As the new year begins, I thought I would link to some stories that struck me over the last year. I’m inspired by Kate Wong, who has summarized her top human evolution stories of 2013: “The Most Fascinating Human Evolution Discoveries of 2013”, with links back to the originals. It’s a great list, including many items that I haven’t had time to cover in detail this year.
For me, this has been a crazy year. First and foremost is the Rising Star Expedition, which was an incredible experience for many reasons. My post, “What we know and don’t know”, is a review of where the science stood near the end of the fieldwork. The advance team brought out more than 1200 hominin fossil specimens. As I look forward to 2014, I am so eager to move forward with the work on this project. The field excavation in 2013 was amazing, and the first round of analysis will give even more chances to share the science with the public worldwide.
In April I announced my upcoming massive open online course, “Human Evolution Past and Future”.
I'm doing this because human evolution is important. The effects of the past shape who we are today, our health and choices, our societies and imaginations. Anthropology can engage people in their own lives and experience. The MOOC technology platform has such potential for innovating new forms of education, I am eager to bring human evolution into that space.
We are now very close to the launch on January 21. I’ve spent a whole year preparing, from curricular design up to the extensive on-site filming and interviews with friends around the world. I have been in South Africa (twice), the Republic of Georgia, the UK, Gibraltar, Austria (twice), Croatia, and Israel, and have done interviews with more than 20 experts in different areas of paleoanthropology and archaeology. Our University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students have put together some incredible footage of their fieldwork this summer in South Africa and Tanzania.
What I have taken away from these experiences: We are just scratching the surface of what is possible. I’m looking forward to new opportunities in 2014 to expand what we are doing, bring original footage from more field sites, talk to more interesting people, and truly open up the science.
Meanwhile, this has been a very productive year for students from the Hawks lab. This year, Zach Throckmorton finished his Ph.D. and moved on to a professorship at Lincoln Memorial University. In October, I had the distinct honor of performing a wedding ceremony for Zach and his new wife, Sara.
Before 2013 began, my Ph.D. student Aaron Sams finished his degree at the end of 2012 and moved on to a postdoc at Cornell University. He brought great energy to the research and I am very proud of his work on celiac disease, which has brought a new focus to my investigation of recent human evolution. He has been busy turning out celiac disease research, with one paper out this summer and another in press. That line of research has led to some important findings about the timing of recent natural selection as well as the pattern of human genes from Neandertals, with several new papers in the pipeline. It is so wonderful to have this work continuing forward.
My research on ancient genomes has led to several publications this year and some to come out next year. This has been a very productive area. Our work was featured on NOVA this spring, including a segment showing our UW-Madison undergraduate students participating!
During it all, I’ve kept up blogging, both here and at the Rising Star Expedition blog. Some highlights from the year of blogging:
In December, I posted on two new ancient DNA studies: “The Denisova-Sima de los Huesos connection”, and “The Altai Neandertal”. These have transformed our view of ancient populations in ways that will reverberate for years. Moving the blog to another server and new format remedied my long-term traffic jam, precipitated by huge pulses of interest in these ancient genomes.
November was dominated by the Rising Star Expedition, including my post, “In the hot seat”, which describes the open science process.
In October, I reflected on the newly-described D4500 skull from Dmanisi, which adds substantially to the variability of Homo erectus from that site: “The new skull from Dmanisi”. I did have a chance to examine the skull briefly during my visit to Georgia last summer, and it struck me that the skull has much more to reveal about the origin of Homo. I also considered what we know (and don’t know) about the place of Denisovan population mixture with modern humans, in “Hunting the Denisovan belt”.
August and September were consumed by travel, but that didn’t stop me from posting about “The hominin invasion of China” and “The genetic complexity of recent migration into southern Africa”.
In July, I examined some recent papers on the Middle and Upper Paleolithic of India, and pondered whether the Denisovans might have some role in human evolution in South Asia: “Denisovans and the Middle Paleolithic of India”.
June saw me reacting to a commentary on the nature of gene-culture coevolution in humans: “Culture-gene coevolution and language”. I also thought about what ancient throwing might have meant to the evolution of Homo: “Throwing out hypotheses about throwing”.
May was a busy month for blogging, most notably about education issues and MOOCs. One highlight was “My open letter to SJSU philosophy”.
The April meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists were notable for many reasons, but the most important presentation was by Kate Clancy and colleagues, who examined a systematic pattern of abuses of students on anthropological field projects. My post on the presentation is not the best source, but links to all of them: “AAPA hears about ongoing abuse of students at field sites”.
Early March included the report of Oldowan-era archaeology from El-Kherba, Algeria, which I worked to contextualize in a post: “Behavior of the first North African humans”.
February included new guidelines from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on open access to federally-funded scientific publications and data. I found the guidelines disappointing, basically a continuation of the status quo for NSF-funded work: “White House policy on data access”. Net result, zero change for paleoanthropology. In January 2012, I had urged a much stronger policy to facilitate greater access to photos and data from paleoanthropological investigations: “Public interests in data from federally funded research”.
January was also a very busy month on the blog. One science communication highlight was my post on new work by my UW-Madison colleagues Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, “Online communication biases upon the public perception of science”. In another post, I investigated one of anthropology’s most prominent effects on Silicon Valley culture: “Social media, social dynamics, and the Dunbar number”.
As 2013 began, I had little idea of the incredible year ahead of me. I expect that will also be true of 2014! I hope you’ll stick with me as we move forward into the new year.
And if you haven’t signed up for “Human Evolution Past and Future”, be sure you don’t miss out!