  My school thought that archaeology meant classics, but geology and art had more appeal for me – I managed an O-level in one and an A-level in the other. The great eye opener was arrival of my university reading list – I was entranced with books such as Carter’s Human heredity and Howells’ Mankind in the making.

What was your PhD topic and who was your supervisor at the University of Cambridge? 

My dissertation was entitled rather prosaically ‘A contribution to studies of the Acheulean in East Africa with especial reference to Kilombe and Kariandusi’. My main teacher was Charles McBurney; he had a great deal to offer, but because he could be rather austere, and seemed a bit of a traditionalist – which he wasn’t – many students preferred to work with Eric Higgs, the inspirational leader of an early agriculture project which also swept in the Palaeolithic.  I went with McBurney on expedition to Afghanistan, but his idea for me to become ‘our man in Central Asia’ didn’t fit with my great desire to work on earlier human origins.  It was the flamboyant Pat Carter, on the fringes of the Cambridge department, but highly active in Africa, who made the connection that allowed me to have an early season with Glynn Isaac at East Rudolf, now East Turkana.  Glynn made plain to me that far too many people wanted to work on the new Oldowan occurrences.  BUT, a large new Acheulean site was coming up – and that was Kilombe.  Kariandusi became tacked onto the thesis when Richard Leakey wanted to have the Kariandusi museum renovated, and the chance to work there was not to be missed.  As McBurney was away in Russia, Alan Bilsborough the physical anthropologist stood in to be my supervisor, and has remained a friend and occasional mentor ever since.  Apart from his support there seemed so little interest in Cambridge that I took an unusual opportunity – a lectureship in archaeology in Khartoum, Sudan, my first real job.  I came back before my viva.  Sadly, McBurney died the previous night.  I can see much more clearly now than then his great sense of obligation to be rigorous in the face of the very limiting data that we get in the Palaeolithic.

Visiting Meroe in Sudan in 1975 after a 4000 mile drive by landrover

What were the main findings from your PhD? 

My thesis set out the main finds of two big million-year-old Acheulean sites – early dates, and not always accepted, still less that such industries could have many advanced characters.  Learning this direct from the material and its dynamics often put me at odds with received opinion.  I was influenced by books such as Annett’s Feedback and human behaviour and the work of the psychologist Kevin Connelly.  My main conclusion was that we shouldn’t underestimate early hominins – I came to appreciate that they have many abilities which some people would deny even in the Neanderthals!  I was getting this into print before I finished the thesis, in a note in Nature about cultural complexity that Tom Wynn says was one of the first pieces on Palaeolithic cognitive archaeology – though his own work has a very strong claim.

What projects are you currently working on at the University of Liverpool and why are these important for understanding ancient hominins?

My field research is centred on the extinct volcano of Kilombe in Kenya, and the archaeological sites on its southern flanks and within its caldera.  For a very long time I have been fascinated by the possibilities of what we call the Acheulean main site – strictly GqJh1,  It is a vast handaxe distribution about a million years old.  It gives a very unusual opportunity – the handaxes are coming out of a single horizon with outcrops up to 200 metres apart, so there is an almost unique chance to compare the different outputs made at almost the same moment in time.

The new project has taken us up to the heart of Kilombe mountain, its caldera, to much older sites.  They are important for learning how early hominins exploited high level environments.

One of John’s favourite views of Kilombe, with friend and field assistant Kimolo (1974)

What is your favourite thing about fieldwork and where has been your favourite place to excavate?

I have especially fond memories of working with Dr James Brink at Cornelia in the Free State of South Africa.  It is another million year old handaxe site, with lots of fauna.  You are right out on the high veld, astonishingly more like prairies of the American Midwest than the Africa which I knew.  James would run a very friendly camp, working hard with his crew all day long then still  insisting on cooking in the evening, great rows of steaks or the S. African wors on the campfire, and we would sit out in the cold under the great African sky with its incomparable stars, with red wine and brandy.  A great loss, James succumbed to a tumour a few months ago, and I’ve been working to help get one of his last papers to press.  

James Brink cooking steaks over the braai at Cornelia (2009)

East Africa is so different, and my main joy for fieldwork: I love Africa, its people, its huge variety.  My soul lifts when the plane lands in Nairobi, and I enjoy each step of dealing with the colleagues in the Museum, even the officials that we meet, visiting our British Institute in eastern Africa, then the long drive up to site in chaotic traffic; going up and down the volcano on a rock road each day, and especially meeting again and dealing with our farmer friends who are our helpers in the work.  They are far from well off, and have no more than primary education, but they have an interest, knowledge and focus which is humbling.  

