Part of the collection of crocodile fossils. Photo credit: Erik Seiffert. 

Eric Seiffert is currently an associate professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University. He was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant in 2006 for his project entitled "Exploration for Early Anthropoids and other Primates in Western Egypt."

Prompted by studies suggesting that anthropoid colonization of Afro-Arabia occurred later than previously thought, Eric Seiffert and a team of paleontologists spent a total of four weeks exploring terrestrial and near-shore sediments of Late Cretaceous age in the Dakhla and Kharga Oases of Western Egypt. Their goal was to recover vertebrate fossils.

MUVP members showing a local group of high school students the jacketed remains of Late Cretaceous fossils from the Western Desert of Egypt. 

The team discovered many important vertebrate fossils in the area and expanded the vertebrate fauna of these deposits to include dinosaurs and crocodiles, to name a few. However, no mammals were found during the initial trip or several return visits.

While the outcomes of this project were "disappointing" from a paleoanthropology perspective, important strides were made in numerous other areas, including the creation and expansion of the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Division (MUVP).  

AuthorH Gregory
CategoriesResearch Report

Rebecca Miller is a researcher at the University of Liege. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant during our spring 2015 cycle for her project entitled "The Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition at Trou Al'Wesse (Belgium)." Her co-investigators are John Stewart and Keith Wilkinson.

Rebecca Miller

Rebecca Miller

Trou Al’Wesse (literally 'cave of the wasp) is a narrow cave of approximately 30m length in the Liège province of Belgium. The Leakey Foundation funded part of the project is the completion of our investigation of the terrace fronting the cave. This terrace sequence ranges from the Late Mousterian to the Middle Neolithic. We will be excavating the lowest two units - the Late Mousterian (Unit 17) and the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition (Unit 16) – that underlie the Early Upper Paleolithic (Unit 15). These three units formed during the period from ca. 50,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago. Our primary interest in this part of the sequence is to obtain new archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data that will help us to understand the nature of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition, a period when Neanderthals were disappearing and modern humans arrived in Europe.

Our objectives are:

  • Clarify the chronology of human occupations by obtaining AMS radiocarbon dates on bone and charcoal and OSL dates of the sediments, which will contribute to our understanding of the timing of Neanderthal extinctions and the arrival of anatomically modern humans in this part of North-west Europe
  • Identify climatic and environmental changes that would have affected humans, particularly in terms of the availability of plant and animal resources in cold and more temperate phases
  • Compare the behavior of Neanderthals and modern humans at this site and in the regional context in order to understand their strategies for adaptation.

We will be analyzing the stratigraphy to reconstruct site formation processes, the lithic assemblages to evaluate procurement strategies and tool production techniques, and faunal analyses to address both behavioral aspects (hunting/butchery, bone tool production/use) and paleoenvironmental and climate change.

AuthorH Gregory

Nicole Squyres is a PhD candidate from Johns Hopkins University. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant in our fall 2014 cycle for her project entitled "Morphological variation in the distal femur of modern humans and fossil hominins."

Nicole Squyres

The Leakey Foundation Research Grant has funded my travels to several different skeletal collections both within the US and Europe as part of the data collection for my PhD. At these collections, I have used a portable NextEngine 3D laser scanner to collect detailed surface scans of modern human and Neanderthal femora. I am now using this set of scans to collect data in the form of linear measurements and 3D geometric morphometric point data, which I will use to test several hypotheses about human variation in distal femoral morphology and the evolution of the hominin knee. I am interested in the evolution of the human knee because our ability to walk bipedally is one of the most unique characteristics of the human species. The shape of the distal femur had to change significantly from the ancestral hominoid condition in order make this type of locomotion possible. Although this morphology has been evaluated in various fossil hominins, there is still debate on how to interpret potential differences in femoral morphology and therefore locomotor behavior between these species and modern humans. The goal of my project is to examine differences in knee shape between hominins and modern humans within the greater context of the overall variation in knee shape within modern humans.

Neanderthal femur

In January of 2015, I spent two weeks at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville TN. There, I collected scans of 60 skeletal individuals from the Native American Arikara population from South Dakota. In February of 2015, I spent two weeks at the University of Colorado Boulder where I collected scans of an additional 60 skeletal individuals from the Kulubnarti population of medieval Sudanese Nubia. In May-June of 2015 I travelled to Europe to collect additional data. In Brussels, I visited the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturellles de Belgique, where I collected scans of 5 African pygmy individuals as well as the Spy II Neanderthal specimen. I then visited Bonn, where I scanned the Neanderthal 1 individual at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum. Before receiving the Leakey Grant, I had also collected scans from three modern human populations at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC. Additionally, I had been sent scans of several australopith and early Homo femora from other researchers. My dataset of scans therefore consists of 291 modern human femora from six different populations and 13 fossil hominin femora from several different species.

Unfortunately, I was unable to visit either the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, or the National History Museum in London as proposed in my grant because collections at both museums have been closed for at least the next year while renovations are made to the collections. I was, however, able to obtain CT scans of the two Neanderthal specimens in Paris and will therefore be able to include these individuals in the project even though I could not visit them in person. At this point I have collected all of the scans needed to complete my research. I am currently in the process of taking linear measurements from the scans and of analyzing shape differences within the dataset using 3D geometric morphometrics. I will be presenting findings from this project at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists annual meeting this year. 

AuthorH Gregory
CategoriesFrom the Field

Tyler Faith is a researcher from the University of Queensland in Australia. He was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant during our spring 2015 cycle for his project entitled "Middle Stone Age of the Gwasi and Uyoma Peninsulas, Kenya."

Tyler Faith recording archaeological and paleontological sites in the Lake Victoria region.

Tyler Faith recording archaeological and paleontological sites in the Lake Victoria region.

