As some of you know, I study the history of paleoanthropology. Clearly, doing a PhD on the entire history of paleoanthropology would be difficult. So, for my dissertation research, I focus on fossils of two species of extinct hominins: Neandertals and the ‘hobbits’ from Indonesia, Homo floresiensis. I’m here to today to tell you that I lucked out; I am studying the coolest topics ever. Here’s why:
These two species are making headlines incredibly often. New methods are being applied to study the bones, new knowledge is accumulating, and new interest generated. From studies that shed light on Neandertal DNA to reanalyses of hobbits’ cave sediment, these creatures have generated quite a bit of scientific excitement. I’m pretty sure, however, that I get more excited than most. Why?
Connecting the Past with the Present
Why would a historian care what is happening in the present? Why do I jump up and down when new studies provide insight into the odd shape Neandertals’ rib cage? It’s not solely because I’m generally a psyched person (though that’s definitely part of it), and it’s not just because I think fossils are fascinating (though that also plays a role). It has to do with why I value history.
Of course, one of the main reasons historians study the past is because the past informs the present. I’m looking at the history of these fossils not just to understand their interpretations in 1856 or in 2003, but to ask questions about how their interpretations have changed and evolved over time. I want to know how people have come to ask questions about the bones, how we know what we think we know about these creatures, our evolutionary relatives.
The questions of the present are never far from the questions of the past. My dissertation research will show striking similarities between the study of the Neandertals 150 years ago and their examination today. How close to “human” were they? And what does that mean? Sometimes the connections are more obvious than others. For instance, did you know that the first Neandertal DNA was extracted from the first scientifically recognized Neandertal individual? The fossils found in 1856 continued to give us fascinating insights in 1997, 141 years after their discovery.
History is Unfolding as I Write
I don’t only love history, I love science (which is why, of course, I’m a historian of science). Watching the stories of the Neandertals and the hobbits unfold makes me more jazzed to ask questions about how they even came to be things, and how do we know. To me, it would be boring if their cases were closed, if we knew everything there is to know about Neandertals, or hobbits. It’s much more interesting if the scientific questions continue to evolve and grow in fascinating ways.
It’s worth noting that this knowledge is not simply fascinating because it’s new, it’s fascinating because it is changing the way we understand our history and our place in the natural world. Recent quotes that exemplify the excitement well include Ian Tattersall’s comment on the new hobbit study: “every finding just makes it more mysterious.” Additionally, a paleoanthropologist recently commented that the DNA sequenced from the Sima fossils was so incredible that it was “like science fiction.”
This is history in the making. and I get to watch it happen. I get to collect the National Geographic’s with reconstructed hominin faces staring at me from the cover, and I get to watch the NOVA premieres with the stories of the finds. I get to read the original research papers–hot off the press, and watch as other expert opinions roll in. This is science in the making–and it’s not just any science: it’s the science that tells us how we came to be human. In my mind, the most interesting science there is.
This past Thanksgiving holiday, paleoanthropologist John Hawks wrote “it is an extraordinary time in our science, and for that I am thankful” I couldn’t agree more. And I think that the fact that it is an extraordinary time makes the questions of the past even more important. As new knowledge about our extinct relatives the Neanderthals and hobbits is generated at an unprecedented rate, questions of how we came to know seem to me increasingly relevant. I feel as though I am a very lucky graduate student.