With colleagues at a small town in Uganda (1990)

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

The recent meeting which colleagues organised around my surprise festschrift is one of the most special things for me.   They came together from all round the world, and I hope they are pleased with the result.  It’s a great privilege for me to go through it seeing all their different perspectives.

People often ask an archaeologist what is the most exciting thing you have ever found.  Of course we don’t see things that way; there are moments all the same – and one of the most special things came working with Tony Buchner on a Palaeoindian site in Canada. At lunch break in the hot sun I was trailing my legs in the creek and paddling my hands in the water against the bank, when something just dropped into my palm – a perfect stone point pressure-flaked all over each face.  They sent me a beautiful replica made by a local flint knapper.  Finding australopithecine remains at Chesowanja was a stunning moment too – the actual finder was Bernard Ngeneo, who used to work with Richard Leakey.

We have to keep looking for highlights even in grim times.  In January – it seems about 100 years ago – I spoke at an evolutionary biology conference in Ankara; that was a wonderful meeting organised by students of METU University to help protect evolution in the Turkish educational system.  Speaking to an audience of 700 prospective students was thrilling.  At dinner one student asked me what ten books had most influenced me – that was food for quite a lot of thought. In the end my list included only one archaeology book, Mary Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge Volume 3.

John with Darwin and Australopithecus at METU in Ankara (January 2020)

What advice would you give to a first year PhD student, like me, at the start of their academic journey

You need a lot of luck, as in Leakey’s luck, but then at least to an extent you can make more luck.  It helps to remember that a thesis is meant to be seen as a training in research and not supposed to be a huge mountain that takes over.  If you can shape some papers and publish them early – as you have done already – that counts for a lot.  And the essence of archaeology is that we don’t know all the answers, so you have to enjoy not knowing everything!

John’s ten books…

Forbes, Duncan.  1956. British Fossils. Second Edition.  Black, London.

Homer. 600 BC?   The Iliad

Leakey, M.D. 1971. Olduvai Gorge volume 3. C.U.P. Cambridge.

Huxley, T.H.  1863. Man’s place in nature. Macmillan, London.

Craik, Kenneth. 1943. The nature of explanationC.U.P. Cambridge.

Huxley, J. 1974. Evolution: the modern synthesis. Third edition. Allen and Unwin, London.

Sacedoti, Earl D.  1977. A structure for plans and behavior.  Elsevier, New York.

Eddington, A. 1939.  The philosophy of physical science. C.U.P. Cambridge.

McGrew, W.C. 1992.  Chimpanzee material culture: implications for human evolution.  C.U.P. Cambridge.

Feynman, R. 1998.   Six easy pieces: the fundamentals of physics explained.  Penguin, London.

Conversations with: Professor Andy Herries

My next guest is Professor Andy Herries who is Head of the Department of Archaeology and History at La Trobe University in Australia! Andy is a field palaeoanthropologist, geochronologist and geoarchaeologist, running The Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory (TAAL). TAAL applies magnetic and geophysical methods to the study of archaeological sites and artefacts. He also directs two field projects in South Africa – The Drimolen Cave Palaeoanthropology and Geoarchaeology Field School, looking at the transition from Australopithecus to early Homo and Paranthropus, and the Amanzi Springs Archaeology Project, looking at the transition from the Acheulean to the Middle Stone Age.

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

My main focus has been on the geoarchaeology and geochronology of human origins, particularly in southern Africa, through the use of palaeomagnetism. I work as both a specialist on archaeological and fossils sites where I fly in and take samples and return to the lab to run them, as well as a field archaeologist and site director. My main interest is providing a chronology for hominin evolution and understanding the transition from the Acheulian to the Middle Stone Age. However, I have a very diverse publishing background based on the fact that archaeomagnetism can be used on almost all time periods and I have published papers on 19th Century Melbourne bricks, modelling Chacma Baboon distributions, and I’ve just had a joint authored paper accepted on fossil wombats. I love this diversity in research.

What originally drew you towards archaeology and anthropology? 

