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Occupation: Paleoanthropologist

Hometown:  Ingleside, Ill.

Degree or certificate program at CLC: Participated in CLC’s archaeological field school in Belize in 1997 and 1999. She also took a natural biology field course with Dr. Michael Corn in Costa Rica.

Degrees: B.S. in biological anthropology, and a B.A. in Latin literature, University of Michigan; master’s degree from University of Tennessee; doctorate from Texas A&M University.

Current position: Assistant professor, department of geography and anthropology, Louisiana State University. Prior to August 2015, she taught at Loyola University Chicago.

Juliet Brophy, Ph.D.

Q&A with Juliet Brophy

How did your experience at CLC with archeology as a young person (at age 16) spark your interest in the field and affect your career and educational path?

My father was interested in archaeology, and he had attended the CLC Belize field school. The next year he enrolled my sister Susan and me to the field school because he thought it was such a great opportunity. It was a great learning experience and helped introduce me to anthropology in an official capacity. Upon enrolling in university the following year, I chose several anthropology classes because I was already familiar with the field and I knew I was interested! I would absolutely say that the CLC Belize field school contributed to sparking my interest in anthropology.

What sticks out as the most important thing you learned or experienced when you did the CLC archeology field study in Belize?

In my classes I still tell stories about both of the field schools I participated in at CLC (Belize and natural biology course in Costa Rica). One of the most important experiences I learned on the CLC field school was that field schools are an excellent way of being exposed to all four sub fields of anthropology (linguistic, biological, cultural anthropology and archaeology). Specifically, I learned about field methods in archaeology. I also learned about cultural anthropology and cultural relativism. One of my favorite stories includes one of the field guides, Tio. He took us on a hike one day and pointed out plants that one would use for a headache, menstrual cramps, etc. I remember thinking “This man is teaching me material I could never learn in a book and this man is quite intelligent about the jungle!” I also learned important lessons about globalization. I was surprised that so many Belizeans were Bulls and Cubs fans. Apparently, the local place with a television received a signal from WGN.

Was the experience eye-opening for you? What was your biggest take-away?

The experience was extremely eye opening for me. It was my first official exposure to anthropology in general and archaeology in specific. I feel like I received a great introduction to the field, which helped fuel my interest in the future.

Did the CLC faculty leading the trip have any impact on you and your academic and career interests? If so, what? Can you recall a specific experience that stands out?

Through the faculty, I gained exposure to a foreign country and culture. But rather than see these differences as something “less than the U.S.,” I learned that cultural variability was important in and of itself. This experienced helped to plant the idea that I would like to have my own field school someday, albeit in a different area of the world. The faculty’s hard work also taught me to appreciate how difficult it is to run a field school in a foreign country.

What would you say to encourage CLC students to consider going on a field study trip?

The CLC field study trips are a great way to gain in depth exposure on a field one might be considering. One can be interested in pursuing anthropology and/or just interested in experiencing a field school. Either way, the field schools are a great opportunity to experience anthropology first hand.

Do you teach and conduct research? On what topics? Undergrads or graduate students?

At Loyola and, of course, at LSU, I have always performed research while teaching. My research revolves around early human evolution, or paleoanthropology. My dissertation involved reconstructing the habitats associated with an early human ancestor, Australopithecus robustus, in order to better understand why they went extinct. This research involved quantitative analyses of teeth from animals in the Family Bovidae (antelopes and buffalos). My research has evolved to focus on the quantitative analysis of teeth from our early human ancestors, including Australopithecus sediba and the newest named hominin, Homo naledi.

What is the main significance of this new article and its findings?

The main significance of this new find is that we have discovered a new species in our genus, the genus Homo! The current evidence from the Dinaledi Chamber suggests that the genus Homo has more representatives in the fossil record than we previously thought! Also, the suite of characteristics in the anatomy of the Dinaledi specimens is unique to these individuals, which is why we ended up naming a new species. Because it is so transitional in form and shares characteristics with the more primitive genus Australopithecus and the genus Homo, our current hypothesis is that this species is at the root of our genus. I do not think we necessarily expected to find a specimen that was quite so diverse in its morphology. We also used to think that an increase in brain size correlated closely with smaller tooth size, but Homo naledi has a small brain and small teeth! So, the evolutionary pattern is different than we expected. Ultimately, I think the discovery is going to change our definition of the genus Homo.

How did you get involved in the research team on this? What role did you have?

After excavations began Lee Berger, head of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand and Project Director for Rising Star, put out a call for early career scientists “to study and describe recently discovered fossil early hominin (human) material.” The scientists had to have data and skill sets applicable to the study of early hominins. From the applications, he hand-picked 30 scientists from around the world to look at the fossils. Everyone was ecstatic to be a part of the project. It was an intense experience in that we would study the materials all day and then talk about them with each other all night. It was akin to a giant think tank. We all got along extremely well. We were all so full of excitement and intrigue that it would have been impossible to not be in a good mood!

To date, excavations from the Dinaledi chamber have uncovered about 1550 early human skeletal specimens that include 190 whole or fragmentary teeth from at least 15 individuals. My role in this project was to describe and analyze the teeth of the new fossils. The dental team and I started our examination by writing up a detailed description of each tooth and then determining which teeth belong to the same individual. My specific research expertise involves the morphology of the occlusal, or chewing, surface outline of teeth. I documented and compared the teeth to other human ancestors in order to determine the biological identity and to establish phylogenetic, or evolutionary, relationships between the ancestors. This work is important to the project because dental morphology plays a pivotal role in our understanding of early humans.

What has been the most exciting part about this research for you?

Participating in the Rising Star Workshop and examining these fossils was one of the most exciting experiences in my paleoanthropological career. Previously I helped identify the fossils from the site of Malapa, which turned out to be a new species as well, but this research never gets old. I absolutely love studying all fossils from southern Africa; it is why I became a paleoanthropologist! That there is just something special about being on the team that first gets to investigate new hominin fossils. I was a part of the dental team that set up in a side area of the lab at the University of Witwatersrand informally called the “tooth booth.” We have 190 teeth and about 1000 other fossils that indisputably are associated with each other. This is unprecedented in paleoanthropology. The fossils are different from anything that has previously been found. We knew we were making history. I do not think it gets more exciting than that!

What are your future research plans?

The dentition retains a number of features that are primitive for the genus Homo but not found in later, more modern Homo. My research involves taking pictures of the occlusal surface of the teeth, digitizing the outlines using a morphometric shape analysis program, and comparing the results to my database of outlines of other human ancestors. My findings thus far indicate that the mandibular third premolars are unique in their occlusal surface outline. Their square-like shape is a complete outlier and does not overlap with any other human ancestor that we have recovered. I am going to continue with this research and provide analyses of all of the teeth. Specifically, my next publication is going to focus on an in depth analysis of the upper and lower first molars. We have only scratched the surface in terms of our research, so I look forward to going back to Africa to continue studying the teeth!