Archive for July 16, 2014

Guest Blog: Evernote and Anthropology

We here at the Wenner-Gren Foundation are fascinated by the new  technologies that anthropologists are constantly tinkering with, bricoleur-style, alongside their tried-and-true research practices. From iPad-mounted rigs for ethnographic filmmaking to apps for digital audio recording, we’ve come a long way from Malinowski’s spartan Trobriand tent.

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about one little app in particular: Evernote, a piece of notemaking/archiving software that first appeared on the scene as a beta in 2008 and since has become something of a cult item for the digitally-inclined anthropologist. Today, we welcome guest blogger Danielle Carr, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Carr studies the somatization of trauma and is currently working on an ethnography of Deep Brain Stimulation therapy for depression and PTSD, and has become something of an “evernote evangelist” in her own words. Let’s turn it over to her to learn more about Evernote’s use in anthropological fieldwork and her experiences with the product.

 

I never intended to become an Evernote evangelist. I’ve long held that  when someone establishes intense eye contact and tells you excitedly that something will absolutely change your life,  the best policy is to nod and continue your adequate existence, bereft as it may be of juice cleanses or Infinite Jest or gel insoles. When the first of my friends began preaching the starry-eyed  gospel of Evernote to me, I humored them. I smiled over coffee as they waxed rhapsodic about infinite syncing across devices, much as I imagine Marco Polo’s friends smiled over the 13th century equivalent of brunch as he spluttered about this wonderful new trading route that they simply must try. Reader, I admit it: I was patronizing.

I didn’t think more of it until I began preparing for fieldwork. I had been advised to keep a running word document of field notes, to save everything else in folders, and to back the whole caboodle up daily, nay, twice daily. Perhaps this strategy works for Bowflex-bodied ubermenschen, but as my file organization tends to quickly descend into a situation resembling a Bosch painting of Russian nesting dolls, I was apprehensive.  It was in this dark moment of despair that I gave Evernote a try. That, it turns out, is how they get you.

My friends, I write to you a reluctant convert. I know how this sounds, but hear me out. Here are three reasons Evernote was the perfect tool for my participant-observation based project.

1.       It allows you to create any sort of archival file.

The most groan-inducing aspect of ethnographic research is that you must keep assiduous track of every picture, audio recording, or scan you encounter. Normally, this would require uploading all the files from your sundry devices and weeping quietly as you label them by hand each night. Evernote allows you to make any sort of file (be it a scan, recording, picture, or video) and label it from within the application. Each file is saved in a “note”, or an entry resembling a notecard, to which you can add as many types of files or text as you like. The program then syncs all files across any device linked to your Evernote account. I carry an iPad during active fieldwork, and label all the notes as I create them. At the end of the day, I switch to my laptop and add tags to the notes, and write additional comments in each note.

2.       It creates your archive for you.

Ethnographic research requires that you remember not only what you learned, but when you learned it, since you are yourself a character in the emerging narrative. Evernote’s design allows you to input data in bite-sized chunks as you come across it, merging the textuality of a blog with the archival sensibilities of citation management software.  Each note you create is collated into “notebooks” and you can keep as many running as you wish. Each note is automatically inserted into this archive, which allows you to build a very precise narrative. In my case, I keep one notebook with websites, articles, and academic articles related the field I am studying, and in another I keep the documentation I am myself collecting, including my field notes.

3.       It syncs across all of your devices.

While this feature may not work so well for fieldwork in rural areas without wi-fi, using two devices has been ideal for my purposes and Evernote allows me to switch between them as desired. During the day, I carry a small satchel with an iPad, spare consent forms, and a notebook. I keep running notes on pen and paper, using the iPad if I need to take a photo or a recording, and write everything up at night using my behemoth of a laptop. Using an iPad for fieldwork is the topic for another blog post, and my own deep ambivalence and guilt about owning said iPad is another still, but speaking from the strangling embrace of the global capital’s tentacles I must admit: only having to tote one device that automatically organizes all of my data has been dreamy.

There are a few considerations worth mentioning. Using any program to organize your data binds you, in sickness and in health, to their platform. You can ameliorate this by keeping your data backed up elsewhere, as you can download any file you collect in Evernote and save it wherever you like. The other issue is that Evernote is free unless you go above a certain monthly upload limit. I have used it for two months now without being forced to shell out the five bucks monthly, but it is worth bearing in mind. There’s also the issue of confidentiality. While there have been no Evernote-hacking scandals to date, it’s probably best to anonymize your data before you put it in their system.