I never remember not wanting to be an archaeologist. I always used to say that I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 6 but a few years ago my grandmother told me that when I was three I asked for her toffee hammer to go out into the garden to break rocks to find fossils. So not much has changed. I was lucky enough to grow up in the United Arab Emirates and travel to Egypt, Greece, Italy, Sri Lanka with my parents so I was immersed in archaeology from a very early age. I went on my first excavation when I was 16 with University College London at Beddingham Roman Villa in Sussex. Consequently, when I went to the University of Liverpool and studied Archaeological Science I had visited many of the places being talked about in class. However, when I sat in a first year subject where Prof John Gowlett talked about early hominins in Africa I found it fascinating as I knew so little about it and I was hooked from that point on Palaeoanthropology. In my second year John was on sabbatical and so I got classes from John McNabb and that gave us a wonderful grounding in stone tool technology which I used for my honours on Australian stone tools. My becoming involved in African archaeology came about because I was a caver and Anthony Sinclair and Patrick Quinney at Liverpool invited me on the Makapansgat Middle Pleistocene Research Project because they wanted to explore for new caves in South Africa. At this point in my life I was all ready to become a hominin palaeobiologist but my trip to South Africa prompted me to move into geoarchaeology instead and study cave geology.

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

My PhD was a “Magnetostratigraphic seriation of South African hominin palaeocaves”. When I started it in 1999 there were really no good ages for the South African hominin sites, which were mostly based on faunal correlation. I had done a stratigraphic study of the Makapansgat Limeworks hominin site in South Africa for my MSc and so my supervisor, Alf Latham suggested the next natural step was to do a palaeomagnetic study to look at the age of the site, expanding what had been done in the 1970s. I did this in the Geomagnetism Laboraotry at Liverpool in collaboration with the Makapansgat Field School run by Kaye Reed of Arizona State University and Kevin Kuykendall then of the University of the Witwatersrand. After I started I then got asked to work on several other sites in the Cradle of Humankind including Sterkfontein, Gondolin, and Gladysvale.

Excavating a horn core at the Cornelia hominin site in South Africa with John Gowlett and James Brink (2001).

Since your PhD, what academic positions have you held? Where have these been and on what projects?

Right after my PhD I was a post-doctoral fellow on the European Union funded Archaeomagnetic Applications for the Rescue of Cultural Heritage (AARCH) at the Geophysical Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia, Bulgaria. This is the only job I have had that did not focus on Palaeoanthropology as I worked on the archaeomagnetic dating of Bronze Age and Mediaeval Pottery kilns. However, during this position I started working at Pinnacle Point in South Africa with Curtis Marean looking at pyrotechnology and stone tool heat treatment in the Middle Stone Age. During my PhD I had started this line of work with Lyn Wadley at Sibudu and Rose Cottage Caves, as well as the Cave of Hearths at Makapansgat. In 2005 I moved to the University of New South Wales Dept. Anatomy on a NewSouth Global Post-doctoral Fellowship where I worked on some Later Stone Age sites as well as continuing work at Pinnacle Point. During this period I also started working back in the Cradle of Humankind at Gondolin. I was successful with an Australian Research Council Australian Research (ARC) Fellowship at UNSW in 2008 to work on fossil sites in China and excavated Red Deer Cave in Yunnan Province, but continued doing magnetics research on South African sites during this period including at Cornelia, Bolt’s Farm, Malapa, Taung and Drimolen. I also started work with John Gowlett in Kenya at Kilombe. In 2012 I was successful with an ARC Future Fellowship at La Trobe University where I also set up The Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory (TAAL) and continued to work on many of these same sites, as well as at Rising Star. During this period I started a Field School at Drimolen and began early research at the Acheulian site of Amanzi Springs. I became the Head of Dept. of Archaeology and History at La Trobe in 2018 and was promoted to Professor.   

What current projects are you working on in The Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory (TAAL)?

TAAL works on projects across a lot of time ranges and current projects include palaeomagnetic analysis of Oldowan and Acheulian sites at Kilombe in Kenya, the Paranthropus robustus site of Kromdraai, fossil sites in Saudi Arabia, Acheulian sites in Jordan, and archaeological and marsupial fossil sites in Australia.  

What are the aims of the Drimolen Cave and Amanzi Springs Archaeology projects? What have been the most memorable finds so far?

The aim of our research at Drimolen is to try and understand the changing landscapes, climate and species that occur between the newly discovered older deposits of the Drimolen Makondo (~2.6 Ma) when Australopithecus africanus was on the landscape and the younger ~2.0 Ma Drimolen Main Quarry when Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus first occur along with bone and stone tools. The discovery of the DNH 134 Homo erectus cranium, the oldest fossil of this species is by far the most significant find. At Amanzi Springs our project has so far focused on trying to date the deposits and try to understand the relationship between the Acheulian artefacts and newly identified Middle Stone Age deposits. The most significant discovery to date is a layer in the Acheulian that contains a significant amount of preserved wood. Both projects are run with researchers at the Palaeo-Research Institute at the University of Johannesburg that I have been partly involved in establishing in recent years. It’s extremely important to get more South Africans involved in Palaeoanthropology in South Africa. Hence the Drimolen Field School has supported the honours program training at UJ and we provide scholarships for African students to come on the field school. At Amanzi we have had lots of students from the University of Cape Town come excavate with us.     