The central challenge in modern human origins research is to determine when, where, and why our species – Homo sapiens – began to display the behaviors that define us as human. The implications of this are linked to one of humanity’s fundamental questions: what made us human? Because the behaviors of contemporary hunter-gatherers are deeply intertwined with their environment, it has long been thought that environmental change played a key role in our recent evolutionary history. However, while scientists working elsewhere in Africa have generated detailed archaeological and environmental records, our understanding of modern human origins in East Africa, which provides the earliest fossils of Homo sapiens, has received relatively little attention and remains poorly understood.

Fossil and artifact-bearing outcrops at Gode Ariyo, one of several localities that Faith and his collaborators will be exploring in detail this field season. 

The first step to resolving this issue: find new sites! Our team aims to do just that through exploration of the Gwasi and Uyoma Peninsulas along the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Since the early 1900s, archaeologists and geologists working here have reported sites yielding fossil animal remains and stone tools of the type associated with early Homo sapiens, yet they have never been examined in detail.

Through systematic survey – long hikes over rough terrain – we will find these sites and collect archaeological and geological samples to begin to understand the early humans who once lived in the region, the types of plants and animals in their environment, and how they changed through time. By integrating these observations with those from other sites in the Lake Victoria region that we have studied since 2009, we will ultimately develop a long-term record of human behavioral evolution and environmental change in the East African homeland of our species.

AuthorH Gregory

Carolina Mallol has been awarded three Leakey Foundation research grants for her project entitled “Neandertal fire technology.” Currently she is beginning the field season for her third grant awarded in our spring 2015 cycle, and so we thought we would post the final report from her 2012 grant.  This is an excerpt from the report followed by a link to the report itself.

Carolina Mallol

Our ongoing research on Neandertal fire technology is part of a multidisciplinary project ongoing since 2010 with full support of the Leakey Foundation. The ultimate goal of our project is to generate a corpus of experimental and ethnoarchaeological data on different behavioral variables related to combustion activities that can be used as analytical tools for the study and interpretation of the Middle Palaeolithic record. As of today, we have obtained significant results, which have been presented in international conferences and published in widely read international peer-reviewed journals.

  • To investigate taphonomic aspects of some of the experimental 2010 fires left in situ.
  • To investigate relighting, an aspect of combustion whose identification is problematic (according to the results of our 2010 experiments).
  • To investigate different aspects of combustion on stony substrates.
  • To carry out an archaeological excavation season at Abric del Pastor, a Middle Palaeolithic site with evidence of anthropogenic fire on stony substrates, dating to more than 75,000 years ago.
  • To carry out lipid analysis of sediment from a selection of our 2010 experimental fires.

We approached these goals with an interdisciplinary method previously applied in our first project (NFT-2010). The method is based on integration of macro and micro-scale analyses of the sedimentary context of experimental and archaeological combustion structures, as well of any material remains (lithics, bones and charcoal) associated with them. For the experimental fires, we also analyzed the temperature record. The microstratigraphic techniques implemented for the analysis of sediments included: 1) Micromorphology using transmitted light microscopy, 2) Mineralogy using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), 3) Phytolith analysis and 4) Lipid analysis using Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry.

Integration of these techniques allowed us to describe anthropogenic combustion contexts in great detail and understand the interaction between different variables that play a role in the formation of the archaeological combustion features.

Below, we outline the main outcomes of our 2013-2014 investigations.


AuthorH Gregory
CategoriesResearch Report

The Leakey Foundation office in the Presidio of San Francisco

While many of you are busy putting the final touches on your grant application for our fall 2015 cycle, I thought I would post some information you may find handy. 

For those of you who have not met the The Leakey Foundation grants department staff, Paddy Moore is our grant officer, and I am the grant associate. It is our job to facilitate the granting process. We are also here to answer any questions our applicants have about applying for Leakey Foundation research grants.  Please do not hesitate to send us an email at (even if you have already submitted your application)!

Once the application deadline passes, we will begin our audit of the applications. We make sure all the pieces are there and that the appropriate instructions have been followed. This is the time when applicants might hear from us. The best way to NOT hear from us is to pay close attention to the Detailed Application Instructions, the Application Guidelines and our FAQs section.

Here are a few things that regularly come up during the audit:

  • The Leakey Foundation does not fund the purchase of equipment. Expendable supplies are okay. Contact us if you are unsure.
  • Salaries can be a sticky issue. The Leakey Foundation does not fund salaries of the applicant or senior project personnel, and so it is probably best to avoid including anything that looks like a salary in your budget. In addition, you might want to list lab costs as cost per sample as opposed listing a total compensation for lab personnel.
  • Please provide accurate and current contact information for both you and the financial contact at your institution. If you are awarded, we need a place and a person to send the money!
Paddy Moore and H. Gregory

Paddy Moore and H. Gregory

We typically receive slightly over 100 applications during our fall cycle. This is roughly 20% more than our spring cycle. When looking at the numbers alone, this seems to indicate that the fall cycle is slightly more competitive than the spring, but don’t let that discourage you. The range, quality, and amount of applications vary from cycle to cycle, but we are always limited by the amount of money available for funding.  In other words, every cycle is competitive!

Take a look at our Tips for Funding document for some general tips on increasing your funding chances. Here are a few additional suggestions:

  • For the second section of your proposal body, we ask for a “Description of the importance of the research project to your specific field and to the study of human origins…” Our reviewers take this section quite seriously. This is what the Leakey Foundation does- human origins! 
  • Our reviewers also take a close look at the budgets, so please use the budget justification document to your advantage.
  • This blog is a good place to read about previous grantees and the types of research we are currently funding.

The fall cycle is somewhat longer than our spring cycle. Paddy and I are grateful for this! Once we finish the audit, we will have extra time to find peer reviewers, and we are also able to give these reviewers more time to review. If during this time there are any changes that would affect your project length, budget, feasibility, etc., please feel free to contact us.  

We will send out notifications the second week in December. We understand this is a long time to wait, but we hope that the process and the feedback you receive will make for a positive experience!


