An interview with Adam Van Arsdale

After my Q and A with paleoanthropologist Mica Glantz, I got a lot of great response -- people really liked reading about work in the field from somebody other than me!

So, I'm going to make these interviews a regular feature. When I was in Michigan last week, I got a chance to talk with Adam Van Arsdale, who graciously agreed to answer some questions about his work.

UPDATE(11/29/2007): After posting, I heard from a reader who reminded me that I omitted Adam's affiliation and info! Adam is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Michigan. You can find out more about his interests on his webpage.

Hawks: You were lucky enough to work at one of today's most exciting paleoanthropological sites, Dmanisi. What can you tell us about your experience there?

Van Arsdale: Dmanisi is a wonderful place and I can't say enough positive things about the site and all the people I have worked with through the project. To begin, the site itself is just a nirvana for anyone with an interest in history or prehistory. The primary excavation area is in the middle of a ruined medieval citadel complex which rose to prominence as a trading town along the silk road; down from the promontory are the tombs of Mongols who sacked the city in the 12th century; further down are early Christian burials, and along the river are the remains of bath houses for travelers along the Silk Road. It is a literally a place where time seeps out of the ground.

Leaving the setting aside, the people associated with the project have been wonderful to work with. The size of the excavation team would vary but there would be times when, at the end of a long excavation day, I would find myself sitting at a long dinner table surrounded by 40 people speaking more than half a dozen languages. In the years I worked there as a graduate student I think we had students and researchers from 15 different countries (and I'm probably missing a few). Everyone who works at the site, including the local residents of Patara Dmanisi, adds their own character to the project. As a graduate student, my summers at Dmanisi served as something of a Paleoanthropology bootcamp, with regular discussions and debates between all of us with very different training and different theoretical perspectives on the issues of human evolution.

And then on top of all of this there are, of course, a remarkable set of fossils and archaeological materials.

Hawks: Do you want to give a shout-out to anybody in Georgia?

Van Arsdale: There are too many to name, but certainly David Lordkipanidze, who first invited me to Dmanisi in 2001, deserves recognition. I'll also add Gocha Kiladze, Teona Shelia and Dato Zhvania, who began working at Dmanisi in 1991 as students and who continue to play a significant role in the operation of the site today. One of the great things about the site is that it has served as a tremendous springboard for Georgian students interested in paleoanthropology. I think it is a safe bet we will be hearing a lot from our Georgian colleagues in the years ahead.

Hawks: Your dissertation work focused on the Dmanisi mandibles. I know that you still have publications coming out on these, so feel free to keep quiet about anything you're saving for print. What can you tell us about the sample?

Van Arsdale: The Dmanisi mandibles are a remarkable sample. They show a huge amount of morphological variation in a set of fossils derived from a temporally and geographically constrained set of deposits. One of the mandibles is in many characters the largest mandible assigned to the genus Homo. Two of the others are quite small, with variably large and small teeth. And the fourth specimen is one of the earliest edentulous mandibles in the hominid record. Given the current season, it is perhaps appropriate to describe the sample as a real cornucopia of variation. And the location and date of the site itself is surprising. Dated to 1.8 million years and about 2000 miles from the outlet of the rift valley in northeast Africa, the site is a long way from the contemporaneous and well-known deposits from the Turkana Basin in Kenya and Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

So how do we account for all this variation? That was basically the question of my dissertation. I sought to answer this question by testing a series of hypotheses focused first on sources of intraspecific variation, particularly age and sexual dimorphism, then secondarily on hypotheses of interspecific differentiation (i.e. multiple species). I then evaluated the results of these quantitative tests in the context of the comparative anatomy of the Dmanisi sample. Sparing you all the details, I think there are strong reasons to consider the Dmanisi hominid sample as that of a single species, but one displaying considerable amount of variation associated with age and possibly elevated levels of sexual dimorphism relative to what we observe in contemporary and recent human populations.

Hawks: Of course, your work required a lot of comparisons with othersamples, and mandibles are among the most common skeletal elements represented in the fossil record. How did you handle your comparative work?