At the heart of these concerns, of course, is the question of ethnography’s complicity with neoliberalism. I don’t pretend to know the answer on that one, but I do think it is an issue digital projects and methods must bear actively in mind as we incorporate new tools. Considering our position in the nexus of research, technology, and capital may not be the most important conversation for anthropology, but it is a necessary one all the same. And so, dear reader, I share with you the system I’ve cobbled together that seems to be working well for me.  I remain open to comments of all sorts. Though not to comments about juice cleanses. As Levi-Strauss once commented (probably), you have to draw the line somewhere.

Are you interested in guest-blogging for us? You don’t have to be a grantee! Send your pitches to dsalas@wennergren.org.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Maria Theresia Starzmann

Maria Theresia Starzmann explains archaeological artifacts to students

Maria Theresia Starzmann is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. She originally was awarded the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2008 as a Ph.D. student at the State University of New York – Binghamton, to aid research on ‘Embodied Knowledge and Community Practice: Stone Tool Production at Fıstıklı Höyük,’ supervised by Dr. Reinhard W. Bernbeck. After analyzing the technological organization of stone tool production at this 6th millennium BCE site in southeastern Turkey, Dr. Starzmann applied for and was granted the Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2013 to develop and present a series of workshops for schoolchildren living in proximity to the research site. In this post, Starzmann shares her experiences educating young people about Neolithic lifeways.

Seen from the present, the ancient world often appears foreign to us. Looking at a Late Neolithic site, the contemporary reader may expect to find functionally differentiated stone tools—an archaeological ‘tool kit’ similar to the implements in a North American kitchen drawer. The absence of such artifacts often comes as surprise: as my research at the site of Fıstıklı Höyük in Southeastern Turkey has shown, Late Neolithic villagers lived with a relative paucity of material items. Up until the late 20th century, this scarcity has led archaeologists to describe the Late Neolithic societies of the Middle East as ‘primitive.’

Against such an ‘othering’ of past social groups, my dissertation research set out from the understanding that the past is more than an impoverished mirror image of the present. Seeking to share my alternative reading of the Late Neolithic past, I applied for a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology grant. The idea was to offer a series of workshops for school children in Turkey, providing local students with an opportunity to explore the ancient world in their own terms. In developing the workshop materials, I believed it particularly important to counter a reading of ancient cultures as ‘primitive.’ The scarcity of artifacts documented at Fıstıklı Höyük, for example, is better understood as the basis for sharing things than as indicative of a primitive lifestyle. Against this background, Late Neolithic communities appear in a different light: while they may have lacked a relatively hierarchical social organization, group cohesion seems to have been established by collective work in the context of ‘communities of practice.’

Mina Eroğlu gives a presentation to 5th-graders at Ilgi Okulları in Şanlıurfa

With these ideas in mind, I returned to Şanlıurfa, where I had carried out my dissertation fieldwork. Two colleagues, both of who had previous experience working in educational projects, accompanied me. Nilgün Çakan, a social anthropologist from Berlin, Germany, and Mina Eroğlu, an archaeologist from Ankara, Turkey, were engaged project partners and precious travel companions throughout our stay in Turkey.

Together, we visited a local elementary and middle school, Özel Şanlıurfa Saraç İlgi Okulları, for the duration of two weeks, where we conducted several workshops with 10-12 year old students. Prof. Evangelia Pişkin of Middle Eastern Technical University (METÜ), who kindly agreed to take on an advisory role in the project as well as establish the contact to the local school, supported the preliminary organization of the workshops. At the school, Mr. Halil Sarac and Mr. Mehmet Tokgöz were attentive and helpful in coordinating the workshops and providing the necessary technical equipment.

In organizing the project, it was crucial that the workshops were interactive. This meant that we provided the space for children to respond to questions and prompts as well as to as ask their own questions. Each workshop was conducted as a conversation with the children. In an instructional session, we first explained some of the basics of archaeological work. Starting from how to acquire an excavation permit to the actual excavation process, we also introduced the students to the documentation, analysis, and curation of artifacts. We had brought with us a small study collection of archaeological artifacts—pottery sherds and stone tools—that the students analyzed.