AuthorH Gregory

Kelsey Ellis is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. During our spring 2015 cycle she was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant for her project entitled "Grouping dynamics of woolly monkeys (Lagothrix poeppigii) in Amazonian Ecuador."

Kelsey Ellis

Multilevel societies are recognized as some of the most complex social systems found in nature and have been identified in a wide array of taxa including elephants, cetaceans, birds, humans, and some species of non-human primates from Africa and Asia. However, despite suggestive field observations that this form of social organization may also characterize certain taxa of New World primates, little attention has been paid to possible examples of multilevel societies among platyrrhines.

My dissertation research aims to fill this gap by focusing on the grouping dynamics of woolly monkeys (Lagothrix poeppigii) at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station  (TBS) in Amazonian Ecuador. At TBS, woolly monkey groups have been observed to fission in to small coordinated subgroups that persist for hours or even days, but similar to other multilevel societies, socially cohesive groups may also coalesce into temporary supergroups that rest, travel, and forage together for several hours.

A woolly monkey named Chromeo

Over the next six months, my team and I will collect data on range use and social interactions, as well as fecal samples for assessing genetic relatedness, from four neighboring groups to better understand how factors such as kinship, homophily (preference to associate with others of the same age and/or sex), reproductive strategies, and ranging behavior influence such flexible grouping patterns. This project is among the first to examine the social organization of a New World primate from an explicitly multilevel perspective and may lead to a better understanding of the evolution and maintenance of modular societies in both human and non-human primates.    

Coco and Conrad

AuthorH Gregory

Gabriele Schino was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant during our fall 2014 cycle for his project entitled "The emotional basis of primate reciprocity." He and his collaborator Elsa Addessi are from the Institute for Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, National Research Council in Rome, Italy.

Gabriele Schino and Elsa Addessi

Reciprocal cooperation is a prominent characteristic of human behavior, but is also widespread among non-human animals. Analyses of the time frame of reciprocal exchanges have shown that non-human primates are able to reciprocate over extended time frames and that their cooperative behavior seems not to be motivated by the expectation of a return benefit. This suggests that complex cognitive abilities, such as an understanding of future events, are not required for reciprocity, and that simpler, emotionally based mechanisms may be at work. Direct experimental evidence supporting this hypothesis is however still lacking.

Quincy, an adult female capuchin monkey (Sapajus spp.). Quincy is one of the 24 capuchins hosted in four groups at the Unit of Cognitive Primatology of the Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione, CNR, in Rome, Italy, where the project “Emotional basis of primate reciprocity” is being carried out. Photo credit:  Sabrina Rossi

With the support of the Leakey Foundation, we will experimentally investigate the emotional consequences of both cooperative and uncooperative social interactions (grooming and aggression, respectively) in tufted capuchin monkey, by means of cognitive bias tests. Originally described in psychiatric patients, cognitive bias consists in the preferential interpretation of ambiguous stimuli as "positive" or "negative" (judgment bias) or in the preferential attention to "positive" or "negative" stimuli (attention bias) in relation to the emotional state of the subject. We expect grooming to induce positive emotions and aggression to induce negative emotions, as measured in cognitive bias tests. Evidence of an emotionally based mechanism supporting the exchange of cooperative behaviors in primates would shed light on the foundations over which human cooperation evolved, and integrate the study of the evolutionary mechanisms and selective pressures that have led to modern human behavior with an understanding of if and how its proximate mechanisms have changed during evolution.

AuthorH Gregory

Halszka Glowacka is a PhD candidate at Arizona State University.  She was awarded a grant during our spring 2015 cycle for her project entitled "Biomechanical constraints on molar emergence in primates."

Halszka Glowacka in Hadar, Ethiopia

Human life history is unique among living primates. Humans grow slowly and have long lifespans coupled with short inter-birth intervals, resulting in fast reproductive rates. Among primates, there is a strong relationship between life history and the age at which the first permanent molar emerges into the mouth. Paleoanthropologists use this relationship to probe the antiquity of the unique human life history profile, but knowledge of how variation in molar emergence age arises and why it is closely associated with life history is lacking.

My study will examine molar emergence as part of a developing functionally integrated chewing system. Molars function with the jaws and chewing muscles to break down food. Developmental coordination among these parts of the chewing system is critical for food ingestion throughout life. In adult primates, the configuration of the chewing system constrains the position of molars to avoid damage to the temporomandibular joint during chewing. Using 3D coordinate data from cross-sectional ontogenetic samples of primate skulls (n = 18 species) I will determine if the position of molar emergence is constrained in the same manner, thereby regulating the timing of molar emergence.

Alouatta ontogenetic series

My research will determine how ontogenetic changes in the configuration of the chewing system drive variation in molar emergence schedules among primates and may suggest that life history is closely associated with molar emergence ages vis-à-vis its influence on facial growth rates. It will further suggest that selection for shorter faces and a prolonged growth schedule in the lineage leading to humans would have had the concomitant effect of delaying molar emergence.

Data collection, Halszka Glowacka

AuthorH Gregory

The next grantee from our spring 2015 cycle is Thierra Nalley from the California Academy of Sciences.  Her project is entitled "Ontogeny of the thoracolumbar transition in extant hominoids and Australopithecus."

Thierra Nalley and a digital reconstruction of the fossil hominin DIK 1-1

Walking on two legs, or bipedalism, is a hallmark adaptation of the human lineage. A requirement for efficient bipedalism is the ability to balance the head and torso over the hips and legs. The shape of spinal column vertebrae help make this possible, but how these vertebrae develop, and what causes variation in development, is poorly understood.

Our study will compare human vertebral anatomy to that of our closet living relatives, the apes, and demonstrate how differences in shape are achieved during development, from infants to adults. Understanding the relationships between vertebral shape, skeletal growth, and the development of adult locomotor behavior is directly relevant to many paleoanthropological questions, including those related to the origin of bipedality.