Van Arsdale: Paleoanthropology is at its root a comparative discipline. It is difficult to interpret any set of fossils outside of some comparative model. My work is no different. In asking questions about variation associated with age and sex, my dissertation is really asking how strange (or not strange) does the variation in the Dmanisi sample look if we treat it like a mixed age and sex sample of humans? Of chimpanzees? Of gorillas? Each of these species possess somewhat differing patterns of variation so that our final understanding of the Dmanisi specimens is based on a combination of similarities and differences with these different comparative models.

You can also try to understand the sample from the perspective of other fossils. These comparisons are more challenging because we have less certainty regarding the things we think we know about fossils. For example, in my dissertation I also make a series of comparisons between the Dmanisi mandibles and a sample of Australopithecus boisei mandibles from East Africa. It is much more difficult to say for certain whether any given fossil specimen is male or female, and in the absence of well preserved teeth, young or old. That uncertainty limits the power of the hypothesis tests we can bring to the question by limiting the amount of information we have to work with.

One of the exciting aspects of Paleoanthropology's comparative perspective is that new fossils give us new ways of looking at old fossils. Possibly the most exciting aspect of the Dmanisi fossils is that they provide us a tremendous platform from which to look back at these large samples from East and Southern Africa that we have known about for a long time and reexamine questions which had either previously been unanswerable or whose accepted answers no longer seem so clear.

Hawks: Any stories you can share about your travels?

Van Arsdale: One of the more unique experiences from my travels occurred while I was tagging along with a graduate student from Yale on her project involving 4.5 million year old fossil exposures in the Tugen Hills of the Central Rift Valley, Kenya. I was off on my own one day, walking along one of the exposures when I came across what appeared to be part of a fossilized crocodile skull just barely sticking out of the ground. I sat down and began very carefully exposing its boundaries so that it could be properly prepared and taken out. After about 20 minutes of this, a young Tugen boy came out of the bushes and sat down next me and began watching me work. I tried to say a few words of greeting in my very rudimentary Kiswahili, but either my pronunciation was too terrible to be understand (quite likely) or he was too young to have yet learned Kiswahili (he looked like he was between 8 and 10). After a few more minutes the boy, who had been carrying a small bow and set of arrows, took out one of his arrows and began using its steel tip as a mini-trowel. I would have discouraged him out of fear he might damage the fossil or go on trying to dig up other fossils in the area, but as I watched him he was exceedingly careful and seemed completely enraptured by the work. It was just one of those moments where, while the event was going on, I recognized how amazingly unique it was. Here we were, a graduate student from the University of Michigan with twenty plus years of formal education and a young Tugen boy with at most a few years of schooling, sitting side by side on a hillside in the middle of Kenya carefully exposing a 4.5 million year old fossil. The only common language between us was the action of my Marshalltown trowel and his handmade arrow point and a basic curiosity in this fossil.

Hawks: It's a story you hear from students a lot: teeth and mandibles are "bor-ing". But of course, they're the best representatives of variation we have through much of human evolution -- if you want to study evolution, you'll be studying jaws and teeth. What keeps these questions exciting for you?

Van Arsdale: One of the reasons I enjoy looking at mandibles and teeth are that they can potentially provide a window into numerous aspects of human evolution. As you point out, they are the most abundant element in the fossil record and therefore provide a large set of data with which to address questions of evolutionary relationships and evolutionary change. They can also tell you something about the ecology and diet of the individual specimen. Finally, they tell us something about how an organism develops throughout life and ages.

This also means that questions regarding variation in jaws and teeth can be difficult to answer because many different processes might account for the observed variations. When testing hypotheses about mandibular variation it is important to keep this in mind. It is always striking to me how many hominid type specimens are or have served at some time as type specimens for a new species. This is in part a reflection of their relative abundance, but I think it also reflects how difficult it is to adequately address all the potential sources of variation in mandibles. If you accept the conclusions of my research, the Dmanisi mandibles serve as a cautionary tale in this regard.

Hawks: Some readers may know that you and I share the same graduate advisor, Milford Wolpoff, who has certainly been a strong influence on the way I approach evolutionary questions. But I also find myself going back to other people who influenced my training. Who/what really got you interested in the field, or shaped the way you think about evolution?

