Research Spotlight

Philip Leverhulme Prize 2016 for Archaeology has been awarded to Dr Susana Carvalho, ICEA

The School congratulates Dr Susana Carvalho (ICEA) for her Philip Leverhulme Prize, which has been announced this week. This year, thirty  prizes were awarded across five subject areas (Archaeology; Chemistry; Economics; Engineering; Geography; and Languages and Literatures) and each recognises 'the achievement of outstanding researchers whose work has already attracted international recognition and whose future career is exceptionally promising'.

Susana's work is at the foundation of a new academic sub-discipline: Primate archaeology. Her studies revealed for the first time the behavioural patterns and contexts that generate modern chimpanzee tool assemblages that can be compared with those recovered from the past, for apes and humans. Susana's research addresses some of the most challenging questions in the field of archaeology: How old is hominin technology? Which toolmakers can we associate with the first lithic industries? Can we document material culture in Pliocene deposits? What is the role of raw materials in the emergence of technology? When and how did technology-related behaviours (e.g. transport; selection) emerge? Which traits of individuals (e.g. age, skill) influence social learning and transmission of knowledge?

Now we know that humans are not the only evolutionary lineage to have left such a record; non-human primates in antiquity also left lithic artefacts. This provides the opportunity to model our species’ technological origins by comparing what archaeologists find in Africa in the past with what our nearest living relations, chimpanzees, are doing in the present. Thus, Susana studies simultaneously both the behaviour and the products of behaviour, something that no archaeologist working only in the past can do.

Ten years ago all of this was speculation. Then, in 2008, as a Master's student, Susana published a landmark paper showing that a mainstream archaeological schema, chaîne operatóire, could be applied to the elementary technology of apes. She then began excavations of a chimpanzee site in a Guinean forest, using mainstream archaeological methods and instrumentation. From 2009 onwards her research yielded further applications that shed light on basic aspects of technology, such as transport of raw materials, use-wear on tools, site formation processes, etc. As a post-doc, Susana continued to stretch the boundaries of these sciences, for example, employing GIS techniques to make sense of the wear patterns on the surfaces of stone tools.

Susana's previous work made some key contributions to archaeology and biological anthropology. But still to come are experiments presenting stone-tool-using wild chimpanzees with the same types of rocks used by the hominins of East Africa, millions of years ago. And, insertion of miniature GPS transmitters into hammer-stones in an African forest, to follow precisely their transport around the landscape by the apes.

Simultaneously, Susana is tackling the other best-known African primate model for human evolutionary origins, the savannah baboon. This is the unfolding Paleo-Primate Project in Gorongosa, Mozambique. Why there? Because Mozambique presents the last unstudied link in the great African Rift that runs from East to South Africa, wherein lie the two cradles of humankind.

This prize will allow Susana to set up a Primate Models Research Lab, and base in Oxford the large-scale projects that are starting. This includes laboratory and field equipment, lab supplies, travel and subsistence during field trips to Guinea (to study tool transport by chimpanzees), Kenya, Koobi Fora (for archaeological excavations in Pliocene deposits), and Mozambique, Gorongosa National Park (archaeological and paleoanthropological surveys of this unexplored part of the Rift Valley).

Baboons in Gorongosa, Susana Carvalho
One adult male using stone tools to crack nuts, Susana Carvalho