Age sequence (adult to infant, left to right) of human, first lumbar vertebrae

Results from this study will produce data on traits that may reflect an individual’s behavior and thus inform the continuing debate concerning the role of apelike traits observed in early human ancestors (i.e., were these traits simply primitive features retained from ancestors, or were they an important component of these species’ biology and behavior?). The inclusion of the juvenile Australopithecus afarensis DIK-1-1 specimen in our sample is particularly significant, because the developmental stage of the individual and its excellent preservation provides the rare opportunity to compare juvenile and adult Australopithecus afarensis anatomy. Furthermore, this project will capture and analyze, for the first time concurrently, key functional features across the vertebral column, many of which determine how vertebrae move. Documenting their development and co-variation will provide a more comprehensive understanding of spinal biomechanics.

AuthorH Gregory

Introducing Karline Janmaat from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant in our spring 2015 cycle for her project entitled "The ecological intelligence of human rainforest foragers."

Karline Janmaat. Photo credit:  Bill Loubelo

Many primates have developed mental abilities that help them keep track of when and where energy-rich foods such as ripe fruits become available. This may help them to find such food more efficiently and to maintain large brains when times are lean. In this study, I will investigate 1) the extent with which humans use their spatio-temporal memory and planning abilities in the same forest environment that most primates live, 2) humans' species and plant-specific knowledge of the temporal distribution of tropical rainforest food and 3) how this knowledge corresponds to both that of our closest relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), that lives in similar forests feeding on the same plant food and humans living in different environments where food can be more easily spotted by sight.

Babendjele Yaka women at a irvingia nut tree. Photo credit:  Haneul Jang

 The second part of my studies will focus on the questions whether, when and with whom human rainforest foragers share knowledge about food locations and whether information transfer (by language or behavioral reading) increases food-finding efficiency.

To answer these questions we will record the foraging behavior, travel routes and food locations of five Babendjele Yaka women and their families living in the rainforest of the northwestern Congo basin bordering the Motaba river. Each woman will be observed for 28 consecutive days within two subsequent years. In addition to our observational work on the women, we will assess the value of alternative foraging choices and conduct a variety of non-invasive food finding experiments.

 My team imcludes my Korean PhD student Haneul Jang and a Congolese PhD student Bill Loubelo. The results of our collaboration are expected to produce novel insights in to the origins of human intelligence.

PhD student Haneul Jang (L) and Kuona eating fruit. Photo credit: Karline Janmaat

Bill Loubelo (center with binoculars) recording food tree density and distribution. Photo credit:  Karline Janmaat  

Botele fishing with burning firewood in her hand. Photo credit: Karline Janmaat

Karline Janmaat in Babendjele camp. Photo credit:   Haneul Jang


AuthorH Gregory

Stacy Rosenbaum (University of California at Los Angeles) was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant in 2010 for her project entitled "Male-immature relationships in the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei)." Dr. Rosenbaum and her team were recently published in the journal Animal Behaviour, and she was kind enough to provide us with a brief summary of the article.

Copyright:  Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

Every day, just like humans, animals have to make choices about who to socialize with. Also like humans, they generally (though not always) have the strongest bonds with their relatives. There are good reasons for this; for most of the primate lineage’s evolutionary history, it was likely highly adaptive to primarily associate with, and help, relatives. However, if you’re living in a group that includes unrelated animals, it also creates an interesting conundrum: how do you figure out who you’re related to?

For years, primatologists assumed that when monkeys and apes lived in groups where females mated with multiple males, fathers and infants couldn’t recognize one another. Thanks to advances in molecular genetics, we can now reliably determine an infant’s paternity even in wild populations where blood samples are impossible to obtain. By matching paternity to behavioral patterns, we know that fathers and infants in some species do appear to “recognize” one another. The mechanism remains unknown, though it’s likely that males are using a form of ‘bet-hedging’ based on their previous mating history with an infant’s mother.

Copyright:  Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

Mountain gorillas are an interesting species in which to investigate male parenting. For most of their evolutionary history, they probably lived in groups with one male and a few females and infants. Infants and males could both be confident they were related. However, today they are regularly observed in groups with multiple males. The gorillas monitored by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s Karisoke Research Center have been closely studied for the last 48 years. Because they are well habituated to human presence, we can collect both detailed behavioral and genetic paternity data. Their large, multimale/multifemale groups presented an excellent opportunity to ask an intriguing question: can one of humans’ closest living relatives recognize paternity when there are multiple possible fathers, even though we think this is likely an evolutionarily novel type of social group?

Copyright:  Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

It turns out, the answer is ‘probably not.’ Infants socialize with adult males based on males’ dominance rank, not paternity. Dominance hierarchies are strong amongst male gorillas. Alpha males sire the most infants in a group, but males who are lower on the totem pole also father a surprising number (in one of our samples, ~60% of infants). We found no behavioral indicators that males or infants were using paternity as a cue for selecting one another as social partners. Infants preferred males who were higher ranking than those who were lower, regardless of whether that male was dad.

Currently, we’re working on figuring out what hormonal signatures are associated with male gorillas’ parenting behaviors. Like humans, gorillas show a tremendous amount of individual variation. Some males are very paternal, playing with and grooming infants. Others, while tolerant, show little active interest. We hope to understand more about the mechanisms that drive parenting behavior under different conditions in humans and their relatives. The Leakey Foundation’s support allows us to integrate physiological and behavioral data to gain a more complete picture of the evolutionary history of the human lineage. 

You may read the full article in Animal Behaviour by clicking here.  

AuthorH Gregory
CategoriesJournal Article

The next spring 2015 Leakey Foundation grantee we would like to introduce you to is Gabrielle Russo from Stony Brook University.  Her project is entitled "Elucidating the evolutionary pathways of hominin basicranial morphology using a formal phylogenetic comparative primate approach."