Based on the archaeological materials, the students were quick to draw comparisons between ancient cultures and contemporary village life in Turkey. Many students told us about traditional cooking and building methods not only to be found in archaeological textbooks but also in rural areas in Turkey: they mentioned the use of the tandır oven for baking bread, or of mud-brick for the construction of the beehive-shaped houses that can be found in the area of Harran, just 20 km south of Şanlıurfa. There was also distinct sense among the children that the past was in many ways different from the present and characterized in particular by the lack of modern technologies. This lack was not perceived in a negative way, however; rather, as one student put it, “People back then were more intelligent, because they didn’t have TV.”

Reconstruction drawing of Fıstıklı Höyük prepared by Bryan DePuy

The workshop also included an in-class exercise: inviting the children to travel back in time, we asked them to imagine a typical day in the Late Neolithic village of Fıstıklı Höyük. What would a day in the life of a 11-year old boy or girl have been like at Fıstıklı Höyük? In which ways was past life different from your life today, and in which ways would it have been similar? In answering these questions, the children relied on reconstruction drawings of Fıstıklı Höyük that Toronto-based artist Bryan DePuy had contributed to the project. The images depict Late Neolithic village life—men, women, and children are busy fishing, cooking, and making pottery or stone tools—and they also give a hint about the nature of past social relations.

In their stories, many children actively engaged the idea of a ‘sharing economy,’ with one student stating that “life back then was better, today people are egoists.” This sentiment corresponded to a general understanding among the children that in Late Neolithic societies there might have been more room to accommodate people who “had different talents.” That these talents needed to be passed on between the generations was also of concern to the students: in the reconstruction drawing of Fıstıklı Höyük we see adults sitting with children, leading several students to suggest that “knowledge was shared between father and son.” But according to the students, the status of parents or village elders was not established by way of coercion. Instead, “older people had more authority, because they were more experienced,” and someone who stood at the top of the social hierarchy of the village, maybe a ‘sheikh,’ was “not someone powerful, but someone smart.”

Nilgün Çakan listens to a student reading her story about Neolithic life

To Mina, Nilgün, and myself, these answers demonstrated that our project was about much more than teaching children about cultural heritage. Initially conceived of as a way of bringing ‘home’ my dissertation work, the workshops soon unfolded into a genuine conversation in which the students shared their ideas about a different world. The children’s stories are beautiful accounts of the possibilities of a world that is inclusive of diversity, communal ways of living, and sharing. The project thus opened up new spaces for talking about history and for learning from each other. Or, as student Doğa put it in her story about living a day in a Late Neolithic village, “I am sure, I could teach [the people from the past] a few things and most likely they would be able to teach me a few things as well.”

 

As per her request, we have included Starzmann’s summary of her project in Turkish.

Türkçe özet:

Şanlıurfa-Türkiye’de bulunan bir ilköğretim okulunda organize ettiğimiz bir seri atölye çalışmasının hedefi, bölgenin Geç Neolitik dönemi ile ilgili bildiklerimizi öğrencilerle etkileşimli bir şekilde paylaşabilmekti. Arkeologların ne iş yaptıkları ile ilgili basit açıklamalar içeren bir sunumdan ve küçük bir etüdlük eser kolleksiyonunun çocuklarla birlikte analiz edilmesinin ardından çocukları, bir Geç Neolitik köyü olan Fıstıklı Höyük’te gündelik hayatı keşfetmeye ve geçmişe dair kendi yorumlarını ortaya koymaya teşvik ettik. Çocuklarla yaptığımız konuşmalar sırasında eski dünya ve kadim hayatlar rengarenk bir şekilde yeniden hayat buldu. Bunun da ötesinde, çocukların “sorunlu” bazı arkeolojik buluntular üzerine yaptıkları yorumlar, halihazırdaki arkeolojik modellere yeni bakış açıları getirdi: örneğin, arkeologların genelde karmaşık toplumsal organizasyonun yokluğuyla tanımlamaya meyilli olduğu Geç Neolitik dönem toplulukları konusunda çocuklar, “paylaşım ekonomisi” ve komünal yaşam ile karakterize olmuş bir kültür olasılığı üzerinde durmayı tercih ettiler.

 

Interview: Felix Riede

A dramatic reconstruction of some of the activities that went on at or near Krogsbølle 14,300 years ago, by the artist Sune Elskær. © Danish Heritage Agency/Kulturstyrelsen.

