Emslie Horniman Award – Eleanor Scerri

Home Past Awards Emslie Horniman Award – Eleanor Scerri

Award Holder: Eleanor Scerri
University: University of Southampton
Title of Research: Diversity and Modernity: Exploring the cultural ecology of the North African Middle Stone Age

My doctoral research addresses two major related questions in palaeoanthropology: what are the origins of cultural diversification and what was its impact on the evolutionary trajectories of modern humans? In recent years, archaeological and genetic research has indicated that palaeodemography may have played a key role in human evolution. Genetic research has suggested the presence of ancient population structure, whilst archaeology has pushed back the earliest evidence for symbolic behavior and cultural diversity in Africa to around 82-70,000 years ago. These discoveries have emphasized the importance of demography in a discipline that has typically focused on cognitive changes to explain ‘behavioural modernity’. However, although social and demographic changes are themselves linked to changes in population size and contextual ecology, there has been little palaeoanthropological research exploring this relationship and what it means for understanding key changes in human evolution. My funding from the RAI provided the means to redress this balance, and for the first time explore the evolutionary significance of cultural diversity through archaeology, ecology and population dynamics.

In order to address the research questions, I developed a temporally and spatially explicit model exploring the interaction of population growth, ecology and culture change in the North African Middle Stone Age, between 125-70,000 years ago. The model’s expectations could then be compared statistically with the results of a data analysis in order to explain patterns observed. Two key features led me to North Africa to address my research questions. Firstly, early modern human dispersal into North Africa was calibrated by the ebb and flow of the Sahara Desert, involving the periodic transformation of the region into a savannah environment. This feature allows us to understand how humans colonized empty environments and how they were subsequently able to organize their culture. Secondly, recent archaeological discoveries, chronometric dating and palaeoenvironmental research have provided the means to capitalize on these unique features to address these research questions for the first time in a quantified way. For example, detailed reconstruction of lakes and rivers in North Africa during this period, along with temperature and rainfall models have permitted the reconstruction of the palaeoenvironment of the region in a way that is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa. Similarly, a series of chronometric dating projects have provided a chronology for the region’s Pleistocene archaeology. Access to associated archaeological collections provided a unique opportunity to address the research questions posed by my PhD project.

The project’s methods were a critical part of research. Practically, addressing these research questions would require the collection of substantial metric and morphological data from North African Palaeolithic stone tools stored in a number of museums in the U.S.A, Europe and North Africa. I first spent up to 6 months creating a suitable experimental design and analytical methodology for the project. This involved test assemblages and repeated calibrations. At the same time, I also tracked down the location of a number of North African lithic assemblages (i.e. stone tools). Whilst some of these were available for analysis at several museums in the UK, many were overseas and would require several months of fieldwork to study. The funding from the RAI enabled me to travel widely to obtain approximately 700,000 measurements describing both the morphology of stone tools as well as the distinctive techniques used to manufacture them. As a direct result of this funding, I was able to achieve sufficient data to produce a successful doctoral project, addressing the key palaeoanthropological questions described.

Undertaking the project was daunting, however. The primary difficulty was the timeframe and the widely dispersed nature of the assemblages and the changing political situation in North Africa. The latter concern meant I could no longer travel to Egypt as had been initially planned. Instead, I accessed collections from Egypt and Sudan held in France and Belgium. Although these collections were smaller than those I had hoped to access in Egypt, they were still large enough to ensure that the project did not suffer any adverse effects from the change in plans. The level of travel and the hours needed to obtain the data did remain a substantial challenge, however, and a number of researchers had already let me know that these requirements were the reason such a project had not been undertaken before. Collections were located in various states in the U.S.A, as well as various European, North African and Middle Eastern countries. In addition to working during the day measuring the data, I had to work in the evenings writing chapter drafts for my thesis and data reports. Achieving the goals within the available timeframe required total commitment and strict discipline. I begun my research in Paris, spending several weeks at museums there. Following 24 hours back in the UK, I left for the U.S.A. I first went to Harvard, spending time at the Peabody Museum. Following this, I flew to Indianapolis, hired a car and drove to the Stone Age Institute at the University of Indiana. I had very positive experiences at both the French and the American institutions. Researchers were very happy to help and very interested in the project. After my time in the U.S.A, I spent time in North Africa, visiting several countries there. As elsewhere, I found the museum staff and researchers very positive and happy to help. I was therefore able to access many key collections, spending the day measuring artefacts and the evenings writing up my observations. Thanks to the help from the researchers I encountered during my travels, I was able to access an unprecedented number of key collections.

Following this fieldwork, I was able to undertake multivariate data analysis to understanding to spatial organization of stone tool features and their relationships to the bioclimatic zones of North Africa between 125-70,000 years ago. The results are currently in press and in preparation as a number of publications in high impact peer reviewed journals. As a result of the Horniman Award, I was also able to develop further research questions relating to the evolutionary significance of cultural diversification. These questions were recently successfully submitted for a postdoctoral proposal, which will commence in September 2013. My extensive travels also led me to identify gaps in fieldwork. As a result, I successfully submitted a bid for fieldwork project seedcorn funding which has resulted in the Senegal Prehistory Project, a focused project exploring the Pleistocene past of West Africa for the first time.

The Horniman Fund has permitted me to make a major contribution to evolutionary archaeology and anthropology and also given me the means to conduct further research building on my results. This work is opening up a new field of research within palaeoanthropology and has provided the platform from which to start my academic career.

On a final note, this research is of particular historical significance to the RAI. Over sixty years ago, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, the pioneer of scientific archaeological research in Africa, was also funded by the RAI to investigate early Pleistocene societies in North Africa. Her research is still of huge significance and scientific importance today, providing a firm platform from which to conduct my own research. Her seminal publication from 1946, ‘The Aterian Industry: Its Place and Significance in the Palaeolithic World’ was published in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britian and Ireland. My doctoral thesis, ‘The Aterian and its place in the North African Middle Stone Age’ is a fitting tribute both to Caton-Thompson and the long-term investment of projects funded by the RAI.