Gabrielle Russo (R) and collaborator Jeroen B. Smaers

The morphology of the basicranium (base of the skull) in modern humans is distinct from that in our closest living relatives and has therefore been a central focus for paleoanthropologists seeking to understand the evolutionary pathways that led from the panin (chimpanzees and bonobos) – hominin last common ancestor to Homo sapiens.

The basicranium is typically studied using a ‘fossil to living’ approach, in which one or few features preserved for fossil hominin crania are evaluated in a hominid-centric sample in order to identify features that are primitive to hominids, derived and shared among hominins, or unique to modern humans. However, a burgeoning Mio-Pliocene fossil record and recent interpretations of the Ardipithecus ramidus skeleton highlight the potential for mosaicism and independent evolution to complicate hypotheses about evolutionary relationships.

Our study addresses this issue by generating a broad perspective of basicranial evolution that formally combines information about the taxonomic breadth (110 living species) of basicranial morphological variation with the evolutionary depth (46 million years of primate evolution) of lineage-specific patterns of morphological change. Specifically, we employ a phylogenetically-integrated approach to quantify evolutionary changes in basicranial morphology within the Haplorhini, identify the patterns and processes of change responsible for select external cranial base features that are relevant to discussions of probable early hominins, and evaluate the extent to which certain factors (e.g., locomotion, brain size) explain the observed evolutionary patterns of basicranial morphology.

Our results will provide a critical first step toward contextualizing morphological variation among living primate species within a macroevolutionary framework that reveals detailed patterns of change over time. This approach will allow recognition of how patterns of change in basicranium morphology observed in recent hominin and great ape evolution relate to those that occurred elsewhere in phylogenetic space.

Click here to visit Gabrielle Russo's web site.


AuthorH Gregory

Amanda Tan is a PhD candidate at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant in the spring of 2013. Here is a summary of her team's recent paper in PLOS ONE.

Researchers Catalog Variation in Stone-Tool Use by Burmese Long-Tailed Macaques

Burmese long-tailed macaques living on islands in southern Thailand use 17 different action patterns in their use of stone tools to crack open seafood.

Since 2007, a group of researchers including Leakey Foundation grantee, Amanda Tan, has been documenting variation in the tools and action patterns used by a population of coastal-living Burmese long-tailed macaques in southern Thailand, under an 8-year field project led by Michael D Gumert from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. These macaques use stone and shell tools to crack open a wide variety of marine bivalves, gastropods, and crustaceans, as well as plant seeds. Their findings are described in the journal PLOS ONE

To identify variation in how the macaques used tools, the researchers collected and analyzed videos of over 600 instances of tool use from 90 macaques in populations on Piak Nam Yai and Thao Islands, in Laem Son National Park Thailand. They found that the macaques used different parts of stone and shell tools: the flatter faces and edges, and the sharp points. They then catalogued a total of 17 different action patterns in macaque tool use, which varied in hand use, posture, and striking motions. They also observed over 100 macaques on Piak Nam Yai Island’s costs at over 3000 time points to determine what proportion of the population used each action pattern, and how often.

They found that 80% of the macaques used tools, each using between one and four different action patterns. Most commonly, the macaques used one-handed hammering with the points of smaller tools to crack open oysters that grew on rocks, and used one- or two-handed hammering with the faces and edges of larger tools to crack unattached shellfish that had to first be placed on anvils. Some of the macaques however, used rare or idiosyncratic action patterns. All action patterns can be viewed in a video published with the article, and on PLOS’s Youtube channel.

Burmese long-tailed macaques are the most recent addition to the small group of nonhuman primates known to use stone tools in the wild, which had previously comprised of only some populations of West African chimpanzees, and robust capuchins of South America. Compared to the nut cracking behaviour of capuchins and chimpanzees, there seems to be much greater variation in the use of different tool surfaces and striking actions in the use of stone tools by macaques.

At least some of the variation is due to the unique food types that these macaques process with stones. Macaques are the only species to regularly process oysters that grow on rocks, and these oysters require different processing techniques from the nuts that are cracked by chimpanzees and capuchins. Since oysters cannot be moved and placed on flat anvils, the macaques must chip them open with precision from different striking angles depending on the surface on which the oyster grows. As a result, the macaques have developed axe hammering, or using the sharp points of stones to chip open food items, which has not been observed in other species.

Cataloging the tools and actions involved in macaque tool use thus raises new questions about tool technologies and cultures in the primate lineage that can be explored with future study. By answering questions about how different action patterns develop and are influenced by environmental constraints and learning processes, we can gain a better understanding of how technology and culture evolves in species living in different environments, with different social systems.

Click here to read the journal article on PLOS ONE.






AuthorH Gregory

Over the next few months we will be introducing you to our new spring 2015 Leakey Foundation grantees, and the first on our list is Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum. She was awarded a research grant for her project entitled "Uluzzian technology in Central Italy: From Neandertals to modern humans." 

Dr. Paola Villa

Dr. Paola Villa

Current evidence suggests that modern humans evolved and dispersed from Africa into Asia and later into Europe. The arrival of modern humans in Western Europe between 35,000 and 35,000 years ago is closely associated with the demise and ultimate extinction of the local Neandertal population and the emergence of the Upper Paleolithic art and sophisticated technology. Yet Neandertals and their Middle Paleolithic culture had thrived in Europe and Asia for more than 300,000 years and it is not clear that they were inferior to modern humans in weaponry, subsistence methods or cognition. This is why the causes of the extinction of Neandertals are the subject of continuous debate among paleoanthropologists.

The period between 45,000 and 35,000 is also the time of appearance in various parts of Europe of "transitional" cultures that show similarities to the Neandertal tools but also contain more developed, Upper Paleolithic artifacts. Perhaps the colonization of Europe by modern humans proceeded in a stepwise process with multiple waves of migration but it is not always clear if the makers of these transitional industries were modern humans or Neandertals and whether their innovative elements were due to acculturation or independent invention.

