Department of Anthropology
Evolution is often intimately associated with food. Dietary factors hypothesized to have played critical roles in the niche partitioning between Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and early Homo include variable contributions of seeds, tubers, fruit, pith, and animal flesh. Current analytical approaches, however, lack the necessary resolution for differentiating the dietary contribution of these items within fossil species. Carnivory leaves evidence upon the skeletons of prey species, and has been implicated, for example, in the selection for increased human brain size, radiation out of Africa, complexity of social relationships, and the origins of tool manufacture. The fossil and archaeological records are largely silent, however, with respect to plant intake. Yet we know these resources likely contributed the bulk of dietary calories and nutrients for most hominins.
Isotopic approaches are uniquely capable of empirically estimating the contribution of individual foodstuffs within a given dietary niche. As the tissues of an organism are constructed from dietary components ingested from the environment, the isotopic composition of the individual reflect these inputs. Therefore, to interpret individual and tissue level isotopic variation in relation to diet, one must understand the underlying isotopic variability within the lived environment.
To advance the application of isotopic analyses for reconstructing the variety of hominin dietary niches preceding Homo sapiens, my work seeks to investigate (1) the patterns of isotopic variation in modern environments relevant for hominin evolution, (2) how those isotopes embedded within nutrients are differentially metabolized and deposited within the individual consumer, and (3) how ecological, dietary, and metabolic patterns of isotopic variation may be applied to reconstruct unobserved and unobservable behavior (e.g. modern primates and extinct hominins respectively).
This foundation is necessary to ask some of the biggest and most exciting questions for anyone interested in human origins and evolution:
From a broader perspective, I am interested in how organisms shape and are shaped by their dietary environments, as well as how they use food/nutrition to cope with stress (including psychosocial and exercise/activity induced stresses). These issues are as relevent for modern humans and our increasingly constructed environment, as they are for the origins of our lineage (over 6 Mya) and our species (ca. 200 Kya).