Interview Six: Chris Stringer

Hello Mr. Stringer! Thank you for joining us today, how are you doing? 

To start off I think I would just like to have you introduce yourself a little bit:

I’ve been working at the Natural History Museum since 1973, but I do also have a life, family and friends outside of the Museum! My research interests now are focused on reconstructing the last half million years or so of human evolution, collaborating with a range of colleagues in palaeoanthropology, archaeology, genetics, geochronology and palaeoclimates. I’ve also been very involved with the British part of the story over the last 20 years or so, directing the Leverhulme-funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain projects, and then co-directing the Calleva Foundation-funded Pathways to Ancient Britain projects, with Nick Ashton at the BM.

Great! Now lets get to some questions: 

  1. How did you first get involved with Paleoanthropology? 

I was fascinated by fossils and human evolution as a school kid, but I had no idea that I could actually study the subject. I had a place at medical school lined up but by chance I was given University College London’s prospectus – it was arranged alphabetically, and Anthropology was at the beginning. The course offered archaeology, human evolution, genetics, and social anthropology. Suddenly medicine seemed less appealing, so I phoned UCL ( a letter would have been too slow!), was invited for an interview, and they offered me a place. Much to the amazement of my teachers and parents, I dropped medicine at the last minute and took up this study subject, which I had only just learnt existed. 

2. Do you have any tips for new adventurers starting their quest? 

Always try to keep an open mind and read/listen as widely as you can. There is so much online now, which is great, but it can be difficult for a beginner to sort the wheat from the chaff.

3.What’s your favorite fossil?

That’s a difficult one as I have so many favourites! It’s probably a choice between a Neanderthal like the type fossil skullcap from Germany which I studied for my PhD, or the Forbes’ Quarry skull (the first one I ever looked at for real), or something new and challenging like Liang Bua 1 (Homo floresiensis) from Flores. 

4.Hardest research you have done?

Probably dating the Broken Hill skull, which took over 20 years work with Rainer Grün to get published. Every time we added some new analysis to try and clarify the picture, it seemed to get even more complicated!

5. Most satisfying research that you have done?

That’s a tricky one – the 1988 Science paper “Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans” with Peter Andrews is probably the one I’m most proud of, and it came at a crucial time in the debate about our origins. But the 2005 and 2010 papers on Pakefield and Happisburgh 3 that pushed back the earliest-known occupations in Britain were great achievements of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain team.  

6. What do you know now, that you wish you knew 20 years ago? 

That evidence would show that we not only interbred with Neanderthals (which I always thought was possible), but that we would also find traces of it widely and significantly today

7, Based on the most recent evidence, who do you think the most likely common ancestor for Neanderthals and H. sapiens? 

I don’t know but it’s probably something with a face more like Homo antecessor than Homo heidelbergensis

8. Do you think we have a direct common ancestor or is it more complicated than that?

It is more complicated because although we can reconstruct and look for a common ancestor in terms of morphology, our ancestry was added to subsequently by intermixture with Neanderthals, Denisovans and maybe other lineages

9.What’s other discipline best supports Paleoanthropology? Archaeology, Geology, Anatomy, etc. 

They are all important, depending on the questions you are trying to answer. Certainly, molecular anthropology and geochronology must be included there.

10. Since the writing of Lone Survivor (Which I am rereading now), when discussing the Out of Africa dispersal, you note the genetics and archaeology support multiple theories about the size and timing of the dispersal, has time cleared that up at all? 

It hasn’t got clearer because it looks like there were a number of pre-60 ka dispersals from Africa that had minimal impacts on present-day genetic patterns. Did those earlier populations all go extinct or were their genetic signals just over-written by the success of the ~60 ka dispersal?

11. What else do you think we are going to find? 

I think more new lineages and species will be uncovered, in Africa, Asia and Island South East Asia, maybe even in Europe

12. What technology are we waiting for to get further answers?

I think the advent and wider application of palaeoproteomics will allow us to test the relationships of fossils in areas that ancient DNA cannot reach

13. What Fossil are we dying to find to uncover specific secrets?

I’d certainly like to know what a whole Denisovan skeleton would look like!

14. Why do you think Chimpanzees and Bonobos did not continue on their evolutionary tract like we did, what caused us to have a cognitive revolution while they didn’t?

I think Jane Goodall put it so well – despite the rich repertoire of communication in chimps, without a human-like language “they are trapped within themselves”

15.What updates to the Out of Africa hypothesis do you have that you think we should all know?

That there was a not a single line of evolution in one region of Africa leading to us, and that there were several Out of Africa events in the last 500,000 years, as well as (no doubt) some Into Africa ones…

And there you have it! What a wonderful time with Mr. Stringer! A big thank you for doing this interview with us!

If you know someone or are interested in being interviewed, email me at sethchagi@icloud.com and we will see what we can do!

Thanks!

Published by sethchagi

I am a Paleoanthropology Student, so far with two degrees, in Anthropology and Human Behavioral Science, pursuing my PhD. I love to read (like a lot) and write, I love my family, and I adore anthropology! Remember, never stop exploring and never stop learning! There is always more to learn!

One thought on “Interview Six: Chris Stringer

  1. As you may notice, I’m catching up on multiple interviews this afternoon and having a great time doing so. The questions are very good, Seth, in that they illicit information and views from people that are new—I’ve been a Chris Stringer fan for ages, so I thought I knew most everything about him and what he might have to say, but I was wrong! Thanks again for your efforts in bringing these folks to us amateur paleoanthropology fans.

    Like

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