The Uluzzian is an Italian transitional industry, known from sites in Northern and Southern Italy but until now completely absent from Latium (central Italy) due to a hypothesized persistence of Neandertals in the region. The Uluzzian was previously attributed to Neandertals but is now seen by some the product of modern humans, although this is also the subject of intense debate.

Paola Villa and colleagues are studying the technology of two sites in Central Italy. One of the sites (Colle Rotondo) is a new, recently discovered open air site; the second is a cave (La Fabbrica cave) which contains Middle Paleolithic, Uluzzian and early Upper Paleolithic assemblages. The goal of their project is to clarify the nature of the Uluzzian in terms of technology and cognition of Neandertals versus modern humans.

The area has been the focus of systematic research (funded by NSF) on the Middle and early Upper Paleolithic by Paola Villa. This previous knowledge will allow her to produce a more complete picture of the process of replacement of Neandertals by modern humans in the Italian peninsula.

AuthorH Gregory

Marina Davila-Ross was awarded a grant from The Leakey Foundation in the spring of 2015 for her research project entitled "Systematically testing facial thermal imaging as a most sensitive and reliable novel technology to directly compare subtle emotion changes in apes and humans." Her work on facial expressions and laughter in chimpanzees was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Chimpanzee facial expressions, vocalizations used differently during play

Chimpanzees may be able to use facial expressions and vocalizations flexibly, notably during physical contact play, according to a study published June 10, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Leakey Foundation grantee, Marina Davila-Ross from the University of Portsmouth, UK and colleagues.

Open mouth expressions of silent and audible laughter in chimpanzees and humans. Image from PLOS ONE paper. Davila-Ross et. al.

Open mouth expressions of silent and audible laughter in chimpanzees and humans. Image from PLOS ONE paper. Davila-Ross et. al.

The ability to flexibly produce facial expressions and vocalizations has a strong impact on the way humans communicate, but scientists' understanding of nonhuman primate facial expressions and vocalizations is limited. The authors of this study investigated whether chimpanzees produce the same types of facial expressions with and without accompanying vocalizations, as do humans. Forty-six chimpanzees were video-recorded during spontaneous play at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, Zambia. ChimpFACS, a standardized coding system, was applied to measure chimpanzee facial movements, based on Facial Action Coding System (FACS) developed for humans.

Data showed that chimpanzees produced the same fourteen open-mouthed facial expressions when laugh sounds were present as when they weren't. Based on the data, the authors suggest that chimpanzees produce these facial expressions flexibly, without being constrained by the accompanying vocalizations. Furthermore, the data indicated that the facial expression in addition to vocalization, as well as the facial expression alone, were used differently in social play, for instance, when in physical contact with playmates and when matching playmates' open-mouthed faces. These findings support the idea that chimpanzees produce distinctive facial expressions independently from a vocalization, and that their use affects communicative meaning, as both traits are important for a more explicit and versatile way of communicating.

Click here to read the paper on PLOS ONE.

Citation: Davila-Ross M, Jesus G, Osborne J, Bard KA (2015) Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) Produce the Same Types of 'Laugh Faces' when They Emit Laughter and when They Are Silent.PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127337. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127337


AuthorMeredith Johnson

Season two field crew (l-r): Cherene De Bruyn, Lisa Rogers, Dr. Christopher Ames, Dr. Benjamin Collins. Photo credit:  Dr. Benjamin Collins.

Dr. Benjamin Collins and Dr. Christopher Ames recently concluded a second season of Leakey Foundation-funded excavations at Grassridge rockshelter. The shelter is located at the base of the Stormberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, approximately 200 kilometers inland from the Indian Ocean. These excavations are part of the Grassridge Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Project (GAPP), which explores the relationships between behavioral diversity, social network formation, and climatic variability during the enigmatic late Middle Stone Age period (MSA), which spans from ~50,000 to 25,000 years ago.

Current research suggests that the late MSA was subject to periods of severe aridity and rapid climatic change. These findings have led researchers to suggest that southern Africa was sparsely populated during the late MSA, with hunter-gatherer groups forming very small, localized social networks. The paucity of archaeological sites from this period has made it difficult to explicitly test this hypothesis. However, recent research focusing on late MSA occupations in parts of southern Africa, including the preliminary findings from Grassridge, is providing evidence, such as non-local ostrich eggshell and marine shell beads, and specific stone tool types that occur throughout southern Africa, to suggest that social networks were more extensive than previously thought.

Grassridge rockshelter was initially excavated in 1979 by Dr. Hermanus Opperman, who identified rich Later and Middle Stone Age occupations at the site. The original excavations focused on the Later Stone Age (LSA) occupation, dated to between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago. Dr. Opperman’s excavation also produced a single radiocarbon date of ~36,000 years before present near the base of the MSA layers. This date, however, is near the limit of conventional radiocarbon dating, and the lower age limit of the site remained uncertain.

GAPP's main objectives for the first two field seasons were to re-evaluate the site stratigraphy, obtain a suite of dating samples from the original excavation, and begin a new excavation. Our Leakey Foundation-funded research has recently provided two new radiocarbon dates, one from near the top of the MSA sequence dating to ~35,000 radiocarbon years ago, and the other from the base of the sequence dating to >36,000 years ago. The latter date confirms that the base of the MSA sequence is older than the limit of radiocarbon dating, and luminescence methods are being pursued to determine how far back in time the Grassridge MSA sequence stretches.

We have opened a new 2 x 1 m excavation trench adjacent to the 1979 excavations. By the end of this most recent field season we had removed the overlying LSA deposit, and the first 5-10 cm of the MSA deposit. The excavations have been very fruitful, with the 3-dimensional provenience recorded for nearly 4000 artifacts – a density of ~3500 artifacts per cubic meter of sediment – and tens of thousands more pieces of bone and stone tools recovered from the excavated sediment. Other noteworthy finds include many ostrich eggshell beads, bone tools, and shell ornaments from the Later Stone Age deposits. The top 5-10 cm of MSA deposit so far excavated has produced many similar finds, and we expect this density of artifacts will continue as we proceed with our excavations of the MSA deposit in the coming field seasons.

