We Have Never Been Modern

Written by K. Lindsay Hunter, CARTA Community Engagement and Advancement Director (@Paleo_Bonegirl, @CARTAUCSD)

Today’s researchers studying the origins of our species have been inundated with new data revealed through advances in technology, refined genomic and dating methods, as well as new discoveries. However, this largess provides a challenge in integration and description that ultimately begs for reflection. CARTA Member Iain Davidson’s (PhD, U of New England, emeritus) profiled chapter (see “CARTA-inspired Publications”) reminds us that in our quest to identify “ourselves” in the past, our own un-recognized biases often reify cultural categories with biological data.

In contextualizing the myriad talks and speakers “Exploring the Origins of Today’s Humans,” on February 21, 2020, I’m reminded of philosopher Bruno Latour’s assertion, “we have never been modern.” With some indulgence, I ask that we take a brief look at some of the changes over the past decade within the sciences surrounding anthropogeny (with a focus on paleoanthropology), and how these altered perspectives regarding who we are today and how science is practiced impact our views of the human past.

Since we must begin somewhere, I’ll begin in 2013, the time of CARTA’s last symposium on this topic. In retrospect, many forces have since intervened to change our frame of reference for today’s humans. For me, 2013 was the year that, as a member of an underground team composed solely of early-career women scientists (from the U.S., Canada, and Australia), I helped excavate the first remains of the then unidentified hominin now known as Homo naledi. These bones had recently come to light through the amateur exploration of two local South African cavers belonging to the Speleological Exploration Club (SEC). This unexpected discovery precipitated a half-decade of further exploration into the depths of South African caves beyond the so-called “twilight zone,” an area that popular wisdom had deemed the limit of hominin wandering. Post-naledi, it might be argued that field exploration has seen a resurgence, at least in some regions, and this has been rewarded by yet-undescribed discoveries deep within other caves.

Early in 2013, a now well-known survey was deployed, and in 2014, four intrepid women scientists of another kind (including CARTA Member Katie Hinde, PhD, ASU) published the “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault,” which gained traction in the media as SAFE13. As the first empirical examination of scientists’ experiences of harassment during fieldwork, the study exposed the dark underbelly of work in the field. SAFE13 and the later qualitative SAFE2 (2017), brought many uncomfortable but necessary conversations to the forefront of various field sciences and challenged the ways that diversity and inclusion initiatives were previously implemented.

In 2015, the mysterious Rising Star remains were first announced following a ground-breaking early-career researcher description workshop, and by 2017 began to collalesce into a broader picture of human origins, which by now included engrossing details of Denisovan and Neandertal introgression, such as that discussed by CARTA Member Joshua Akey, PhD (Princeton University) in our Winter Symposium. It seemed that a previously unknown, small-brained hominin with mosaic traits (many ancient hold-overs associated with climbing) had evidently been disposing of their dead deep within at least one South African cave in two apparently separate instances (i.e., the Dinaledi and Lesedi chambers of the Rising Star cave system). The fact that these strikingly human-like actions, presumably achieved without the use of artificial light, had taken place only 236-335,000 years ago, was made all the more poignant in light of new dates published for the Jebel Irhoud Middle Stone Age site (performed by a team including CARTA Member Jean-Jacque Hublin, PhD, Max Planck). These dates, at 286,000 ± 32,000 years ago, placed the Jebel Irhoud tools and human remains within the same date range as Homo naledi (albeit on the opposite end of the African continent).

In the background of these scientific events, social changes within the field began to take root and flourish. In 2016, within the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), the Committee on Diversity (COD), chaired by CARTA Member Susan Antón, PhD (New York University), launched the IDEAS: Increasing Diversity in Evolutionary Anthropological Sciences workshop to address underrepresentation of racialized minority scholars in biological anthropology through training, mentoring, and outreach. Meanwhile, back in Africa, the Rising Star Expedition created career paths for a small cadre of South Africans, including Nompumelelo Hlophe (now a PhD candidate), Maropeng Ramalepa, Mathabela Tsikoane, Dirk van Rooyen, and original Homo naledi discoverers, Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter, who formed the core of a Wits Exploration Team.

In 2018, a second call for Rising Star excavators went out over social media, this time bringing South Africans Keneiloe Molopyane, PhD (now Curator of Maropeng, the Official Visitor of the Cradle of Humankind), and Kerryn Warren, PhD (UCT), joined by Welsh caver-scientist Angharad Brewer Gillham. The commitment to providing opportunities to women and other groups historically disadvantaged in the field sciences has become an important part of the legacy of a small-brained human relative to its “Modern” human cousins.

To reiterate, much has changed since the last CARTA symposium on the subject of behavioral or anatomical “modernity” some six years ago, but we can also see that it is not merely with regard to a flood of new information from Ancient DNA, Fossils, Archeology and Population Studies. The face of the field of anthropogeny itself is quite literally changing, and the hand of many CARTA Members can be detected in steering its future course. We no longer have the luxury of performing our analyses in a vacuum (if indeed, we ever did), and the future of our sciences will be made stronger and more rigorous through the introduction of different views and biases, bringing us ever closer to our illusive modern ideal.

We hope that you will join us Feb 21, 2020 as CARTA presents, “Exploring the Origins of Today’s Humans,” whether it is at the Salk or in the comfort of your own home via live webstream, as together we tackle these existential questions in the light of various lines of new evidence.

To learn more about how this primate assimilates such knowledge, stay tuned to read my CARTA guest blog on “Twilight Beasts” (www.twilightbeasts.org, @TwilightBeasts on Twitter), which will seek to summarize this provocative symposium.


Further reading: