Editor’s Note: This posting from Thierra Nalley represents another side of “field” research undertaken by IHO’s doctoral students. Just as primary field research is an important component of anthropological work, comparative analysis and lab research—which may not be as exotic or seemingly adventurous as living in a tent in the Afar—can be as satisfying and exciting to our students (and scientists)! So, here is a bit of a twist on “Notes from the Field.” I hope you enjoy it—I think you will!
Hello! My name is Thierra Nalley and I am graduate student of IHO Director, Dr. William Kimbel. My posts might be a little different (yet hopefully still informative and entertaining!) in that instead of describing experiences from “the field,” I will be recounting my travels to museums across three (possibly four) continents—the US, Europe, and Africa. I am in the final stages of my graduate degree and am collecting data for my dissertation project.
I’ll take a quick moment to briefly describe my project, if only to explain the series of vertebrae pictures you will probably see throughout these posts. In a broad sense, I am interested in the evolution of bipedality in hominins. What are the advantages of walking upright? Disadvantages? How did natural selection shape a nonbiped into the form we see in ourselves today? One way to think about these big questions is to understand what form bipedality evolved from. In other words, “What came before?” Many researchers think about this particular question in a variety of ways, and I am hoping my project will add a new perspective.
My dissertation focuses specifically on the vertebrae in the neck (the cervical spine). I’m testing the hypothesis that suspensory primates (primates that can move in the trees by using their arms alone, such as apes and spider monkeys) have very specific vertebral shapes that allow their necks to act as stable platforms for large, powerful forelimbs. To test this hypothesis, I need to measure (hundreds of) primate cervical vertebrae, both suspensory and nonsuspensory species, to see if they are indeed different in the ways that suggest a biomechanical adaptation. If this pattern is supported in living primates, than I can see if the same pattern is found in fossil hominins. If early fossil hominins look like suspensory primates, it suggests that they were also capable of suspensory locomotion. Testing hypotheses like this help provide context to the evolution of bipedality.
The first stop in my travels is Washington D.C. and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The collections at the Smithsonian are unparalleled in many ways: large sample sizes, well-preserved specimens, and a high degree of accessibility for researchers. I will be in residence for about a month and what I have been struck by during my first few weeks here are the sense of community and history. Anthropology is a broad, wide-reaching field of study, but biological anthropology and all the little areas of expertise within it are very interconnected. Furthermore, my time as a student at Arizona State and the IHO has made me a part of an extraordinary group of people who have spread far and wide. For example, I am lucky enough to stay with an old friend that received her master’s in the ASU anthropology program who now works for the National Geographic Society and lives in the cute and happening Adams Morgan neighborhood. Fellow IHO graduate student Terry Ritzman is also in temporary residence while collecting his dissertation data, and ASU alum Dr. Matthew Tocheri is on permanent staff as a Smithsonian researcher who has recently become involved with the Flores hominins known as “hobbits.” These people add a sense of familiarity and support during this exciting (but sometimes stressful!) time on the road.
Another interesting aspect of my time at the Smithsonian is the deepening awareness of those that have come before me. Many of the primate specimens have been housed here for almost a century and many of the researchers involved with this collection have left a lasting impression on the field.
The ape skeletal sample provides a great example. Dian Fossey herself sent a large portion of the gorilla collection to the Smithsonian from Rwanda. Some are even from her own research group. This knowledge gives the gorilla specimens names and stories, even if I make them up in my head. I find this to be an interesting reaction on my part, and it makes me look forward to further encounters with the history of my field.
My next stop will be the museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to study the Australopithecus fossil hominins. Look for an update then!