Rock art panel documented during survey. Photo credit:  Dr. Christopher Ames.

In addition to our excavations at Grassridge, GAPP documented three rock art sites during our survey of the surrounding area. These sites are located within 5 km of each other, and contain well-preserved, vivid, and detailed panels from two or more different periods.

We are spending the next six months analyzing geological and radiocarbon dating samples, stone tools, animal bones, ostrich eggshell, and other artifacts, to elucidate what life was like for the LSA and MSA hunter-gatherers at Grassridge. These important data, coupled with ongoing excavations and research at Grassridge, will provide valuable insight for understanding the behavioral diversity observed during the enigmatic late MSA.

AuthorH Gregory

The Leakey Foundation is thrilled to announce Being Human, a new collaboration with the Baumann FoundationBeing Human organizes conversations and events to explore what it means to be human and how humans are fundamentally shaped by our evolutionary history and cultural environment.

A panel discussion at the first Being Human conference in 2012

A panel discussion at the first Being Human conference in 2012

The Baumann Foundation launched Being Human in 2012 with a conference in San Francisco and a vibrant online community. Being Human has created opportunities for people to gather and explore complex ideas and questions about the nature of the human experience from an evolutionary, scientific, and reflective perspective. 

Peter Baumann of the Baumann Foundation

Peter Baumann of the Baumann Foundation

Peter Baumann, founder of the Baumann Foundation, said that he is "delighted to enter into this partnership with The Leakey Foundation. Both organizations share similar goals in spreading understanding of our human history and nature." With the Being Human initiative, our two organizations plan to engage Bay Area communities with an ongoing series of enlightening and entertaining events. We also plan to reach broader audiences with podcast episodes examining important questions of human evolution and behavior.

We look forward to sharing further announcements as this exciting initiative evolves.

AuthorMeredith Johnson

On April 25th The Leakey Foundation’s Board of Trustees convened for our Spring Granting Session. The Board unanimously approved the twenty-two research grants our Scientific Executive Committee presented as recommended for funding.  

Here are a few numbers from our Spring 2015 Granting Cycle:

There were 101 research grant applications: 37% were categorized as behavioral, 63% were paleoanthropology. Over 460 reviews were submitted to our grants department during this cycle.

We would like to congratulate all of our new grantees, and we look forward to sharing news and information about them and their research along the way! 

Here are The Leakey Foundation's Spring 2015 Grantees:

Iulia Badescu, University of Toronto:  Investigating the infant nutritional development of wild chimpanzees

Stephanie Bogart, University of Southern California:   Savanna chimpanzee ecology at MARS (Mount Assirik Research Site)

Marina Davila-Ross, University of Portsmouth:  Systematically testing facial thermal imaging as a most sensitive and reliable novel technology to directly compare subtle emotion changes in apes and humans

Harold Dibble, University of Pennsylvania:  New excavations at La Ferrassie (Dordogne, France): The final season

Kelsey Ellis, University of Texas at Austin:  Grouping dynamics of woolly monkeys (Lagothrix poeppigii) in Amazonian Ecuador

Davide Faggionato, Iowa State University:  Molecular and functional analysis of vision in three hominin species

Tyler Faith, University of Queensland:  Middle Stone Age of the Gwasi and Uyoma Peninsulas, Kenya

Halszka Glowacka, Arizona State University:  Biomechanical constraints on molar emergence in primates

Avi Gopher, Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University:  Continued excavation in Middle Pleistocene Qesem Cave, Israel

Ashley Hammond, Stony Brook University:  Reconstructing phenotypic change of the pelvis in apes and humans

John Hoffecker, University of Colorado at Boulder:  The geochronology of the earliest Upper Paleolithic in Eastern Europe

Karline Janmaat, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology:  The ecological intelligence of human rainforest foragers

Carolina Mallol, Universidad de La Laguna:  Neandertal fire technology

Rebecca Miller, University of Liege:  The Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition at Trou Al'Wesse (Belgium)

Thierra Nalley, California Academy of Sciences:  Ontogeny of the thoracolumbar transition in extant hominoids and Australopithecus

Marco Peresani, University of Ferrara:  Rediscovering the Uluzzian in Italy

Susan Perry, University of California, Los Angeles:  Life histories of wild capuchins in Lomas Barbudal, Costa Rica

Gabrielle A. Russo, Stony Brook University:  Elucidating the evolutionary pathways of hominin basicranial morphology using a formal phylogenetic comparative primate approach

Christopher Stevenson, Virginia Commonwealth University:  Hydration dating of Late Pleistocene archaeological sites in eastern Africa

Paola Villa, University of Colorado Museum:  Uluzzian technology in Central Italy: From neandertals to modern humans

Amelia Villaseñor, George Washington University:  The biogeography and behavioral ecology of hominins in Pliocene Eastern Africa: A macroecological perspective

Nicolas Zwyns, University of California, Davis:  Human response to the Late Pleistocene climate change in Northern Mongolia: The Upper Paleolithic site of Tolbor 16

AuthorH Gregory

A new relative joins "Lucy" on the human family tree. An international team of scientists led by seven-time Leakey Foundation grantee Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has discovered a 3.3 to 3.5 million-year-old new hominin species (more closely related to humans than to chimps). Upper and lower jaw fossils recovered from the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia have been assigned to the new species Australopithecus deyiremeda. This hominin lived alongside the famous "Lucy's" species, Australopithecus afarensis. The species is described in the May 28, 2015 issue of the journal Nature.

