Archive for Foundation News

Introducing SAPIENS: A New Voice for Anthropology

Leslie Aiello, Wenner-Gren Foundation

Anthropology has a long tradition of public engagement. From Franz Boas’ battles over concepts of race, to Margaret Mead’s revelations about sexuality, to Ruth Benedict’s illuminations of national character, anthropologists have sought to use their insights to shape public conversations.

Yet, in the last generation, anthropologists have increasingly struggled to find ways to connect with the public at large. Although there have been important efforts by a range of scholars in recent years, as a field we have fallen far short of our potential. Anthropological research has arguably never been more relevant to the world we live in. War, climate change, health, economic disparity, forensics, identity, race, digital media, consumption, language loss, our origins as a species—these are just some of the themes that anthropologists tackle every day. The public, however, doesn’t learn about these issues from the scholars who study them most closely. Instead, the gap between anthropology and the public has been selectively filled by the popular media.

A number of factors have led to anthropologists’ limited engagement with the public. Too often, public engagement unfolds through single efforts by scholars working in isolation—an op-ed here, a TED talk there. There has been a noticeable lack of resources committed to public dialogue about anthropology, and this work has not always been valued by the discipline’s institutions. Anthropology, on the whole, has not gracefully entered the 21st century media landscape.

We hope this is about to change.

In January 2016, the Wenner-Gren Foundation will launch SAPIENS, an editorially independent online publication dedicated to popularizing anthropological research to a broad, public audience. The publication’s goals are to serve as an authoritative source of information about anthropological research, make anthropology more accessible to the general public, and demonstrate anthropology’s relevance to everyday life. Through news coverage, features, commentaries, reviews, and more, SAPIENS provides a public platform for anthropological research as well as for anthropological insights into current events.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation has undertaken this effort to celebrate its 75th year of supporting anthropology worldwide. Substantial resources have been invested in the publication, which will become a key part of the foundation’s ongoing investment in the field. Just as the foundation’s Current Anthropology has become a premier journal for academic dialogue, we hope that SAPIENS will become the nexus for anthropology in the public sphere.

SAPIENS will publish content that provides smart and surprising insights into human culture, language, biology, and history. We’ll skip the dry and stuffy for witty and fun, fresh and incisive, authentic and down-to-earth. Our aim is to deepen our readers’ understanding of the human experience through exciting, novel, thought-provoking, and unconventional ideas that are grounded in anthropological research, theories, and thinking.

Will you join us?

We need your help in spreading the word of the site’s launch to your colleagues, friends, and family. We also hope you will consider writing for us. We want to ensure the site reflects the ideas, views, and work of the entire field—we need your voice to be heard.

Please visit us at:

In Memorium: Dr. Pamela Smith

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our colleague, Dr. Pamela Smith.  During her 16 years of service with the Foundation, she made many contributions to the Foundation’s programs and to its mission.  She served as an advisor to three presidents and coordinated the Foundation’s International Programs from 1995 – 2006.  Her greatest passion was helping international students and scholars, both here at Wenner-Gren, as well as through her work at Pace University.  On the occasion of Pam’s retirement from the Foundation in 2006, we received many beautiful notes from former Wenner-Gren Fellows expressing their gratitude for her support and kindness.  As a tribute to Pam, we include an excerpt from one of the letters below.


I am happy to say that Pam has been an anchor in making my career in anthropology what it is today. She embodies the warmth, care, and resourcefulness that makes Wenner-Gren such a great organization. She went out of her way to invite us to gatherings, to send us information about programs and opportunities and to just find out how we are which is rare in many organizations that give rather than receive money. Pam, you are a true friend of global anthropology and I know Wenner-Gren will miss you. But you will remain in our thoughts and our worlds.


- Dr. Mwenda Ntarangwi, WGF Wadsworth International Fellow, 1995-99

(Wadsworth International Fellowship, formerly known as DCTF Program)


On behalf of the Wenner-Gren Trustees and Staff, we send our deepest condolences to Pam’s family and friends.  We feel privileged to have had her as both a colleague and a friend.

Interview: Michael Chazan on “The Harvard Kalahari Project”

Dr. Michael Chazan is professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and director of its Archaeology Center. Dr. Chazan’s history with the Foundation goes back to 2007, when he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research at Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape Province, South Africa, which helped establish it as one of the most important archaeological sites in Southern Africa. In 2011, he and colleague Dr. Susan Pfeiffer co-organized the 2012 Meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA) at UToronto with Wenner-Gren support. During the meeting, Chazan and Pfeiffer took the opportunity to organize a retrospective of the Harvard Kalahari project, commemorating its wide influence on the field, and saving for posterity the reflections of the scholars involved.


What is/was the Harvard Kalahari Project and why was it important in the development of archaeology and anthropology in Africa?

From 1963 to 1976 a team of researchers led by Richard Lee and the late Irv Devore studied the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari. Their collective work gave rise to insights about diverse topics from child care to nutrition.  For archaeologists this project, including the archaeological and ethnoarchaeological research by Allison Brooks and John Yellin, has been a critical resource for understanding hunter-gatherer societies.

What are the main legacies of the Harvard Kalahari Project? How does it relate to the Kalahari Peoples Fund, which is one of the oldest anthropological advocacy groups in North America?

There is of course a tremendous scientific legacy that stretches across the social sciences.  There is also the literary legacy left by Margerie Schostack’s book, “Nisa: the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, and the many other books and articles written by the members of the project.  What is clear in the film is that the research team collectively saw the need for social advocacy, leading to the establishment of the Kalahari Peoples Fund – still very active today.  This linkage between a strong program of empirical research and social advocacy is the hallmark of this group’s work. I think quite an interesting model for anthropology as a discipline.

Why was it important to hold a retrospective of the project 2012, who participated, and what were the outcomes of the meeting?

Susan Pfeiffer and I felt that the meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists in Toronto would be a great opportunity to bring together members of the Harvard Kalahari Project to talk about their experience.  Brooks and Yellen are active members, while Richard Lee and Nancy Howell are emeritus U of Toronto faculty. We thought that this would be a natural venue for a reunion. Once we suggested it, momentum arose within the group. All we had to do was secure a venue and arrange for the taping. Part of the motivation for me was the sense that there have been high profile negative stories emerging about anthropological fieldwork, so we can benefit from a reminder of how collaborative research teams can make a fundamental, positive contribution.  We also felt that the so-called Kalahari Debate that had swirled through the 90′s had simmered down to an extent where it would be possible to get a more balanced perspective on the experiences  of the members of the Kalahari Project.
What can we learn from the Harvard Kalahari Project as anthropology and archaeology move into the second decade of the 21st Century?

I think we learn quite a bit from the Harvard Kalahari Project and the initiatives it started.  The project shows the rich potential of collaboration. What we see in the film is how human this collaboration is.  For me, the film is quite inspiring.  We see a group of senior scholars who have been profoundly shaped by the experience they had doing fieldwork. At the same time, we see their deep conviction that research matters– that there is an empirical reality and that gaining new scientific insight is in and of itself important.  Their experience reminds us of the vastness of human experience and the vital contribution that anthropology can make.

WGF in the News: Grantee Habiba Chirchir Leads Important Study

Habiba Chirchir is a biological anthropologist and currently postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. A native of Kenya, Dr. Chirchir received the Wadsworth Fellowship which enabled her to complete her graduate education at New York University and George Washington University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology. A specialist in human bone density and skeletal anatomy, Chirchir is the lead researcher in this newly-published study tracing shifts in bone density in human populations and their relation to parallel changes in lifeways.

Lightweight Skeletons of Modern Humans Have Recent Origin

Decrease of “Spongy” Bone Related to Adoption of Sedentary Lifestyle

New research shows that modern human skeletons evolved into their lightly built form only relatively recently—after the start of the Holocene about 12,000 years ago and even more recently in some human populations. The work, based on high-resolution imaging of bone joints from modern humans and chimpanzees as well as from fossils of extinct human species shows that for millions of years extinct humans had high bone density until a dramatic decrease in recent modern humans. Published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings reveal a higher decrease in the density of lower limbs than in that of the upper limbs, suggesting that the transformation may be linked to humans’ shift from a foraging lifestyle to a more sedentary agricultural one.

“Despite centuries of research on the human skeleton, this is the first study to show that human skeletons have substantially lower density in joints throughout the skeleton, even in ancient farmers who actively worked the land,” said Brian Richmond, an author of the study and curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Anthropology.