Felix Riede (@ARCHAEOfelix on Twitter) is faculty member of the Department of Culture and Society at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and the editor-in-chief of the Danish Journal of Archaeology. Interested in questions of environment, climate and cultural change, Dr. Riede received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant from the Foundation in 2012 to aid research on ‘Excavation of a Campsite from the Hamburgian Culture Near Krogsbølle, Eastern Denmark’. We reached out to Riede to learn more about this early European hunter-gatherer site and what it can teach us about folkways long vanished from the historical record.

 

Could you begin by telling us a bit about the project that received WGF funding?

I was so fortunate as to receive a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for a project with the rather unglamorous title Excavation of a campsite from the Hamburgian culture near Krogsbølle, eastern Denmark. Behind this prosaic title hides a very exciting project, however. The iconic so-called Hamburgian culture of northern Europe is associated with the first movement of hunter-gatherer people into the newly deglaciated, desolate and deserted landscapes of northern Europe some time after 12,500 years BCE. How did people cope with moving in regions where the details of the resource distribution were unknown and where the nearest relatives were far away? Foragers are known ethnographically to rely on a range of coping strategies including mobility, storage, economic intensification or diversification as well as social networking to handle such challenges. But questions remain about how exactly these prehistoric pioneers did so. The ethnographic record furnishes an important interpretative frame of reference, but given that we have next to no ethnographic accounts of true pioneer foragers, only the archaeological record can really reveal significant insights about past pioneering behaviors. A final twist to this project rests in the observation that the archaeological culture that follows the Hamburgian in northern Europe has a striking different material culture. It is possible to hypothesize that the Hamburgian disappeared abruptly possibly due to some form of demographic collapse. What is unclear, however, is whether climatic warming or cooling trends played a role in this collapse, and what role fluctuations in the primary resource base of the Hamburgian culture – reindeer – had.

 

The nearest road to the site was funnily enough named ‘Sletten’, Danish for ‘The Steppe’, which nicely alludes to what the environment was like at the site some 14,300 years ago.

What makes this site unique/interesting?

Sites of the Hamburgian culture are exceedingly rare, especially at the very northern edge of its range. In Denmark, for instance, there really are only four such locales as well as a few and largely uncertain surface finds, and this alone makes Krogsbølle, located on the northern outskirts of the town of Nakskov, interesting and important. In addition, the last time a locale from the Hamburgian culture has been investigated in Denmark was in the 1980s! The site we are now excavating has actually been known for a couple years, but lack of funding has prevented local museum authorities from excavating there. In the meantime, ploughing has continued to damage the site; excavating this important site and recovering the artifact material was one key priority of the project. It is also worth mentioning that preliminary investigations had indicated the possibility of two finds-bearing layers where the lower of the two may preserve intact spatial patterns that reflect activities carried out at the site or even traces of shelters. The preservation of such ‘latent’ patterning is extremely rare in this time period.

 

What were some of the challenges that presented themselves during the course of this work, and how did you adapt to them?

The main challenge we encountered was that the local soil turned out to be considerably harder than we anticipated. This made it impossible to dig manually through the topsoil and very hard to even carefully excavate the layers beneath. After a few days of trying, we finally decided to switch to a coarser machine-aided approach to strip key areas of topsoil, all in square meters, all of which was dry-screened through 3mm mesh. This was quite laborious and meant that we could excavate rather fewer squares than we had hoped. We did, however, firmly re-locate some of the excavation areas from earlier investigations conducted by the local museum, to retrieve a range of fantastic lithic artefacts, to document the site stratigraphy, and to take samples for dating it.

Of course we also faced the usual trials and tribulations of fieldwork with scorching heat and torrential summer rain. Especially our final day in the field – as always the busiest of all – was cut short by a massive thunderstorm rolling over us. Going around an open field clearly elevated above the general landscape carrying a long rod – to take final levels throughout the excavation field – suddenly seemed like a very bad idea indeed!

 

Two (broken) examples of late Hamburgian (Havelte phase) points from Krosgbølle. They both clearly fall within the range defined as Havelte points, but are at the same time quite different in their design. This difference is not at all random. In fact, points practically identical to both of these variants can be found at other sites. Do they indicate strict rather then general contemporaneity?

So far, what has surprised you the most about the site?