The left edentulous half of the paratype lower jaw (BRT-VP-3/14). Photo credit: Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

The left edentulous half of the paratype lower jaw (BRT-VP-3/14). Photo credit: Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

Lucy's species lived from 2.9 million years ago to 3.8 million years ago, overlapping in time with the new species Australopithecus deyiremeda. The new species is the most conclusive evidence for the contemporaneous presence of more than one closely related early human ancestor species prior to 3 million years ago. The species name "deyiremeda" (day-ihreme-dah) means "close relative" in the language spoken by the Afar people.

Australopithecus deyiremeda differs from Lucy's species in terms of the shape and size of its thick-enameled teeth and the robust architecture of its lower jaws. The anterior teeth are also relatively small indicating that it probably had a different diet.

Casts of the jaws of Australopithecus deyiremeda, a new human ancestor species from Ethiopia, held by principal investigator and lead author Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo credit: Laura Dempsey.

Casts of the jaws of Australopithecus deyiremeda, a new human ancestor species from Ethiopia, held by principal investigator and lead author Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo credit: Laura Dempsey.

"The new species is yet another confirmation that Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis, was not the only potential human ancestor species that roamed in what is now the Afar region of Ethiopia during the middle Pliocene," said lead author and Woranso-Mille project team leader Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "Current fossil evidence from the Woranso-Mille study area clearly shows that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity."

"The age of the new fossils is very well constrained by the regional geology, radiometric dating, and new paleomagnetic data," said co-author Dr. Beverly Saylor of Case Western Reserve University. The combined evidence from radiometric, paleomagnetic, and depositional rate analyses yields estimated minimum and maximum ages of 3.3 and 3.5 million years.

"This new species from Ethiopia takes the ongoing debate on early hominin diversity to another level," said Haile-Selassie. "Some of our colleagues are going to be skeptical about this new species, which is not unusual. However, I think it is time that we look into the earlier phases of our evolution with an open mind and carefully examine the currently available fossil evidence rather than immediately dismissing the fossils that do not fit our long-held hypotheses," said Haile-Selassie.

Scientists have long argued that there was only one pre-human species at any given time between 3 and 4 million years ago, subsequently giving rise to another new species through time. This was what the fossil record appeared to indicate until the end of the 20th century. However, the naming of Australopithecus bahrelghazali from Chad and Kenyanthropus platyops from Kenya, both from the same time period as Lucy's species, challenged this long-held idea. Although a number of researchers were skeptical about the validity of these species, the announcement by Haile-Selassie of the 3.4 million-year-old Burtele partial foot in 2012 cleared some of the skepticism on the likelihood of multiple early hominin species in the 3 to 4 million-year range.

On March 4, 2011, Mohammed Barao, a local Afar working for the Woranso-Mille project, found the holotype upper jaw of Australopithecus deyiremeda (BRT-VP-3/1). Photo credit: Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

On March 4, 2011, Mohammed Barao, a local Afar working for the Woranso-Mille project, found the holotype upper jaw of Australopithecus deyiremeda (BRT-VP-3/1). Photo credit: Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

The Burtele partial fossil foot did not belong to a member of Lucy's species. However, despite the similarity in geological age and close geographic proximity, the researchers have not assigned the partial foot to the new species due to lack of clear association. Regardless, the new species Australopithecus deyiremeda incontrovertibly confirms that multiple species did indeed co-exist during this time period.

This discovery has important implications for our understanding of early hominin ecology. It also raises significant questions, such as how multiple early hominins living at the same time and geographic area might have used the shared landscape and available resources.

Discovery of Australopithecus deyiremeda:

The holotype (type specimen) of Australopithecus deyiremeda is an upper jaw with teeth discovered on March 4, 2011, on top of a silty clay surface at one of the Burtele localities. The paratype lower jaws were also surface discoveries found on March 4 and 5, 2011, at the same locality as the holotype and another nearby locality called Waytaleyta. The holotype upper jaw was found in one piece (except for one of the teeth which was found nearby), whereas the mandible was recovered in two halves that were found about two meters apart from each other. The other mandible was found about 2 kilometers east of where the Burtele specimens were found.

Team members crawling the area where the paratype jaw (BRT-VP-3/14) was found searching for more pieces of the specimen. Photo credit: Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

Team members crawling the area where the paratype jaw (BRT-VP-3/14) was found searching for more pieces of the specimen. Photo credit: Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

Location of the Discovery:

The fossil specimens were found in the Woranso-Mille Paleontological Project study area located in the central Afar region of Ethiopia about 325 miles (520 kilometers) northeast of the capital Addis Ababa and 22 miles (35 kilometers) north of Hadar ("Lucy's" site). Burtele and Waytaleyta are local names for the areas where the holotype and paratypes were found and they are located in the Mille district, Zone 1 of the Afar Regional State.

The Woranso-Mille Project:

Participants of the 2011 Woranso-Mille project field season. Photo credit: The Woranso-Mille project.

Participants of the 2011 Woranso-Mille project field season. Photo credit: The Woranso-Mille project.

The Woranso-Mille Paleontological project conducts field and laboratory work in Ethiopia every year. This multidisciplinary project is led by Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie* of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Additional co-authors of this research include: Dr. Luis Gibert of University of Barcelona (Spain), Dr. Stephanie Melillo* of the Max Planck Institute (Leipzig, Germany), Dr. Timothy M. Ryan* of Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Mulugeta Alene of Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), Drs. Alan Deino and Gary Scott of the Berkeley Geochronology Center, Dr. Naomi E. Levin of Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Beverly Z. Saylor of Case Western Reserve University. Graduate and undergraduate students from Ethiopia and the United States of America also participated in the field and laboratory activities of the project.

*Indicates a Leakey Foundation grantee.

Read More!

  1. Haile-Selassie, Y. et al. Nature 521, 483–488 (2015).
  2. Haile-Selassie, Y. et al. Nature 483, 565–569 (2012).
  3. Spoor, F. Nature 521 432–433 (2015).

This article was adapted from materials provided by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.


AuthorMeredith Johnson