Modern people (right) have unusually low density in bones throughout the skeleton, including the hand bone joints (metacarpal heads) shown here. This study shows that bone joint density remained high throughout human evolution spanning millions of years, until it decreased significantly in recent modern humans, probably as a result of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. From left to right: modern chimpanzee, Australopithecus, Neanderthal, and modern human. (© AMNH/J. Steffey, courtesy of Brian Richmond)

Compared to our closest living relatives—chimpanzees—as well as to our extinct human ancestors, humans are unique in having an enlarged body size and lower-limb joint surfaces in combination with a relatively lightweight skeleton. But until now, scientists did not know that human bone joints are significantly less dense compared with those of other animals, or when during human evolution this unique characteristic first appeared.

“Our study shows that modern humans have less bone density than seen in related species, and it doesn’t matter if we look at bones from people who lived in an industrial society or agriculturalist populations that had a more active life. They both have much less bone density,” said Habiba Chirchir, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “What we want to know now is whether this is an early human characteristic that defines our species.”

To explore this question, Chirchir, Richmond, and an international team of researchers used high-resolution computed tomography and microtomography to measure trabecular, or spongy, bone of the limb joints in modern humans and chimpanzees, as well as in fossil hominins attributed to Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, Homo neanderthalensis, and early Homo sapiens. Their results show that only recent modern humans have low trabecular density throughout limb joints, and that the decrease is especially pronounced in the lower joints—those in the hip, knee, and ankle—rather than the upper joints in the shoulder, elbow, and hand. The appearance of this anatomical change late in our evolutionary history may have been a result of the transition from a nomadic to a more settled lifestyle.

“Much to our surprise, throughout our deep past, we see that our human ancestors and relatives, who lived in natural settings, had very dense bone. And even early members of our species, going back 20,000 years or so, had bone that was about as dense as seen in other modern species,” Richmond said. “But this density drastically drops off in more recent times, when we started to use agricultural tools to grow food and settle in one place.”

This research provides an anthropological context to modern bone conditions like osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disorder that may be more prevalent in contemporary populations due partly to low levels of walking activity.

“Over the vast majority of human prehistory, our ancestors engaged in far more activity over longer distances than we do today,” Richmond. “We cannot fully understand human health today without knowing how our bodies evolved to work in the past, so it is important to understand how our skeletons evolved within the context of those high levels of activity.”

In future studies, the researchers will explore the ways in which the bones are less dense than those of our evolutionary relatives.

This work was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation Wadsworth Fellowship, The Leakey Foundation Baldwin Fellowship, Smithsonian’s Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation grant #s BCS-0521835 and DGE-0801634.

Public Forum Features Leading Anthropologists’ Recommendations for Ebola Response

Experts on West Africa and infectious disease control/prevention will present their recommendations to assist the global Ebola crisis response during a public forum on Friday, Nov. 7. The forum will be webcast.

Convened by The American Anthropological Association (AAA) with the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and The George Washington University, the public forum will be accessible in person and online.

Where: The George Washington University, Media and Public Affairs Building B07,
805 21st St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20052.
When: Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, 2:30-5 pm E.S.T.

Friday’s public session will present the findings and recommendations of the Ebola Emergency Response Workshop, a two-day workshop of intensive sessions drawing together the expertise of more than 25 of the world’s leading anthropologists on implementation issues regarding the Ebola response in the United States, Ebola-affected countries and African regional neighbors. Topics will include: prevention, control, surveillance, response, treatment, clinical trials and interventions, health communications, risk factors and the streamlining of local, national and international systems of response.

Experts attending the Ebola Emergency Response Workshop include anthropologists and other social scientists from such leading institutions as the University of Florida, Johns Hopkins University, the Max Planck Institute, the University of Washington, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Arizona, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Cheikh Anta Diop University, as well as other researchers who have been working in Ebola-affected regions.
Their distinctive knowledge of social and cultural institutions provides critical context in reviewing current responses and providing actionable guidance to humanitarian responders. During Friday’s open forum, practitioners, policy makers, scholars and the public will be invited to pose questions to the assembled anthropological experts.

