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 Homolike features in its teeth and hands, while displaying unique, nonHomo 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 toolassisted 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.

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Grantee Receives 2012 L’Oreal “For Women in Science” Fellowship

We are very proud to note that a former Wenner-Gren grantee, Dr. Erin Marie Williams, currently a postdoctoral fellow at The George Washington University, has been named one of five recipients of the 2012 L’Oreal For Women in Science Fellowship, awarded annually to outstanding women scientists making groundbreaking advances in their respective fields. In the wake of the award, we asked Williams about her reaction to receiving this honor and how it will aid her research.


Could you tell us a bit about what you work on? Which Wenner-Gren grant did you receive?

I’m continuing to work on the biomechanics of stone tool production, and expended to use of those tools, as well. We are in the midst of publishing our findings on manual pressure distribution during various types of stone tool use, following up on the results we published on pressure distribution during stone tool production. Next I’ll start writing up results from experiments we conducted this summer looking at the effects different raw materials have on aspects of tool production and use. We collected the data at Ileret, Kenya using some of the same raw materials our early human ancestors used, so I’m fairly excited about this set of experiments. We were also able to collect from a large sample size, the largest data set I’ve compiled thus far, which is another exciting aspect of the experiment.

This year I will continue looking at the effects of raw material on upper limb biomechanics, but I’ll be back in a motion capture laboratory rather than the field. Specifically, how do experienced knappers respond to different raw material types with distinct sets of material properties?

I received one of the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grants while I was a PhD student in the Hominid Paleobiology Program at GWU, which enabled me to collect the first manual pressure and force data on stone tool production. We recently published the results of that initial study in JHE. Since then I have used the equipment obtained with this grant over and over again. I took the system to Kenya over the summer and I’m planning to take it to a few knap-ins next summer. It has made a huge impact on the research I have been able to conduct.


What was your reaction when you found out that you had been awarded the Fellowship?

The two women from L’Oreal that do much of the leg work for the L’Oreal grant called me together while I was on a Megabus from Pittsburgh returning to DC. I answered the phone even though I didn’t recognize the number because I was expecting a call from NYC, which matched the zip code on caller ID. When they told me they were calling from L’Oreal I initially thought that it was very kind of them, if not rather taxing, to call all of the applications that were not selected and tell them personally that others were chosen. So I was more than a little surprised to hear that I was one of the five. Surprised and extremely honored. The program that L’Oreal runs for women in science is amazing and I feel so fortunate to now be a part of it. Not only will the fellowship enable me to conduct research about which I’m very excited, but the series of workshops they put together for us were hands down the most useful professional conduct and guidance workshops I have ever attended. The people that run L’Oreal for Women in Science are serious about giving women the tools we need to succeed. I am very fortunate to now be able to work with them.


What are some possible next steps for your research? What are you excited to tackle next, and how will the Fellowship assist you?

With the funds from L’Oreal and from my NSF postdoctoral fellowship I am investigating early human decision making abilities as evidenced by the manner in which modern humans make and use stone tools and through the stone tools our ancestors left behind. Given the adaptive nature of stone tool behaviors, it follows that the anatomical changes and cognitive capabilities underlying tool strategies were subject to refinement by natural and cultural selection, and that they represent the optimal response available within a given ecological context. Within this frame work, raw materials selected for stone tool production may conform to the most physically (i.e., biomechanically) efficient option, such as the minimization of work required for production. Additionally, stone tool assemblages at any given archaeological site should represent the optimal strategy that was available to hominins within that specific context .

