An interview with Michelle Drapeau

13 minute read

I've been trying to spread the interviews across the field in various directions. I (virtually) talked with Mica Glantz about Neandertals, Adam Van Arsdale about early Homo, and Anne Weaver about human brain evolution, all the australopithephiles in the readership are probably feeling neglected.

So I wrote to Michelle Drapeau, who was very generous in answering questions about her work on the anatomy of early hominids and her recent field work in Ethiopia. Michelle is on the faculty of the Université de Montréal, in the Department of Anthropology. She serves as co-director of field operations in the Bala Paleoanthropological Research Area of southern Ethiopia.

Hawks: I will start out by asking about your dissertation work, which centered on the new partial skeleton from Hadar, A.L. 438-1. How did you get involved in that analysis?

Drapeau: It's a case of being at the right place at the right time. Bill Kimbel and Don Johanson had asked my advisor at the time, Carol Ward, to describe all the postcranial material recovered from the field in Hadar since 1990. Among those specimens was the partial skeleton of A.L. 438-1 which included associated fragments of the humerus, clavicle, radius, right ulna, mandible, and frontal as well as a complete left ulna, right and left second metacarpals and left third metacarpal. Considering the relatively numerous body parts from one individual, Carol thought the specimen deserved a more detailed analysis. I was Carol's Ph.D. student at the time and the 438-skeleton (as we started to call it) appeared like an ideal subject.

Hawks: What did you have to learn to be able to undertake the work?

Drapeau: I had to learn a lot! My master's thesis was in the history of science field, so all the functional anatomy, including the descriptive and comparative aspects were completely new to me. It was something I really wanted to do, however, so I really enjoyed immersing myself into it.

Hawks: A.L. 438-1 exhibits more curvature across its length than A.L. 288-1, an issue that you discussed in your analysis of the fossil. I have always been puzzled by the problem of ulna curvature -- mainly because I've always been puzzled by the comparison of later, larger, and more curved fossils like Omo L40-19 and OH 36 -- and then, of course, KNM-WT 15000 is a lot more like most recent humans. Do you have any insights about these contrasting morphologies?

Drapeau: Forearm bone curvature is an intriguing issue. Intuitively, it makes sense to assume that curvature reflects arboreality since the curvature of both the ulna and radius give greater area on the interosseous membrane for attachment of forearm muscle important for arboreal locomotion such as the finger flexors. However, orangutans and gibbons do not have the most curved forearm bones. It is an honor that goes to gorillas, definitely not the most arboreal animal of the bunch. If the area of muscle attachment is the variable that interests us, then it is important to take into account forearm length as well. When that is done, species generally sort by locomotor preference, with the most arboreal having the greater area' for muscle attachment relative to body size and humans having the smallest (at least, when measured on the ulna). So gorillas appear to have very curved forearm bones because they also have relatively short forearms when compared to other apes.

The differences between A.L. 438-1 and A.L. 288-1 are fairly minor and probably reflect normal within-species variation. Neither is very curved and they may belong to a population with slightly more curved ulnae than modern humans but definitely less curved than any extant apes.

The KNM-WT 15000 specimen is pretty much what you would expect an ulna belonging to a completely terrestrial biped to look like, i.e., it is not particularly curved. Since it is a juvenile, it is difficult to compare it to other fossils, but there is nothing really surprising about it.

That said, what about the intriguing Omo L40-19 and OH 36? These specimens present combination of morphologies that are difficult to underscore in quantitative analyses. The former had a human-like proximal morphology but a really long and curved (ape-like) diaphysis. The latter, OH 36, has a general ape-like morphology with a pronounced curvature, but is unique in a few characters. The whole bone (proximal articulation and diaphysis) is very constricted medio-laterally, more comparable what is observed in monkeys (and it is not the result of distorsion). Despite its general ape-like morphology, it has an olecranon process that projects proximally like no other ape of its size. It is definitely much more human-like for that trait and it is generally agreed that it is a hominin. McHenry and colleagues argue in a recent article (AJPA, 134: 209-218) that these two fossils are very different and can hardly be accommodated into the same genus (Paranthropus) as it is usually done (probably by default). McHenry and colleagues argue that it may indicate Paranthropus is in fact a polyphyletic taxon. They also conclude, as I stated above, that OH 36 is unlike anything living today.