What project or publication are you most proud of from your academic career so far? 
Obviously I have just published my first, 1st author paper in Science on the age of the Drimolen site and the DNH 134 Homo erectus cranium. The discovery and publishing of a significant hominin crania by a team I lead has been a lifelong ambition so it certainly tops the list. But this is just the start of our publications from Drimolen and some quite significant publications are also on the horizon for Amanzi Springs we hope. I’m also pretty proud of my first paper in Science in 2009 where we published the oldest evidence for the heat treatment of rock to make stone tools at Pinnacle Point as this paper really seemed to set off debate within the discipline. My paper on the age of Sterkfontein is also one I’m fond of because it gave some of the first ages for iconic fossils like Mrs Ples and when Robyn Pickering came along afterwards and uranium-lead dated the site she got the same answer for the ages independently. This set off a long collaboration that culminated in our paper in Nature together last year showing that speleothems form across the Cradle of Humankind caves and can be used to cross correlate in a similar way to volcanic tuffs in eastern Africa, which is just very cool.  

Andy with the recently published DNH 134 Homo erectus cranium

What is your favourite and worse thing about academia? What would you change if you could? 

My favourite thing is that I am able to get up every day to do something I love and for the most part decide what I want to research each day. I also love interacting with my PhD students and trying to help them to full-fill their dreams and career wishes. That love of teaching is the same reason I run the Drimolen Field School as I want to both inspire undergraduate students into palaeoanthropology like John Gowlett inspired me and also help to provide opportunities for South African students to work in the field. The worse thing about academia is that it is hard to relax and switch off because you always have something that needs doing, some deadline coming up. It makes creating a work life balance a challenge (It’s currently 1.30 am as I write this!). The thing I would change if I could would be the lack of jobs available, especially for students when they first finish their PhD.

Conversations with: Professor Chris Stringer

This week, I am delighted to introduce Professor Chris Stringer, a physical anthropologist and the research leader of Human Origins at the Natural History Museum in London. You may know Chris as one of the leading proponents of the ‘Out of Africa’ or ‘Recent African Origins’ hypothesis, which is currently the most widely accepted model for the origin of our species. He has excavated at sites in Britain and abroad, and currently is co-director of the Pathways to Ancient Britain project, working alongside Dr Rob Davis from the British Museum, who has previously featured on this blog! Chris has published extensively in academic journals and has written numerous books, such as ‘The Origin of Our Species’ and ‘Our Human Story’.

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise within human evolutionary studies?

My interests now are focussed on reconstructing the last half million years or so of human evolution, collaborating with a range of colleagues in palaeoanthropology, archaeology, genetics, geochronology and palaeoclimates. I’ve also been particularly involved with the British part of the story over the last 20 years or so, first of all directing the Leverhulme-funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain projects, and then co-directing the Calleva Foundation-funded Pathways to Ancient Britain projects, with Nick Ashton at the BM. These latter projects came out of a long-term interest in the British Quaternary, fuelled by fieldwork with people like Tony Sutcliffe, Andy Currant and Peter Andrews, starting in the 1970s.

What originally drew you towards human evolutionary studies?

My interest in human evolution started at primary school – I was fascinated by fossils, and at the age of about 9 I did a school project on Neanderthals, having heard a BBC radio programme for schools. I wish I still had that project! My interest grew through my school years, but I had no idea that I could actually study in this area (I was from a working-class background and only looking at the career choices offered by teachers and the school library). So I planned to do medicine, with a place at medical school lined up. Then by chance I was given University College London’s prospectus – it was arranged alphabetically, and Anthropology was at the beginning. The course offered archaeology, human evolution, genetics and social anthropology. Suddenly medicine seemed less appealing. So I phoned UCL (this was long before the internet!), was invited for an interview, and they offered me a place. Much to the amazement of my teachers and parents, I dropped medicine at the last minute and took up this study subject, which I had only just learnt existed.

Where did you study for your PhD, what was your topic and who was your supervisor? How did you choose these things?

