A Visiting Paleoanthroplogist

There are two very interesting visiting professors this year in the Department of Anthropology.  Miriam Belmaker and Shanti Morell-Hart both bring new perspectives onto the past which look closely at a range of ecological and other environmental data sets based on analyses of comparatively tiny biological remains resulting from new methods of excavation and recovery.   Here is a look at Miriam Belmaker, and in the Spring we'll be learning more about Dr. Morell-Hart.

Dr, Belmaker“Paleoanthropologist!” is the prompt and emphatic response.  And the question?

"How would you describe yourself  – as a bio-anthropologist or as an evolutionary anthropologist?”  

For Miriam Belmaker, there is no hesitation.  And typically, she counters, not with one of the choices offered, but with her own term and her own particular emphasis.  And, while her stay at William and Mary as a visiting faulty member may be brief, but she hasn’t let it interrupt her research.

That research – in the field in Israel, South Africa and the Republic of Georgia – and her laboratory work – at Harvard, in Arkansas and now at William and Mary – revolves around the ecological context of early modern humans and earlier hominins, in particular the Neaderthals.  She studies these ancient peoples through the discipline of paleoecology, which seeks to understand the natural setting in which both evolutionary and cultural dynamics took place.  Looking at the larger picture – changes in climate and ecology, influencing food sources, population constraints and supports, and the interaction between hominins and their environment – enables us to better understand the history of change in both human organisms and human cultures.  Dr. Belmaker’s recent work investigates the paleoecology of two cave sites, both located in Israel. 

Amud CaveAmud Cave, on Wadi Amud near the Sea of Galilee, contains the remains of a number of Neanderthal individuals dating to a time not long  preceding the disappearance of Neanderthals from the archaeological record.  Belmaker’s work involves an analysis of rodent remains found within the cave.  Rodents, like other ‘micro-mammals’, can be used as sensitive ecological proxies – as indicators of the wider environment which lay just outside the cave.  Rachel Steinberg, an undergraduate student in the Department, is helping with studies of the spatial distribution of rodent remains at the site.  Taphonomy, the study of how skeletal and other ecological remains are altered, moved and otherwise modified through time by both human and natural factors, is the key analytical technique used to gather information from the rodent bones.

Dr. Belmaker and Steinberg have already made use of the analytical facilities at the Applied Science Center at the T. Jefferson Laboratories in order to help image the tiny remains.  Using a variety of types of microscopic investigation allows them to better analyze the bones and their histories.  As a result of her work with this material, Belmaker and colleagues have recently  suggested that the decline of the Neanderthals in the Amud region was not related to climatic and ecological stress in itself.

Belmaker also uses other specialized techniques, such as making molds of bone fragments so that replicas can be cast for use in a confocal profilimeter, a specialized ‘3-d’ form of microscopy which uses software akin to that used in GIS to create a ‘cloud’ of three dimensional reference points on the surfaces of the casts.  This allows the examination of patterns of micro-wear on animal teeth, which in turn allows the  investigation of paleo-diets.  This type of analysis is part of an effort to track changes in faunal communities and their diets, again as proxies for ecological change in the wider world in which the cave’s occupants lived.  Belmaker’s work in this area has been guided by Dr. Peter Unger at the University of Arkansas, whom Miriam refers to as her “mentor and friend”.  She swears she enjoys her trips to Fayetteville!

Another cave site at Hilazon Tachtit, also located in northern Israel, centers on a very different part of the human story.  Here, 12,00 years ago,  Natufians, one of earliest sedentary cultures in the world, straddling the transition from food gathering to food production, buried an honored member of their community, who apparently was a shaman or spiritual leader.  The very unusual burial, incorporating the body of a middle-aged, probably disabled, woman, contained a number of uncommon faunal remains, representing animals whose spiritual power has been felt by cultures all around the world – eagles, martens, and turtles, to name just a few. 

At Hilazon Tachtit  the paleoecological focus is on squirrel remains.  Another undergraduate, Kristin Roper, is also working with Belmaker on this project.  In this cave the wider ecology contemporary with the shaman burial is one focus, but here the picture is complicated by the importance of the many culturally determined aspects of the site.  As Dr. Belmaker puts it, “here we are studying not just the processes of ecological change, but also the presence of cultural inputs which need to be distinguished from the natural ‘background’ environment.  What is ‘culture’ and what is ‘ecology’ among these faunal remains?”

M. Belmaker with MammothMiriam Belmaker’s work in paleoanthropology has led her to other sites, ranging from a one and a half million year old site in Armenia where the region’s oldest hominin remains have been found (and whose ecological context included rhinos!), to a site in Georgia where there is evidence of late Neanderthals interacting or coexisting with early modern humans.  She is eager to return to Georgia, despite complications presented by post-Soviet economic and political impediments.  Belmaker has also been part of a major project which is reconstructing the paleoecology of the well known Homo erectus site of ‘Ubeidya.  Here a wide range of faunal remains are being studied, including primates, hominids, hippos, giraffes, and those pesky rodents again. 

As Belmaker notes: “I sometimes worry I’ll become known as the ‘rat lady’!  But in a way I don’t care because there’s so much information there.  Rodents are everywhere, but they’ve been largely overlooked in past analyses.  Now we’re beginning to appreciate what good paleoecological markers they can be.”

We at the Department of Anthropology, students and faculty alike, have been enlivened by Miriam’s enthusiasm for her subject.  Her ready inclusion of students in her work and her approachable and energetic manner have already made her a valuable member of our own ecology, and we’re all thinking about mice in a new way!