So, if curvature of the ulna reflects arboreality, does it mean that these fairly recent fossils were much more arboreal than A. afarensis? Remember that they are big ulnae, particularly L40-19, likely belonging to large individuals.... Maybe the Paranthropus clade (if indeed it is a clade) is more arboreal than A. afarensis? This would imply either reversal of behavior or that A. afarensis is not ancestral to Paranthropus. Or, alternatively, could the curvature in these individuals reflect forelimb muscularity but not necessarily related to arboreality? As you can see, I have many more questions than answers. All this variability suggests that the behaviors of fossil hominin species were much more variable than what we have been used to think and may have been (very?) different from the behaviors of extent species.

Hawks: Of course, the big debate about forelimb proportions is the idea that they may have been very different (and more apelike) in A. africanus compared to A. afarensis. (reviewed by Green, Gordon, and Richmond 2007) What do you think about the issue?

Drapeau: That idea first met with some resistance because it involved a reversal of proportions from A. afarensis to A. africanus and implied a more arboreal behavior in the latter than the former. Given that Homo habilis is often described has having more ape-like proportions than A. afarensis, it also implied that A. afarensis may not be the ancestor of the Homo lineage (an idea more recently suggested by Yoel Rak and colleagues based on mandibular data). Since I remain unconvinced of the primitive proportion of H. habilis, I am not so certain that the 'derived' proportions of A. afarensis exclude it from being an ancestor to the Homo lineage.

Back to the differences between the two australopithecine species. Despite original skepticism, the data appears to be robust and the differences in joint size between A. afarensis and A. africanus appear to be real. As observed in the previous question, this variability may reflect locomotor differences possibly related to differences in the environment. If A. afarensis was still occasionally arboreal, is it too hard to imagine that, if the environment is changed (more wooded, greater predator pressure, more resources found in trees, etc.), the percentage of arboreal behavior would increase and that the proportions would revert to being more chimp-like in A. africanus? Again, there is no reason to assume that all early hominins, because they were bipedal, were identical in their locomotor behaviors.

I want to underscore that these differences are in joint SIZE, not in limb length, and reflect relative loading of the limbs. Usually, the major source of loading of the limbs is related to locomotion, but it is an assumption that cannot be verified in early hominins. If, as stated above, OH 36 is unlike anything living today, maybe it did things that have no modern equivalent. And the same can be said of other hominin species including A. africanus with its 'apparent' primitive proportions.

Hawks: You have recently been involved in field research in the Bala-Weyto region of southern Ethiopia. Can you describe the site, and your role?

Drapeau: The BalaWeyto basin is part of a series of small parallel rifts that link the northern limit of the East African Rift to the southern limit of the Main Ethiopian rift. These small rifts constitute today a string of many small basins. The Bala-Weyto basin is located east of the Omo river basin. It is a region more difficult to survey when compared to dryer region because of the vegetation coverage that limits exposures visibility and access. However, it is little-explored paleoanthropologically speaking. Work in the Konso, another small basin a few kilometers away, but at a higher altitude, has a fauna with a certain degree of endemism and an A. (P.) boisei specimen with unique morphological variations. Among other things, we want to know if this variation and the faunal endemism are due to the relative isolation of the basin or to its particular environment. These answers may be found in contiguous basins that vary in their physical characteristics, such as the Bala-Weyto basin.

I am co-director of that project with Elizabeth Harmon of the City University of New York. At this stage of the project, being co-director involves organizing the whole expedition, securing funding, and coordinating the work of other team members. I would say that the most time consuming aspect is coming up with money and getting everything moving in the field. As a director, I am responsible for the team's well-being and it is a pressure that can sometimes weigh heavily on my shoulders. It is nice to be able to share the burden with a co-director.

Hawks: Do you involve students in your work?

Drapeau: My funding is limited and field work in Ethiopia is not particularly cheap. However, I plan to bring one student in the field this summer. I look forward to share this experience with a highly motivated student!

Hawks: Many of us have heard about the difficulties of field research, particularly in East Africa. What are some of your biggest challenges?

Drapeau: Doing field work in Ethiopia can be a challenge for many reasons. As can be expected, there are numerous permissions, letters, official documents, etc., that are required and the bureaucracy is somewhat heavy. However, I find Ethiopians very helpful and professional and, usually, the quest for documents goes smoothly, particularly once you know what to do and in what order.