Working with the material from Krogsbølle two main surprises popped up. One relates to the artifacts we recovered. When I took a closer look at them and compared them to material from other sites of this culture, I was struck by an interesting duality of diversity and similarity. Let me explain what I mean: Hamburgian artifacts are really well-made, reflecting highly skilled flint-knappers as well as rather strict conventions about exactly how things should look like. In the periods just after the Hamburgian, we can similarly recognize clear conventions about size and shape of, for instance, projectile points. In the Hamburgian we can single out several projectile point variants, so overall the armatures show a fair bit of diversity. Yet, within these variants, the ways in which these are made are exceedingly similar. They are to all intents and purposes identical – and this has implications both for the organization of craft production, but also for the time scales involved. I am currently considering the possibility that all the Danish sites from this period, for instance, represent no more than one human generation and perhaps much less, as little as a few seasons of occupation. Breaking up an archaeological culture whose overall chronological span is often listed as 500-700 years to the actions and movements of individuals is radical and challenging.

The second surprise came when we conducted some coring in areas around the nearby lake. The wet and waterlogged deposits of such ancient lakes often preserve organic remains either of purely natural or even of human or cultural origin. Natural materials can give important clues about local environments and local environmental changes, whilst finds of organic material such as animal bones or even bone, antler or wooden tools are very rare indeed. Previous investigations by the local museum concluded that no remains of the ancient lake and hence no organic material were preserved there, but we found quite the opposite. Whilst we did not, so to say, hit jack-pot – we did not find any organic materials directly related to the settlement we are excavating – we did find the almost completely preserved skeleton of a seagull. We had this seagull dated by our colleagues of the radiocarbon laboratory at Aarhus University and analyzed for the maternally inherited mtDNA by colleagues at the Centre for GeoGenetics at Copenhagen University. It turns out that the gull is at least as old as the human occupation at Krogsbølle and this makes it not only the by far most complete ancient gull from northern Europe, but also by far the oldest – by several millennia! The genetic investigation has not yet been able to pinpoint the species; it could be one of three: Larus argentatus (the European herring gull), Larus fuscus (the lesser black-backed gull) or Larus glaucoides (the Iceland gull). This work is on-going and we know that some aspects of the gull genome can discriminate between the species. DNA preservation is excellent in our specimen, so I am confident that we can determine its species in due time. At any rate, it will, together with our other investigations of the ample pollen and other plant remains in the ancient lake layers, provide important information about the environment when these pioneering hunter-gatherers rested here.

The recovered bones of our gull, genus Larus, arranged in approximate anatomical order.

How has the Danish Heritage Agency reacted to your findings?

As the project progressed the Danish Heritage Agency heard of them and contacted us with an eye towards including the site in one of their dissemination projects. With funding by the A.P. Møller Foundation, the Danish Heritage Agency has embarked upon an ambitious project that takes the museum out into the landscape. The project includes landscaping and restoring selected sites and monuments, and erecting information displays in Danish, German and English. You can read more about this great project here. The local authorities vent along with the proposal and earlier this year we unveiled the information displays as well as a micro-exhibition in the local tourist information center. For the information display they also had an artist make the following ‘dramatic reconstruction’ of the kind of behaviors that may have taken place around the site. Despite its lack of standing architecture and thus its seeming anonymity, Krogsbølle is a great site for this project because it tells such an exciting story and because it is located at a busy cycle path used by both locals as well as tourists day in day out. Unfortunately, the area where the site is located is also, by Danish standards, quite deprived and suffers from steady emigration. We hope that showing how it once was one of the most attractive places to stay, local folks in particular can positively use this bit of cultural heritage.

 

What’s next for this research? How much work still needs to be done? How could this project or its findings expand in the future?

We have finished excavation for now, but know perfectly well that more material is to be found – both on the dry land as well as in what remains of the ancient lake. We are also still in full swing with the analysis of the stone tools, especially comparing them to another recently excavating Hamburgian site in northern Germany and a rather sensational site from Scotland, far away from the ‘territory’ of the Hamburgian as traditionally conceived. We are also still waiting for the final absolute dates for our stratigraphy (using optically stimulated luminescence – a method to date sand grains) and of the environmental analysis. In the meantime, we are working on a couple of preliminary reports and I am busy presenting our preliminary results at scientific meetings, conferences and, well, on the internet. Luckily, our efforts to attract follow-up funding from some smaller private foundations here in Denmark have been successful, so in principle we could also return to the field in the years to come. The latest chapter that has already begun is that the local authorities are considering building a rainwater basin a few hundred meters from our site, right where the southern edge of the ancient lake was located. If this plan is realized, we will stand by and look for fossils as well as artifacts.