1969 was a bad year to start post-grad studies following the student riots of 1968, and I was lucky to find a temporary job at the Natural History Museum while 3 mentors tried to find me PhD funding – Don Brothwell at the Natural History Museum, Michael Day at Middlesex Hospital  Medical School, and Bob Martin at UCL. In the end my PhD chose me in 1970 when Jonathan Musgrave, newly arrived in Anatomy at Bristol Medical School, was offered spare funding for a PhD student by his Head of Department, and asked around for likely candidates to study something on Neanderthals (he had studied their hand bones). I opted for the project Don and I had put together – ‘A Multivariate Study of Cranial Variation in Middle and Upper Pleistocene Human Populations’.

Chris on his PhD trip around Europe in 1971

What were the findings from your PhD?  

Testing the (then) mainstream view that Neanderthals were likely ancestors for Upper Palaeolithic humans, based on comparisons of skull shape, was an important part of my PhD. I concluded that they were not, and noted that African fossils like Omo 1 (from Ethiopia) looked a better candidate for that ancestry. But the evidence was too thin at that time to build a convincing alternative scenario of where modern humans had evolved.

What projects are you currently working on at the Natural History Museum? Have you got any exciting results from these so far?

I’m working on a number of different projects involving fossils from Europe, Africa, the Levant, China and Indonesia. Comparing the fragmentary fossil evidence from Boxgrove with the larger samples from the Sima de los Huesos at Atapuerca is one of them. And I was really pleased to see the Broken Hill dating project finally completed and published after more than 20 years!

Chris studying the Dar es-Soltan skull in Rabat (2004)

Are you currently working on any upcoming exhibitions or public engagement projects at the Natural History Museum?

We’ve just added the reconstructed head of ‘Cheddar Man’ to our Human Evolution exhibition. But our current exhibition is already 5 years old, and it would be great to see an even more ambitious presentation of the evidence, with fuller treatment of the early African story and the contributions of palaeogenetics.

What has been the highlight of your career? Which project or publication are you most proud of?

Well, the 1988 Science paper “Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans” with Peter Andrews is probably the one I’m most proud of, and it came at a crucial time in the debate about our African origins. But the 2005 and 2010 AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) papers on Pakefield and Happisburgh 3 that pushed back the earliest-known occupations in Britain were great team achievements.  

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

There have been so many, particularly on the ancient DNA side, but I’ll go for Homo naledi. It came from an area and time period where many of us assumed we knew at least roughly what was happening, and it reminded us that we really didn’t. That something so strange and relatively late in time could be found in a supposedly well-explored cave system near Johannesburg shows that our picture of human evolution is still so incomplete, with no doubt many more surprises to come, and not just from Africa.

If you were not an academic in human evolutionary studies, what career would you follow and why?  

Well, if I hadn’t switched to Anthropology, I might well have been a doctor called out of retirement to help fight Coronavirus now! And I was lined up to train as a Biology teacher if my PhD place hadn’t come through in 1970. On an alternative path, I’d have loved to be an Astrobiologist

Conversations with: Dr Rob Davis

It is my absolute pleasure to introduce my next guest, Dr Rob Davis a Palaeolithic archaeologist who currently works at the British Museum in London. Rob is project curator for the ‘Pathways to Ancient Britain ‘Project, with his primary research interests lying in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic record of northern Europe. He is also co-director of the Barnham Palaeolithic Field School in Suffolk and is chair of the Lithic Studies Society.

What are your current research interests and particular area of expertise within archaeology?

Currently, my research is focussed on the Lower Palaeolithic of Europe, in particular that of northern Europe. I’m interested in understanding how humans were able to overcome the difficulties of occupying northern latitudes; how were they overcoming these cooler climates with longer, colder winters, what technologies they needed to do this and what subsistence patterns enabled them to get over the shorter growing seasons. I’m trying to work out when humans were in northern Europe and how they were managing to live in these new, unfamiliar landscapes.

In terms of my area of expertise within archaeology, I work primarily within the Lower Palaeolithic with a practical focus on lithic technologies. My specialities lie in lithic analysis, excavation, both geological and archaeological, and surveying techniques.

What originally drew you towards Palaeolithic archaeology?

When I started my undergrad, I was very much interested in later prehistoric periods. I don’t think I had really been exposed to Palaeolithic archaeology at school or even on TV or anything like that. I was always interested in history and archaeology, in periods like the Neolithic and the Iron and Bronze Age. However, I had two excellent lecturers when I started my undergrad in archaeology at UCL, Ignacio de la Torre and Dietrich Stout, who were just amazing and had a big influence on me. They ran the Palaeolithic modules and I ended up taking them all. I found that over the course of my undergrad my interests shifted earlier and earlier in time! I then decided to do my masters dissertation on a Lower Palaeolithic assemblage with Nick Ashton at the British Museum and it all went from there. Once I had been exposed to it, it felt like there were so many big unanswered questions about human evolution and the development of human societies and I was just so interested in it!