A second difficulty is the access to the sites. Ethiopia did not have one highway until relatively recently and road traveling remains an experience that can be frightening. A lot of work is being done on the roads, however, and I believe that things will keep improving. Access to the research area involves off-road traveling as well, with all the difficulties that it entails. When you leave for the field, you have to be a self-sufficient unit, relying on the local environment as little as possible. It is still necessary to get gasoline on a regular basis, but except that, we try to be as autonomous as possible. It is particularly important when you go to a new area and don't know what (if anything) will be available to you.

A third aspect of field work, particularly in Ethiopia, is the politics, the paleoanthropological politics that is. Although most scientists are polite and civilized to each other, I really feel that we had to walk on eggs when we were researching an area in which to conduct field work.

A final difficulty (and certainly not the least) in our situation, is to find an area that has fossiliferous exposures of a time period that interests us and in which we can work at least a few years. The numerous discoveries that are made in East Africa give the impression that finding hominin fossils is something easy to do, but it usually involves many years of surveying. We are still at the exploratory phase of our project, i.e., we are still actively looking for an area that could sustain scientific work for a few years. Hard work (and perhaps a little luck) is essential.

Hawks: You had a lot of field experience before going to Ethiopia. How did you get your start?

Drapeau: At the end of my undergraduate degree, I had the chance of getting a couple of paying jobs in prehistoric archaeology. It was the beginning of a series of jobs in field archaeology conducted in parallel to my studies. I used to think (and still do) that these were the best summer jobs an anthropology student could have. The pay check was very descent and it usually came with room and board. These jobs allowed me to see many regions of Quebec and Canada that I would otherwise have never visited and to do things I would probably have never done otherwise. I have flown in helicopters for hours (and even survived a major crash), piloted a hydroplane (just for a few minutes, but still!), hear wolves howl into the night while trying to sleep in a tent hundreds of miles from any road or civilization, dipped my foot in the arctic ocean (too chicken to swim), seen the midnight sun, and I could go on. This fieldwork experience, and a stint in the Caune de l'Arago in Tautavel, France, opened another door: to be invited to do field work in Hadar in 2000.

Hawks: Any interesting stories?

Drapeau: I have an anecdote that I find amusing, but mostly informative on the nature of humans. When we were doing field work in the Bala basin, our camp was set up about a 2-hour drive off the road. It was clear that the local people had seen very few foreign workers. For the whole time we were there, we had a constant group of people just sitting in the shade observing us like zoo animals, watching our every move, laughing when we did things unexpected, etc. We were quite the entertainment. The occupation of the local Mali people appeared to be tending their few sorghum fields, but mostly to take their sometime large herds of cows, goats and sheep a few miles down to the river for a drink every day. Even though it was not that hot, the men walk around wearing only colorful underwear (the Speedo-type) and it was sometimes literally falling apart. From our western perspective, they really seem to have almost nothing. Anyhow, after a few days in the field, some crew members were starting to crave fresh meat. We agreed to allow the cook to purchase one goat from a local herder. We didn't think it would be a problem given the large quantities of these animals around and our willingness to pay a fair price for it. It came as quite a surprise that no one was willing to sell us any! It turned out that goats, sheep and cows were not herded to be eaten or even milked, but were really just status items. One man from the village nearby apparently owned more than a hundred head of livestock but was still unwilling to sell. We were all quite shocked of the apparent frivolity of it all, particularly considering that food (for humans and beasts) did not appear to be particularly abundant in the region. But then, we couldn't miss seeing the connection to what we can observe in the western world: huge houses for one or two people, oversized and overpriced cars. These are just to show off. The same frivolities, although expressed slightly differently, can be found anywhere. I guess it really is in the human nature. We were finally able to convince someone to sell us a goat, but we paid a really high price.

Hawks: Congratulations! You seem to be a very busy person right now, both professionally and personally. What's next for you?

Drapeau: I just started one of the most challenging projects of my life, a project that will keep me busy for the rest of my life. His name is Henri and he is almost 8 months old. Professionally speaking, I am investigating manipulatory adaptations in the early hominin hands and the morphology of muscle markings. However, one of my main objectives in the next two years is to settle on a specific field research area with good scientific potential.