Physical Anthropologist Studies Human Evolution through Bones
As a high school student in Gabon, Africa, Brigitte M. Holt, assistant professor of biological anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, didn’t know much about physical anthropology. But she really enjoyed the early human evolution section of a history course. “It was so much more interesting than studying about wars and treaties,” Holt recalls. “And after I started college in the U.S., I read Origins by Richard Leakey. I stayed up all night to finish it and decided then and there what my career direction would be.”
Holt studies human evolution, particularly the size and shape of arm and leg bones to reconstruct the behavior of hunter-gatherers from the last Ice Age. “We know,” she explains, “that when human populations switched from hunting and gathering to a more sedentary lifestyle of farming, their leg bones decreased in robusticity and became rounder in cross-section. I use this knowledge to track changes in mobility in Upper Paleolithic people.”
Europe has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis, even though some European populations consume the highest rates of milk. Holt is interested in tracing the evolution of this condition to see when and under what circumstances changes in bone robusticity occur. This semester, her first at UMass Amherst, she is preparing a grant proposal with a colleague from Johns Hopkins, which, if funded, will allow them to study the evolution of long-bone (arm and leg) robusticity in Europe from prehistory to the present. “Besides learning more about physical activity in past populations,” she relates, “we want to understand better the role of physical activity in making bones stronger.” The idea is to strengthen the case for exercise in “couch potato” societies.
Since 2001 Holt has been codirector with colleagues from Duke University and the University of Pisa, Italy, on an archaeological dig at Riparo Bombrini, a Middle-Upper Paleolithic rock shelter used by hunter-gatherers, some probably Neanderthals, as a camp. “We finished our last field season in July,” she says, “and now we’re working on publishing a final report.”
In addition to her research, Holt is teaching a variety of courses. “One of the aspects of UMass Amherst that appeals to me the most,” she says, “is that it provides the right balance between the two. I feel that teaching is really valued here, and it is very clear that Dean Rifkin strongly supports research.” Among Holt’s courses is “Human Origins and Variation” (ANT 103). “This may be the only exposure many students get to the principles of evolution, a cornerstone of modern biology. Given the current atmosphere surrounding teaching of evolution in schools, I am eager to clarify misunderstandings.”
There is no doubt that Holt is passionate about her field. “My dissertation advisor at the University of Missouri, Dr. Robert Benfer, is a very broad thinker who challenged me to see beyond the data. He has been a very strong mentor and friend, as has Dr. Carol Ward, who was on my dissertation committee. She taught me to think more critically and clearly—and to communicate simply, without using a lot of scientific jargon.” These skills proved extremely useful when Holt prepared the grant proposal for her dissertation research. The National Science Foundation gave it rave reviews and she got the funding.
November 14, 2005