Exploring Ancient Diets

  • California Academy of Sciences 55 Music Concourse Drive San Francisco, CA 94118

With Dr. Zeray AlemsegedCal Academy
and Dr. Christina Warinner, U. of Oklahoma

Modern human behavior, ranging from tool use to cooking to agriculture to industrial food processing, has allowed us colonize virtually every environment on earth – and even parts of outer space. Our love of grains and tubers has increased the number of our starch-digesting genes, and our taste for dairy has genetically altered at least 10% of the human population to do something no other mammal can do – digest milk after weaning.

We have turned grassy weeds into corn, cyanide laced seeds into almonds, and bitter flowers into broccoli. And we are not alone - we carry within us trillions of microbes that we feed with the indigestible, fibrous parts of our diets, and they in turn make our vitamins, protect us from food poisoning and food allergies, and modulate our metabolism.

Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged will present data from isotopic studies and examine the evidence for the first major expansion of the hominin diet, millions of years ago, to include more grasses and animals. This adaptation was the precursor that made future expansion possible. Dr. Christina Warinner will then explore more recent changes in human diet, from 50,000 years ago to the present, and discuss how these changes have fundamentally affected human biology, ecology, and societies.  

Tickets: $15/$12 (for members of The Leakey Foundation)


Dr. Zeray Alemseged
Irvine Chair & Senior Curator of Anthropology, California Academy of Sciences

Zeray Alemseged is Irvine Chair and Senior Curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and is both an Adjunct Professor at UC Davis and a Research Professor at San Francisco State. His research focuses on the evolution of the earliest human ancestors, and the environmental and ecological factors affecting their evolutionary processes. He has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals, such as Nature, Sciences, PNAS, the Journal of Human Evolution and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and his research has been featured in many high profile media including, CNN, NOVA-PBS, BBC, TED. Zeray is a founder and director of the Dikika Research Project and is most well known for his discovery of Selam, the almost complete skeleton of a three-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, often referred to as “the world’s oldest child”.


Dr. Christina Warinner
Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma

Christina Warinner is a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and a Research Affiliate of the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. Her research focuses on the evolutionary and ecological relationships between humans, their diets, and their resident microbes (microbiomes) in both modern and ancient populations. Christina has conducted archaeological research around the world, from the Himalayas of Nepal to the Maya jungles of Belize to the Mixteca Alta of Mexico, where most recently she used historical sources and light stable isotope analysis to investigate the early dietary impacts of Spanish colonialism. Christina is a 2012 TED Fellow, and her TED talks on ancient human diets and genetic analyses of fossilized dental plaque have been viewed more than 500,000 times. She is an author of the book Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color, and her new edited volume, Methods and Theory in Paleoethnobotany, is press at the University Press of Colorado. She has published widely in peer-reviewed journals, and her research has been featured in Wired UK, The Observer, CNN, Fox News, and Scientific American, among others.