Away from the field, our analysis of the morphology, technology and diversity of the stone tools and their culture-historical context may well radically change our perception of this culture, potentially with important implications for both our general understanding of culture change in the deep past as well as for general models of pioneer colonisations.

Wenner-Gren President and Collaborators Revise Timeline of Human Origins

New Synthesis of Research Links Changing Environment with Homo’s Evolutionary Adaptability

Many traits unique to humans were long thought to have originated in the genus Homo between 2.4 and 1.8 million years ago in Africa. Although scientists have recognized these characteristics for decades, they are reconsidering the true evolutionary factors that drove them.

A large brain, long legs, the ability to craft tools and prolonged maturation periods were all thought to have evolved together at the start of the Homo lineage as African grasslands expanded and Earth’s climate became cooler and drier. However, new climate and fossil evidence analyzed by a team of researchers, including Wenner-Gren President Leslie Aiello, Smithsonian paleoanthropologist Richard Potts, and Susan Antón, professor of anthropology at New York University, suggests that these traits did not arise as a single package. Rather, several key ingredients once thought to define Homo evolved in earlier Australopithecus ancestors between 3 and 4 million years ago, while others emerged significantly later.

The team’s research takes an innovative approach to integrating paleoclimate data, new fossils and understandings of the genus Homo, archaeological remains and biological studies of a wide range of mammals (including humans). The synthesis of these data led the team to conclude that the ability of early humans to adjust to changing conditions ultimately enabled the earliest species of Homo to vary, survive and begin spreading from Africa to Eurasia 1.85 million years ago. Additional information about this study is available in the July 4 issue of Science.

Potts developed a new climate framework for East African human evolution that depicts most of the era from 2.5 million to 1.5 million years ago as a time of strong climate instability and shifting intensity of annual wet and dry seasons. This framework, which is based on Earth’s astronomical cycles, provides the basis for some of the paper’s key findings, and it suggests that multiple coexisting species of Homo that overlapped geographically emerged in highly changing environments.

“Unstable climate conditions favored the evolution of the roots of human flexibility in our ancestors,” said Potts, curator of anthropology and director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “The narrative of human evolution that arises from our analyses stresses the importance of adaptability to changing environments, rather than adaptation to any one environment, in the early success of the genus Homo.”

The team reviewed the entire body of fossil evidence relevant to the origin of Homo to better understand how the human genus evolved. For example, five skulls about 1.8 million years old from the site of Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia, show variations in traits typically seen in African Herectus but differ from defining traits of other species of early Homo known only in Africa. Recently discovered skeletons of Australopithecus sediba (about 1.98 million years old) from Malapa, South Africa, also include some Homo-like features in its teeth and hands, while displaying unique, non-Homo traits in its skull and feet. Comparison of these fossils with the rich fossil record of East Africa indicates that the early diversification of the genus Homo was a period of morphological experimentation. Multiple species of Homo lived concurrently.

“We can tell the species apart based on differences in the shape of their skulls, especially their face and jaws, but not on the basis of size,” said Antón. “The differences in their skulls suggest early Homo divvied up the environment, each utilizing a slightly different strategy to survive.”

Even though all of the Homo species had overlapping body, brain and tooth sizes, they also had larger brains and bodies than their likely ancestors, Australopithecus. According to the study, these differences and similarities show that the human package of traits evolved separately and at different times in the past rather than all together.

In addition to studying climate and fossil data, the team also reviewed evidence from ancient stone tools, isotopes found in teeth and cut marks found on animal bones in East Africa.

“Taken together, these data suggest that species of early Homo were more flexible in their dietary choices than other species,” said Aiello. “Their flexible diet— probably containing meat—was aided by stone tool-assisted foraging that allowed our ancestors to exploit a range of resources.”

The team concluded that this flexibility likely enhanced the ability of human ancestors to successfully adapt to unstable environments and disperse from Africa. This flexibility continues to be a hallmark of human biology today, and one that ultimately underpins the ability to occupy diverse habitats throughout the world. Future research on new fossil and archaeological finds will need to focus on identifying specific adaptive features that originated with early Homo, which will yield a deeper understanding of human evolution.