This event is co-sponsored by:

American Anthropological Association
International Development Research Centre

Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation
The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
The George Washington University -IGIS
The George Washington University-ESIA Humanitarian Studies Program
The George Washington University-Institute for Ethnographic Research

- – AAA – -
Founded in 1902, the American Anthropological Association is the world’s largest professional organization of anthropologists, with more than 10,000 members. The Association is dedicated to advancing human understanding and tackling the world’s most pressing problems.

D. Rachael Bishop,
Director, Communications and Public Affairs, 703-528-1902 x 1163
2300 Clarendon Blvd., Suite 1301
Arlington, VA 22201
Tel 703-528-1902
Fax 703-528-3546

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.

In Memoriam: George Armelagos

L-R: Brooke Thomas, George Armelagos, Alan Swedlund, Alan Goodman.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. George Armelagos, the Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University. Dr. Armelagos received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in 1968 and was a major contributor to 20th-century biological anthropology, notably in the fields of paleopathology, bioarchaeology, and evolutionary medicine.

Dr. Armelagos was a long-time friend and contributor to the Foundation, supervising numerous grantees and participating in several Wenner-Gren Foundation symposia, including one, “Health and Disease of Populations in Transition”, which he co-organized with University of Massachusetts colleague Alan Swedlund.

In 2005, Dr. Armelagos received the Viking Fund Medal in recognition of his influential role in the development of biological anthropology. He was the most recent recipient of the award, which has been awarded to distinguished scholars in the field since 1946.

From the 2005 Viking Fund Medal:

Dr. Armelagos is a biological anthropologist whose contributions and numerous publications span the broad field of Anthropology. His special interests lie in the interaction of biological and cultural systems within an evolutionary context. Through his research in the 1960s and 1970s with Sudanese Nubia, Dickson Mounds, and elsewhere, he revolutionized the study of ancient disease in human populations by promoting an epidemiological approach and highlighting the evolutionary and ecological factors that are instrumental to the disease process. He has also done influential work on the evolution of food choice and the impacts of the agricultural transition on human populations in terms of health and disease. This work has resulted in a general theory of the evolution of human disease and the epidemiological transitions that have taken place throughout the course of human history. Through his work he has also encouraged a new generation of skeletal biologists to think about disease in prehistory in complex theoretical ways and back it up with good, empirical research.

Deborah Wadsworth, WGF Trustee, has passed away

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is saddened to report that Deborah Wadsworth, member of the Board of Trustees, died on December 24, 2013.  Deborah was a close friend of the Foundation for many years before formally joining the Wenner-Gren Board in 2006.  She cared deeply about the Foundation and her contributions to the Board’s deliberations will be missed.   We extend our sincere condolences to her family and friends and to all who were fortunate to have known her.

2013: Year in Review

2013 was another successful and productive year for the Wenner-Gren Foundation!

Some highlights from the past twelve months:

We began posting Engaged Anthropology Grant reports on our blog, so everyone can get a chance to see what engaged research looks like.

We revealed the new Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film, to support innovative anthropologists working in visual media in memory of past president Paul Fejos.

We kicked off hosting the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture series for the 2013-14 academic year, featuring fascinating talks from some of the leading researchers in the field.

In addition to the regular issues, we released a new Current Anthropology Symposium Supplement, Potentiality and Humanness: Revisiting the Object in Contemporary Biomedecine, available as always completely open-access.

It was a great year for Anthropology. Stay tuned for even more in 2014!


Important Program Changes for Wenner-Gren

Wenner-Gren would like to take this opportunity to let you know about important changes to a few of our funding programs.

  • The Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship. We are moving from biannual deadlines for this fellowship program to a single annual deadline. The next deadline for Hunt Fellowships will be May 1, 2014. For successful applicants, funding will be available starting in January 2015, and the start date of the Fellowship can be any time during that year.
  • The Osmundsen Initiative. We are discontinuing the Osmundsen Initiative supplement for both the Dissertation Fieldwork and the Post-Ph.D. Research Grant programs. This will allow us to provide further support for other programs, including the Engaged Anthropology Grant, which is proving to be very popular with our grantees. Click here for more information about this new program.

As always, please feel free to contact us at if you have any questions about these changes or anything else related to our grant programs or the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We look forward to receiving your applications and continuing our support of cutting edge research and inquiry in anthropology.