What path did you take to get to the position you’re in now?

I came as a mature student to archaeology; I initially had a career in construction management as a site engineer. When I was 25, I quit that job and went back to university to study archaeology. I found that my previous career was actually very useful to my studies as I already had a lot of survey skills which I was able to contribute to excavations right from the offset; I was already able to use total stations and things like that. That was very useful.

I did my undergrad pre the huge increases in fees, so I was also able to go on and do my masters at UCL self-funded, which was good. The best decision I made, which was kind of fortuitous, was that I studied a collection from Hoxne, a Lower Palaeolithic site held at the British Museum, for my masters’ project. I found it really useful to do a dissertation based around studying a collection and learning how to record and interpret an archaeological assemblage. Doing my own research on a collection definitely provided me with important skills going forward into a PhD. My PhD was at the University of Reading with Rob Hosfield and I was looking at the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic from the River Solent, studying the river terraces that you find around Bournemouth and Southampton. Again, this project was very practical based as we did some fieldwork and I studied lots of collections, which gave me further research skills to go on into similar post-doc roles.

After my PhD, I was fortunate enough to get a two-year position at the University of Bradford on the ‘Fragmented Heritage Project’. I was working on trying to develop automated refitting technology where you can scan lots of artefacts and then use some software to see how they fit back together. That was a good project. Then, I worked with Nick Ashton and Simon Lewis to write a proposal for the ‘Brecklands Palaeolithic Project’ which ended up being a three-year Leverhulme Trust funded project at the Queen Mary’s University in London. And now I am currently working on the ‘Pathway’s to Ancient Britain Project’ at the British Museum!  

What are the aims, findings so far and future directions of this project?

With the ‘Pathway’s to Ancient Britain Project’, we’re looking at the British Palaeolithic and trying to put it into context of the broader European Record, with a specific focus on three chronological periods. At sites like Happisburgh and Pakefield, we can see the very earliest human presence in Britain dating to almost 1 million years ago. So, in this part of the project we’re trying to understand how these pioneering populations were adapting to their new environments. We think this could be Homo antecessor, as we see this species in Spain at a similar time, but at the moment we have no fossils from this period so it’s hard to ascertain exactly who these earliest human groups were! In the second period, around half a million years ago  we start to see evidence for much larger populations. We have a lot more sites and a lot more artefacts, which suggest that we have more sustained occupations, so we’re looking to see what changes in behaviour and technology enabled humans to occupy these areas more successfully for longer periods of time.

Finally, we see the emergence of Neanderthals in the final stage. I’m currently focussed on the first two phases and another group is working on the final phase. This part is mainly focussed in Jersey, looking at sites like La Cotte de St Brelade where we have evidence for the presence of Neanderthals and insights into Neanderthal behaviour.

So, they’re the three big chronological periods we’re currently focussing on in the project. In terms of future directions, we’re going to continue working on establishing what is going on in those three periods. Fire use is becoming increasingly a thing that we’re focussing on, as this may have been a necessary cultural adaptation that allowed early humans to occupy more northern latitudes. We’re been talking with some fire specialists, like John Gowlett and Sally Hoare, who do work in central East Anglia as well, at Beeches Pit where there is strong evidence for early human fire use.

What is it like working as a researcher for a museum as opposed to a university? And do you prefer it?

I have been working with the same team of people whilst working on projects at universities and for the British Museum so, from my personal experience, there has not really been a huge change. However, I have found that there is definitely a change in emphasis in terms of the type of research that you do at a museum compared to a university. When you’re employed by a university, you’re looking to provide the best learning experience for your students at the same time as conducting internationally recognised research. At the museum, we’re instead looking to provide the best learning experience for our visitors, which is very different to that which is provided for students. Whilst there’s also an emphasis on international renowned high-quality research at the British Museum, this research is very much focussed on the collections that we have and bringing these collections to life to provide that learning experience for our visitors. Public engagement is of course important for any researcher, but there is definitely a different emphasis on it when you’re working at a museum.

