Getting to Know Your Professors: Jennifer Parkinson, Anthropology

Getting to Know Your Professors: Jennifer Parkinson, Anthropology

Dr. Jennifer Parkinson, an assistant professor in the University of San Diego's Department of Anthropology, is a zooarchaeologist and paleoanthropologist interested in the archaeological record related to human diet and evolution. Her research is focused on the behavioral ecology of Plio-Pleistocene hominins in East Africa. She answered some questions posed to her by USD News Center. 

Q: Your research has examined the importance of meat in the diet of early humans. What have you learned?

I focus on a time period around two million years ago when our own genus (the genus Homo) first appeared. This period is so interesting because, for the first time in the record of our evolution, we see an increase in brain size and also the first evidence of stone tool use. Big brains are necessary to figure out how to make and use tools, but they are also costly organs for our bodies to run; they consume a lot of calories. This means that our ancestors two million years ago would have probably required a change from the typical ape-like diet of vegetation to a diet that included more nutrient-dense foods like meat. I did my dissertation research at an archaeological site in Kenya called Kanjera, which has some of the first evidence of meat eating by early humans. Excavations have been ongoing at Kanjera since 1996, and researchers have been finding thousands of early stone tools alongside bones of ancient animals (mostly antelope). Many of the antelope bones have butchery marks on them, which indicate that early humans were eating meat. We’ve known about this for a while, but something we weren’t sure about is how our ancestors were getting access to meat. Were they scavenging it from lion kills, or where they themselves actively hunting antelope? Several previous researchers had suggested that early humans were likely scavenging from lion kills at this time because of their simple stone tool technology (this is more than a million years before any evidence of projectile weaponry in the archaeological record). For my dissertation research, I examined the placement and frequency of the butchery marks on the antelope fossils from Kanjera along with the evidence of carnivore tooth marks which also occur on the fossils. Based on the placement of these marks, it looks like early humans at Kanjera had access to at least the smaller gazelle-sized antelope before carnivores did. This suggests early humans might have been hunting the small antelope. In modern ecosystems, lions normally completely consume gazelle and don’t leave much left to scavenge. Early humans may have been scavenging the larger (and more difficult to kill) wildebeest-sized animals.

Q: Did those results surprise you? Why?

They did! These early humans had not yet reached modern body size — they were not much taller than about four feet. And the carnivores running around on the African savanna were pretty frightening. For example, there were three species of now-extinct sabertooth cats and a giant hyena species. Our ancestors would have had to compete with these carnivores to access meat. This is more than a million years before any evidence of projectile weaponry, so many researchers have thought that scavenging would have been the most likely scenario. Waiting in the bushes for the lions to finish their meal seems much safer than risking danger to catch prey yourself. The evidence from Kanjera though shows that early humans were pretty competitive in this environment, and probably successful at catching small antelope.

Q: Do you eat meat?

I do eat meat, but my students often ask if I think it’s healthy to follow a vegetarian diet given that my research is about meat eating. The truth is that humans are adaptable. We’re able to survive on a whole range of foods, and there are plenty of healthy vegetarian options available to us now days. However, in hunter-gatherer societies, where the options are more limited, meat can be a very important part of the diet since it provides protein, fat, and other nutrients in an easily digestible form. Most hunter gatherers wouldn’t turn down a good antelope steak.

Q: You are both a zooarchaelogist and a paleoanthropologist. Can you explain the difference?

Paleoanthropology, or the study of our fossil ancestors, is really an interdisciplinary field. Paleontologists contribute to interpreting the anatomy of early humans, geologists help us figure out how old our specimens are, and archaeologists study the remains of material culture (like stone tools). I am a zooarchaeologist, which means I study the remains of animals that have been modified in some way by humans. Studying which animal species we find at archaeological sites, and how early humans have variously broken, butchered, and moved these animal bones around, gives us information about early human diet and behavior.

Q: What types of courses are you teaching this semester at USD?

I am teaching Introduction to Biological Anthropology and an upper-division course on Primatology. The primatology course has been a lot of fun because we have spent time at the San Diego Zoo actually observing primate behavior.

Q: What qualities are important in students hoping to study anthropology?

Most anthropologists, whether they are studying cultural, archaeological, or biological anthropology, conduct fieldwork both as students and throughout their careers. A sense of adventure and a curiosity about human nature is critical! Also, a strong stomach (or a good water filter) can be a benefit. I’ve ended up with typhoid fever on two separate occasions from drinking bad water in the field!

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