A recent issue of Current Biology has a short interview with paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood: “Bernard Wood”. The interview covers his transition from a training in medicine to human evolution, and his subsequent work on the hominin fossil remains from East Turkana:
Why did you choose to work on skulls and teeth? I didn’t. I was one of three anatomists (the others were Michael Day and Alan Walker) Richard Leakey had invited to describe and interpret the hominin fossils recovered from Lake Rudolf. The majority of the fossils were from the skull and dentition, but each of us wanted to work on the limb bones. In 1972, we met in New York to discuss the impasse, but none of us would give in. So, not a little frustrated, Richard broke three matches into different lengths and made us draw. Mine was the shortest match, so I had no choice but to work on the cranial remains. This task, which involved determining how many taxa were represented among the hominin cranial fossils, led to the topic of my PhD, sexual dimorphism, and my interest in patterns of intra- versus interspecific variation.
I always find it so illuminating to think about how today’s well-known paleoanthropologists started doing the work that would bring them scientific prominence. Having just come from working with so many early career scientists on the Rising Star Workshop, it is valuable to remember that most of today’s experts in paleoanthropology got their start as PhD students describing new fossil remains, before substantial datasets of fossil variation even existed.