From a more practical point of view, when working at a university, you are part of a huge interdisciplinary institution, so you have more access to different equipment, software and journal access. You get less of that at a museum because the research is much more narrowly focussed. In terms of preference, it’s hard to pick one over the other. I don’t have any student teaching opportunities now, which I did when I was employed by a university, so I do miss that. But I enjoy working with collections as it’s is really interesting and there’s the potential for developing small exhibitions.

You’re also co-director of the Barnham Palaeolithic Field School. What is the field school, who is it aimed at and what’s your most memorable/favourite moment from last season?

Our field school is funded by the ‘Pathways to Ancient Britain Project’ and it’s been running since 2013. It initially started out as a field school for students from Leiden University in the Netherlands, as there had previously been a field school in Happisburgh for those students and this was the next project for them to work on.Over the next couple of years, we decided to broaden it out and so we opened it up to students from anywhere.

A few years ago, we started offering scholarships for students, so it doesn’t cost them anything to participate. We provide them with a practical and accessible training experience, which is something that I didn’t have when I was doing my studies, as there were no British-based Palaeolithic field school opportunities. Our field school is for students looking to continue their studies in a Palaeolithic-related discipline, whilst gaining experience of field techniques. At the same time as being a great opportunity for students, it’s very much a research excavation so we’re trying to ask these same big questions about early humans during Lower Palaeolithic. We’ve found that there’s two different assemblages at the site with considerable differences so we’re trying to understand the relationship between those assemblages, and we have significant evidence for fire so we’re also trying to understand whether the humans were using fire or whether it’s naturally occurring fire. Also, there’s a very rich environmental record at Barnham so we’re using the data we get from there to reconstruct the environment for the Hoxnian interglacial period. So, we’re looking to provide both a good teaching experience whilst also answering essential research questions about the Lower Palaeolithic.

In terms of the most memorable moment, we have reinterpretted the site since starting the new field school. As I mentioned, this is primarily because there are two different assemblages, one with hand axes and one without, which we had previously thought were the same age. We interpreted this as the same population doing different things in different functional areas. However, when we opened a new area, we found evidence to suggest that these two assemblages were stratigraphically separated, indicating two different groups of humans at the site. So we see an initial group that did not make hand axes and then a second group, arriving not long after, that did make hand axes. This is very rare to find at the same site. These groups might be separated only by a few hundred years, perhaps only a few generations, and this level of chronological resolution is almost unheard of in Lower Palaeolithic archaeology. That’s been really important for the way we’ve been thinking about the European Lower Palaeolithic record in the last couple of years.

Excavation of Area III, also known as the faunal area, from the last field school in 2019.

What is your favourite thing about being an academia and what’s one thing about academia that you would change?

The best thing has to be the freedom to be able to follow interesting avenues of research. Whilst our current project has clear aims, we do have the ability to follow it wherever it takes us which is really nice. From a personal point of view, I love fieldwork and so the opportunity to find and dig new sites is really exciting. The drawback is, of course, that it would be nice to have more jobs and more job security. We all work very hard and it takes up a lot of time, so it can get very stressful and there’s a lot of pressure to publish and produce new results. All of this plus the precarious position a lot of people are in, as they are on short-term contracts, can make it difficult. I have been very lucky as I’m now in my third position, but there’s always that end date looming. Saying that, I love what I do so I don’t think people should feel too sorry for me!

You can read Rob’s latest publication from the Pathways to Britain project here:

Conversations with: Professor Chris Hunt

Our first conversation is with Professor Chris Hunt from Liverpool John Moores University. I first met Chris when he made the long trek up the hill to the University of Liverpool to give a seminar on the new Neanderthal discoveries at Shanidar Cave. Chris is an earth scientists, whose research interests primarily lie in Quaternary Science. He currently teaches primarily in geography, with a specific focus on past human-environment interactions. After completing his PhD at University College Aberystwyth, Chris has held many research positions, most recently at Royal Holloway University, the University of Huddersfield and Queen’s University Belfast before taking up his professorship in Liverpool. He is founding editor of Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and an editorial board member of Journal of Archaeological Science. Here, Chris answers some questions about his current research projects, his experience as an academic and the ‘million-dollar question’ about Neanderthal behaviour..

What are your research interests and particular area of expertise?

I am interested particularly in how humanity interacts with our environment, now and in the distant past and, of course, all points between. I’m interested in how our environmental behaviour has changed over time. I guess I use natural sciences techniques to throw light on human behaviour. My particular expertise is in palynology, stratigraphy, sedimentology, palaeoecology and reconstructing ancient environments and I have lesser expertise in molluscs.

 What originally drew you towards archaeology when you were an undergraduate student?

