Some thoughts on Dorothy Garrod and celebrity fossils

6 minute read

Lydia Pyne’s new book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils is a reflection on how fossils become worldwide celebrities. I’m not entirely through the book but I like it quite a lot so far.

No one can write about the history of discoveries of these “famous” hominin specimens without taking note of the absence of women from the history of paleaonthropology. This week, Pyne published an essay reflecting on this gendered history: “Writing About Fossils Found By Men”.

Interestingly, women who show up in early paleoanthropology generally come from different background disciplines than do their male counterparts. Women tended to come to paleoanthropology from archaeology or anthropology, rather than from anatomy or paleontology – sciences that were less about spectacular discoveries of “things” (fossils) and more about understanding processes. But those sorts of research questions are hard to canonize in a science’s historical mythos. The discovery of some really cool fossil, traditional science storytelling goes, is so much more exciting to read and write about.
Accordingly, the traditional histories of paleoanthropology don’t have a whole lot of women in them. Dart’s student, Josephine Salmons, occasionally makes an appearance. Lady Smith Woodward shows up here and there in various stories of the Piltdown hoax, since her husband Sir Arthur Smith Woodward was so involved in Piltdown’s excavation and study. By and large, however, these women are ladies in the early fossil stories, not scientists. The big names in anthropological research, like Mary Leakey or Jacquetta Hawkes, tend to be researchers who focus more on the behaviors associated with early Homo than finding new hominin fossils. And this is pretty much the canon of paleoanthropology’s history of science as it currently stands.

As Pyne reflects on these famous fossils, she suggests that it is the “celebrity” nature of the fossils that tends to push women out of the story.

I found Pyne’s mention of Jacquetta Hawkes interesting in this context. Hawkes is not typically discussed in histories of paleoanthropology, because most of her work concerned the archaeology of the last few thousand years. In that area, she was a towering figure in the mid-twentieth century. But Hawkes herself did fieldwork as a student with Dorothy Garrod, and drew inspiration that set her on the path toward a career in archaeology (as discussed by the University of Bradford).

A skeleton of a Neanderthal woman was found, named Tabun 1 from the cave in which she was discovered. Jacquetta felt a strange kinship with this ancestral figure whose fragile skull she held. Despite their very different minds and experiences, both were part of the same stream of consciousness, “two atoms” in the millennial growth of the human brain.

Dorothy Garrod directed excavations that resulted in some of the epochal discoveries in the origin of modern humans and their interactions with the Neandertals. She didn’t make Pyne’s list because the Skhul and Tabun skeletal remains don’t fit her criteria of a single, “celebrity” skeleton. But that series of discoveries was much more important to the theoretical development of the field than most of the “celebrity” fossils.

If we consider the Skhul and Tabun discoveries, there’s no question that Garrod belongs in the pantheon of major fieldworkers in human origins. The Tabun archaeological sequence forms the basis for understanding the chronology of the Levant, with evidence for a quarter-million years of human habitation. To this we can add the excavation at Devil’s Tower, Gibraltar, and the Neandertal specimen it uncovered. Many archaeologists working today are frustrated with Garrod because her excavation methods left many unanswerable questions. Today no one would excavate a site like Tabun in the way that Garrod did. But this is true of almost every historical figure in the field.

Probably others would be more critical of Garrod than I am. I view her as one of the first prehistoric archaeologists to supervise massively interdisciplinary research. As she put it in her inaugural lecture as Disney Professor at Cambridge,

The prehistory of the Old Stone Age is far more closely bound up with certain branches of natural science—geology, palaeontology, palaeobotany—and the formation of a prehistorian in this sense calls for a scientific discipline to which the later stages of Man's story is not normally submitted.
It is noteworthy that among those who have built up the study of Early Man nearly all the outstanding names belong to men who have approached it from one or other of the natural sciences. This recruitment is to be expected in a subject which touches those sciences at so many points, and it has been of the highest value in the development and systematisation of human palaeontology in the widest sense. On the strictly archaeological side, however—that is, in the study of artefacts of fossil man—it has had certain results which are perhaps not quite so happy. It is time, I think, that these tendencies should be critically examined, and that we should ask ourselves whether they are not in part responsible for the present divorce between the student of the Old Stone Age and the archaeologist in the popular sense of the word.

With these words she introduced why archaeological knowledge is essential to understanding prehistory. Natural scientists, in her view, tended to treat artifacts as if they themselves were fossils, evolving under the laws of evolution, complete with hybridization and mutation. This in her view was wrong, leading to an exaggerated and typological view of cultural traditions. She was speaking to archaeologists about the importance of the archaeological approach.

As I read her, Garrod fully appreciated the role of different scientific disciplines in their own proper spheres, all of which had to be appreciated by the prehistorian. Certainly she followed that approach in her management of the excavation and study of material, in which she was strikingly modern in comparison to her scientific contemporaries. Like all modern discoveries of any importance, the Mount Carmel work in the 1920s and 1930s was a large-scale project that relied upon many collaborators. Theodore McCown, still a PhD student at the time, had responsibility for excavating the Skhul skeletons and transporting them to the U.K., where he worked to prepare them under the supervision of Arthur Keith. The resulting anatomical interpretation was one of the most important monographic descriptions of any fossil hominin sample, which faced up to the challenge of how to understand “transitional” patterns of anatomical features. It’s probably not an accident that Garrod, herself the daughter of a named professor of medicine, knew how to effectively work with experts in this area for this part of the work.

Thinking about McCown and Keith, they both influenced the interpretation of the fossils in such a way as to downplay their potential as “celebrity” fossils, notwithstanding Jacquetta Hawkes writing poems about the Tabun skeleton. Had Keith realized that the Skhul fossils were among were the earliest modern humans outside Africa, he might have created a mythos for Skhul V, but on this he missed the boat. Instead, he conceived them as transitional between earlier humans with more modern anatomy and later Neandertals. For his part, McCown refused to see the fossils as representatives a “type”, insisting that each was a mere sample of diversity within a population. The resulting description broke ground in how to conceive of variation in fossil human populations. Their science was a landmark, and the fossils did not take on mythological status in the process. I count that a scientific success.

I should point out that one consistent aspect of Garrod’s work is that her publications and reports all appeared “promptly” (as Jane Smith put it in a short biography). She was able to accomplish much, because she was effective in describing the science.

I don’t know how much Garrod’s approach to directing interdisciplinary work might have influenced Louis Leakey, who knew her. Looking at Leakey’s record it is clear that he conceived his and Mary’s roles differently than other earlier workers other than Garrod. The way that he recruited and delegated anatomical work to Phillip Tobias, John Napier, and other anatomical experts is reminiscent of how Garrod organized the Mount Carmel work. Maybe he would have taken this approach in any event.

At any rate, these are just a few of my thoughts. This seems like a fertile area for a historian to explore in more detail.