Curtis Marean

Curtis Marean
Paleoanthropologist; Professor, Institute of Human Origins, School of Human Evolution & Social Change, Arizona State University at Tempe

Curtis Marean will be presenting his research on archaeological studies of the earliest Homo sapiens found to date in South Africa, and discussing the broader issue of the origins of modern humans—where it happened, why it happened, and why it makes the coastline of South Africa particularly significant.

Curtis Marean was born and raised in a small town called Stroudsburg in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. “I knew from seventh grade that I wanted to be an archaeologist working in Africa,” he says. “My yearbook even states it, so I was focused from the beginning.” He’d always had an interest in the past—“everything from dinosaurs through Greek history to the Middle Ages”—but he also had a strong interest in ecology. “Africa has such a rich ecology that it always drew me,” he adds.

“The real clincher was seeing a National Geographic Society film in a social studies class of the Leakeys finding fossils in Africa.” That, Marean says, is probably why he ended up focusing on Africa, animal bones, hunter-gatherers, climate, and environment.

“Most importantly,” he continues, “my mother was a huge source of support and drive. She always encouraged my interests in nature, ecology, and the past. Our family was not one with a tradition of higher education, and she pushed me hard to go to university and found financial support to cover my costs.”

Marean did his Ph.D. research in East Africa and, after receiving his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1990, he joined the department of anthropology at State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. As an international leader in human origins research, Stony Brook provided an excellent starting point for Marean’s career. He set his research interests on the origin of modern humans, the prehistory of Africa, the study of animal bones from archaeological sites, and climates and environments of the past.

In the area of human origins, Marean was particularly interested in questions about foraging strategies, for example, when humans became effective hunters of large antelope and the timing and processes underlying the evolution of “modern” human behavior. He was especially intrigued with human occupation of grassland and coastal ecosystems, and the role people play in the form of these ecosystems. Actually, he shifted his field research focus to coastal South Africa largely because he had begun to conclude that the coastline there was crucial to the origins of modern humans.

Marean’s primary methodological approach to investigating these questions in preceding years was zooarchaeology, the study of animal bones, and taphonomy, the study of how bones become fossils. He focused on experimental taphonomy and the replication of bone destruction processes with the goal of refining zooarchaeological methods. His research group at Stony Brook developed a set of new approaches to zooarchaeology. For example, with his student Yoshiko Abe, he developed a novel image-analysis zooarchaeological recording system that utilizes geographic information system (GIS) software to precisely estimate the number of whole bones from thousands of fragments. From the more sophisticated data set that produces, scientists can study in detail the butchery and consumption of animal carcasses.

“That software came out of a huge debate I got into over whether or not early modern humans and Neanderthals got most of their animals through hunting or scavenging,” Marean says. “The research that my students and I did showed that the methods used to argue that early humans were scavengers were fundamentally flawed. The GIS method came out of that as a methodological tool for doing zooarcheology. It helps us not to reach false conclusions about what the bones were telling us,” he explains.

Developing these new methods represented 14 years of research, almost half a career. But so profound have their impact been on zooarchaeology that it has proven to be worth every minute Marean invested, and a lot more. By using these methods, zooarchaeologists have substantially improved their methodology while paleoanthropologists have gained greater understanding of Neanderthals and early modern human hunting behavior. The work, perhaps needless to say, established Marean’s career.

In 2001, Marean joined the renowned Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he currently teaches courses on the Stone Age of Africa, prehistoric and historic hunger-gatherers, zooarchaeology, and paleoecology.

During the last decade, he has put more effort into on-site archaeological excavations. In 2007, after seven years of effort, Marean and colleagues announced that they had found the oldest known evidence for the use of coastal resources, dating to about 164,000 years ago, in Cave 13B at Pinnacle Point, on the South African coastline near Mossel Bay within the Cape Floral Kingdom. In addition to use of coastal foods, the people who lived there then were “symboling” with pigments, as Marean puts it, and had advanced stone tool technologies—all of which suggest they had “a package of behaviors” that seems to indicate modernity.

Marean has since been directing more archaeological excavations, at Site PP5-6, not too far from Cave 13B. Although it is a rock shelter unlike Cave 13B, PP5-6 is in the steep coastal cliffs above the Indian Ocean and was also carved out by ancient high sea levels. The excavations in this new site are aimed at refining our understanding of the origins of modern human behavior and placing our “birth” in its climatic and environmental context. To that end, Marean is leading a team that is seeking to develop a continuous sequence of climate and environmental change from 400,000 to 30,000 years ago.

This work, Marean says, will have implications not only for our understanding of modern human origins, but also for the response of terrestrial ecosystems to potential long-term climate change. “It’s directly relevant to the future of humanity in the light of the climatic shifts that are already upon us with global warming,” he expounds. “Global warming will have direct impacts on sea levels, and these are fairly easy to predict. But the manner in which rainfall and vegetation respond to warming is not well understood. Our best sources for predicting these environmental changes are the records from the past, since the Earth warmed and cooled many times and ancient humans designed strategies to adapt to these orbitally driven changes,” he points out. “Today, the climate changes are driven by human behavior, and once again we must learn to adapt. The past holds lessons for us both on how the environments may change and on how we may adapt to these changes.”