As an undergraduate, I did Geography/Geology but I met a very lovely Archaeology student and attended some classes to see more of her. Sad really.

What current projects are you working on?

I am co-investigator on the Shanidar Project, co-investigator of the Fragsus Project which has investigated societal and environmental change in Maltese prehistory and co-investigator on the Cyrenaican Prehistory Project which is investigating the past 300,000 years in NE Libya. I also have active research in Borneo looking at ancient rainforest use, at Petra where I’m part of a group led by Bernhard Lucke examining Nabatean agriculture, and in Ireland where I’m contributing to Richard Jennings’ Ballymintra project exploring pre-Neolithic colonisation of Ireland and am writing up a series of samplings of middens in Co Sligo with Finbar McCormick.

 Where would you like these projects to go in the future?

I’m getting old, so I want to conclude my contribution to all these over the next few years. I hope that the Shanidar Project will develop – it’s an amazing site with huge potential and I hope that Emma Pomeroy and our colleagues in the Kurdish Antiquities Service will take it forward, find new Neanderthals and lots of great cultural information over the next 10 years. There will be all sorts of stuff to do once all of these projects are finished. For instance on Malta, our pollen evidence shows farming several hundred years before the first archaeology, and evidence continuity between the early and late Neolithic while there is no archaeological evidence in the gap in the middle. It must be there somewhere! Have we just have not recognised it or found the right site? And there is still loads to do on the collapse of the Maltese Temple Culture. Our evidence gives an idea of coastal sites being abandoned and activity continuing inland.  There may be partial population replacement, but it’s by no means certain. Our information is really still very insubstantial and more work will be needed. The work on ancient rainforest use is at a very early stage. We are beginning to see long sequences of vegetation management in Borneo, with humans impacting on rainforest since before 50,000 years ago. I would really like to do more work on this.

In relation to your most recent publication (link at bottom of page), do you think we have enough evidence to say that Neanderthals have elaborate mortuary/symbolic practises? Do you think they are behaviourally ‘modern’?

Million-dollar question which I am wrapping up in a grant application at the moment.  There are so many imponderables. They certainly looked after their injured, sick and lame. They seem to have done things with raptor feathers and claws that don’t look dietary. They may have occasionally put geometric designs on cave walls and floors.  The mortuary cluster at Shanidar suggests memory and return to sites to place their dead, if no more. The difficulty is that we are looking through the geomorphological filter which was the Last Glacial Maximum so the evidence is not strong… but it is promising nonetheless!

Shandiar Cave, Iraq, where Chris and his team have recently found evidence for elaborate Neanderthal mortuary behaviour

What is it like to work at Liverpool John Moores University in the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences?

I have lovely and interesting colleagues, a great boss, super students and no pretensions. So I feel I am very lucky. But LJMU is a poor institution financially, so we have a lot of ‘Blue Peter’ make do and mend and lots of students to look after.

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

Hugely. It’s much more like a business than it was and the number of administrators and the administrative load on academic staff have sky-rocketed out of all recognition. Health and safety is something we now have to strictly observe so there’s lots of lab and field stuff we simply don’t and can’t do any more (in many ways not a bad thing!). Students are less able to afford to be curious and much more instrumental about what they choose to do, both in subject choices and in the way they approach work on their degree. I think the loan system may have caused this. I wrote two essays a week throughout my degree but all my marks rested on the final exams. We struggle to get our guys to write one, unless credit is attached! Schools nowadays prepare students for university by focussing on passing assessments so they know little else and are far less sure of themselves than my generation were, 45 years ago. It’s a shame as a lot of them are very bright!

What is your best advice to an archaeology PhD student embarking on a career in academia?

Do something that really interests you!  And don’t necessarily expect a career in academia.  Most of the people I started with didn’t become academics, some out of choice others not. But, most would say that the time spent doing a PhD was really rewarding and exciting. And don’t think that because you started doing one thing, you have to do it for the rest of your life! The PhD shows that you have bucketloads of intelligence, problem-solving ability and sheer grit. Employers like these qualities, as long as you aren’t precious about it. If you really want an academic career, you have to hang in there and keep publishing, while doing other jobs till your opening comes along. I did 4 years consultancy and lots of odd jobs between finishing my grant and getting my first permanent job. But I kept publishing. Very hard! Finally, remember to keep perspective. A PhD thesis needs to be a very good piece of work, but don’t try to make it perfect. It’s a trap lots of people blunder into. Better a good thesis after 3.5 years than a great but unfinished one!