A plenary of plenty

4 minute read

I’ve arrived in Portland, Oregon today for the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. This is really a central highlight of the professional year for biological anthropologists like me, and it’s always great to see old friends, to meet new ones, and to see the exciting work that many people are doing.

It has been great for me today because almost everybody I’ve run into in the hallways has told me how interested and excited they are to see the AAPA Plenary Session this Thursday evening. “Plenary” means that nothing else is formally going on at the same time, so everyone at the conference can in principle attend. At many meetings, plenary sessions are stodgy affairs in which the hoopdedoos of the field stand up to pronounce their latest opinions in front of a captive audience. The AAPA has always done something different with the plenary session, giving an opportunity for the lighter side of science, sometimes entertainment, sometimes issues.

This year, Karen Rosenberg approached me with an idea that is really different from anything the association has done before. Last year, the Institute of Human Evolution at the University of the Witswatersrand donated a set of casts of the Malapa hominin skeletons to the Association. It was a great act of generosity, but also a message about the importance of disseminating these materials to professional anthropologists. Over the past twenty years, we have been incredibly fortunate to recover a vast and growing hominin fossil record. Our traditional way of educating ourselves about these materials is to distribute casts, as pictures cannot really substitute for examining the physical form. But our distribution system has not kept up with the pace of discovery. Too many professional anthropologists today are teaching human evolution without ever having the chance to examine even casts of the materials. Karen asked, why couldn’t we invite other people to bring casts of fossil specimens and have an open lab night for the association?

I thought this was a really inspired idea, and I set at the project with all my Andy Hardy “Let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm. It has been a lot of behind the scenes work, with the generous help of some people who have really gone beyond all expectations. As I gathered more participants, I really saw a spirit of openness that has emerged in institutions across the U.S. and on many continents. Some casts are being brought by meeting participants on behalf of international institutions, others are sending their own to the meetings specially for the session.

The list of participants has become very impressive, including:

  • Kenya National Museums
  • National Museum of Georgia
  • Croatian National History Museum, and the Museum of the Krapina Neandertals
  • National History Museum, London
  • Turkana Basin Institute and Stony Brook University
  • Institute of Human Evolution and University of the Witswatersrand
  • Luigi Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography
  • Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
  • Boston University
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Kansas
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Oregon
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Texas, Austin
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’m sure that I have forgotten some as I’ve been tabulating them, and I will continue to update as I add institutions for the online component of the session. As you can see, it’s a great list, and right now I only wish I had time to have gotten materials from even more. If the session is a success, maybe the AAPA will make it a regular event, and we can bring even more materials. It really wasn’t all that hard, once we got started.

I really wanted to add to the session one other thing – a way to connect the session to people who cannot attend the meeting. We can’t bring casts everywhere, but I can highlight some of the public resources that exist online for sharing anthropological materials with other professionals and the public. I’ll be highlighting a series of those resources here over the upcoming weeks, forming a continuing online exhibition to coordinate with the physical plenary session at the meetings.

As you have probably noticed from the blog, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how to maximize the scientific value of conferences. How can we take a traditional conference and make it more useful for the participants, while broadening it to people who cannot attend? It’s clear that our association has a professional need to make sure that human evolution and human biology are being communicated at institutions by experts who have seen the evidence. We can make the opportunities for this exchange of information. As an association we can do something to serve those institutions who cannot afford the newest and largest collections of materials themselves. And as I’ll be featuring online resources, many of our institutions are already doing great work bringing photos and models of materials to students and the public.

I hope that I can spread some of the excitement about what’s going on now in human evolution. I don’t know what to expect for a crowd in the room on Thursday evening, but if you’re at the meetings, unless you’re at one of the best-stocked cast laboratories in the country (and maybe even then) I can guarantee we’ve got some casts you haven’t seen. I have some graduate students who are itching to help people learn about things, and hoping we can bring a real spirit of openness and learning to the session.