In order to determine whether this is the case, and to better understand the decision-making processes underlying early humans’ selection of particular materials for technological behaviors, we need to understand the variables relevant to the costs and benefits of stone tool behaviors. The selection of appropriate raw stone material for tool production was one set of challenges early hominins faced in regard to stone tool behaviors. Selecting a raw material meant balancing the costs and benefits of a number of variables, including the energy required for making a tool from a given material and other physical costs incurred by the tool maker and/or user.  Though frequently discussed, physical costs as a function of raw material type have yet to be systematically investigated. Further, we currently lack an expedient method for quantifying these physical costs imposed by various raw materials during stone tool behaviors. Therefore, we also lack a comprehensive means of determining whether or not early hominins consciously selected raw materials that would have offered the most efficient, or most effective, means of producing and using tools. This type of cost-benefit analysis is a key characteristic of modern human decision-making processes and understanding when this ability evolved is critical to our understanding of the archaeological record and to the evolution of human cognitive abilities.
Through the integration of fracture mechanics and biomechanics theory and experiments, my goals are to 1) investigate aspects of the fracture behavior of five raw materials representative of those commonly used in the Paleolithic for stone tool behaviors and 2) test hypotheses and assumptions regarding the effects raw materials have on upper limb biomechanics during stone tool production and use, in order to 3) develop an expedient method for evaluating raw material quality as a function of the “physical costs” each material places on the body during production and use.

After my postdoc and fellowships are completed, I plan to use the equipment purchased with these funds to investigate chimp tool production and use in the wild. This project is still very much in the works, but I am hopeful that it will actually occur.

Paul Fejos’ “Lonesome” Now Out on Criterion DVD

Paul Fejos (1897 – 1963) is a figure that looms large in the history of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, serving as original Director of Research of the Viking Fund and President of the Foundation until his death and providing much of the style and flair that drove the organization’s development in its early years.

Trained as a medical doctor in Hungary and coming to anthropology later in life by way of his keen interest in ethnographic filmmaking, Fejos had previously made a brief but successful career as a director under contract for Universal Studios during Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. His most infamous and well-regarded picture, 1928’s “semi-talkie” Lonesome, sees its first home video release this month from New York-based art house publishers The Criterion Collection. We worked to provide Criterion with materials to help produce this seminal release, and we are very proud to see Paul’s films reach a wider contemporary audience.

Prized by cinephiles for its experimental technique and strong European avant-garde influences, Lonesome‘s DVD and Blu-Ray release comes at the tail-end of a recent revival of interest in the film and the colorful renaissance man who helmed it. Criterion’s edition includes a new digital restoration, along with Fejos’ 1929 silent The Last Performance, a photo essay on the life of the director, essays, interviews, and rare photographs, all wrapped up in Criterion’s trademark impeccable packaging. It’s a beautiful package that offers up a rare gem of the late Silent Era, as well as a piece of Wenner-Gren history.

If you are in New York City this weekend, there will be free screenings of Lonesome running throughout the day on Sunday, September 23rd, on Queen Of Hearts boat docked at Pier 36, courtesy of All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Read an essay included with the DVD release, “The Travels of Paul Fejos”, by McMaster University’s Graham Petrie.

Frank Wadsworth (1919-2012), Wenner-Gren Foundation Trustee

We are saddened to announce that Dr. Frank Wadsworth, former Trustee and Board Chair, passed away on August 8, 2012.

Frank Wadsworth worked tirelessly for the Foundation from 1970 to 2006.  Throughout his tenure, beginning as a promising young English professor who brought fresh ideas to the Board, through the long period of his inspired leadership, to his later years as elder statesman and astute advisor, he was a guiding light for Trustees, four presidents, staff, and anthropologists associated with the Foundation. His thirty-six years of service included ten years as Chairman of the Board of Trustees (1977-1987), ten years as Vice Chairman (1994-2004), membership in the Executive Committee since its inception (1992-2006), Chairman of the Nominating Committee (1986-2004), and crucial roles on three presidential Search Committees

During the time he was Chair of the Board, he steered the Foundation through a period of profound crisis and more than anyone else in the Foundation’s history, is responsible for its survival and wellbeing. He had to make decisions that were hard and unpopular at the time, but were instrumental in putting Wenner-Gren on a sound fiscal basis. Through his scholarly integrity and personal grace, he also restored the trust of the anthropological profession in the Foundation and its activities. His diligence, courage, wisdom, and dedication ensured that Wenner-Gren would continue to benefit anthropology long into the future.

On his retirement in 2006, the Foundation renamed its Fellowship programs for international students in his honor. The Wadsworth International Fellowships and Wadsworth African Fellowships will be a lasting memorial to his involvement with the Foundation and the appreciation in which he is held by the Wenner-Gren community.