Van Arsdale: I initially entered anthropology by happy circumstance. Entering college (Emory University) I was interested in majoring in both English Literature and Evolutionary Biology. My first year two things happened; I realized Emory's biology department was primarily focused on microbiology and full of pre-med students (something I was not interested in) and I took my first Anthropology course to fulfill a distribution requirement. I was immediately hooked. Here I could have the best of both worlds... an integrative approach towards understanding what it means to be human and a careful examination of the evolutionary processes which have shaped the pattern of human evolution. I owe a huge part of my perspective to Milford and the other faculty and students I worked with as a graduate student, but I don't think I fully realized the influence my undergraduate teachers had on my perspective till the AAA meetings last year when I was able to attend a session honoring the graduate advisor (Jack Kelso) of my undergraduate advisor (George Armelagos). I listened to talks by people I had never met, but with whom I share some of my academic phylogeny, and what I heard were familiar themes on the interaction of human biological and cultural processes. This bio-cultural perspective is something I carry with me from Emory and is evident in the approach I take towards questions of Pleistocene human evolution, where changes in human skeletal form cannot be understood outside of the context of our ever-expanding brains and the increasingly complex ways in which we interact with the people and environments around us. Now that I am teaching, it is something I am aware of when I am in front of the undergraduates in my own classes.

Hawks:Some of your current research involves a lot of genetic modeling. How did you get into this area? Can you tell us about some of your thoughts?

Van Arsdale: My interest in genetic modeling first began as an undergraduate. In part it reflects my status as an admitted math nerd. I like numbers, I like using computationally intense models and simulations to address specific hypotheses, and I like understanding how evolutionary and cultural processes interact in dynamic ways. But when I was an undergrad my interest in genetic models stemmed out of my interest in modern human origins and the belief that any really good model should be able to simultaneously explain the pattern of fossil, archaeological, and genetic evidence. At the time there was quite a bit of discussion not just about how the increasing amount of genetic data related to previously held understandings of the fossil and archaeological record, but also how compatible data from different genetic systems were with each other. In particular, data from non-recombinant genetic systems (mtDNA and parts of the Y-chromosome) seemed to provide a different picture of human evolution than data from recombinant genetic systems. My attempt to understand these differences is what really drew me into aspects of genetic modeling.

Since that time my interest genetic modeling has really developed out of what I consider an anthropological approach towards understanding genetic systems. I like to quote one of the take-away messages from the dissertation defense of another Michigan graduate, Keith Hunley, who modeled genetic aspects of South American population structure in his dissertation. As Keith said in his defense, what people do matters. Most genetic models are dependent on a variety of demographic parameters (population size, structure, etc.), all those things that people do. And yet most geneticists do not, or simply cannot directly address these demographic parameters with the data available to them. As a paleoanthropologist, one role my research serves is to provide better understandings of what people did and the ways in which they interacted in the past so as to better inform such genetic models.

On a more theoretical level I am very much interested in exploring how the unique ways in which humans shape and interact with our evolutionary landscape serves to structure genetic variation and the evolutionary forces which shape it.

Hawks: What's the next step for you? Where do you go from here with your research?

Van Arsdale: Most of the questions I am working on now reflect my current thinking that the basic pattern which characterizes Pleistocene human evolution; the complex interaction between increasing cultural complexity, expanding ecological niches, and basic anatomical changes (encephalization, dental reduction); establishes itself early in the Pleistocene if not prior than that. Essentially, that sometime around 2-2.5 million years ago a group of hominids stopped acting like bipedal apes (the Australopithecines) and started acting human. This basic human pattern then continued to develop and characterize Pleistocene hominids until about 10-20,000 years ago when we stopped acting like humans and started acting like domesticated humans.

By understanding how this pattern manifests itself early in the Pleistocene, for example, by considering how, why and with what changes human populations expanded into places like Southern Georgia as early as 1.8 million years ago, you can develop broader understandings of the Pleistocene as a whole. I am just finishing up two projects related to this broad topic, one examining the Habiline-Erectine transition in the Lower Pleistocene and another attempting to characterize broad demographic changes within the Pleistocene.

I also want to continue my involvement in paleoanthropological field work and would like to continue examining Plio-Pleistocene deposits in Western and Central Asia. Dmanisi is an incredible site and has provided a great amount of detailed evidence to address questions of human evolution from this time period. But the detailed picture it provides encompasses only a narrow range of time and space...the more we can expand that window the better we can understand the broad patterns of change which characterize humans in the Plio-Pleistocene.