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December 9th, 2009
Spark Blog: Interview - John Shea, Paleoanthropologist

A visit with John Shea and his students at Stony Brook University was another important stop for Alan Alda and the crew as we dug deeper into the question of just what that “human spark” might have been for our earliest ancestors. Here John shares a bit more about his research interests – and what it’s like to be interviewed for television!

Alan Alda and John Shea work on stone tools side by side. Photo: © Larry Engel 2008

Alan Alda and John Shea work on stone tools side by side. Photo: © Larry Engel 2008

How does your research relate to the idea of a “human spark?”

Describing human uniqueness as a “spark” suggests that what makes us unique as a species is, like fire, something that grows from small beginnings to something larger and more transformative. Most evolutionary changes start small. The risk of taking the spark metaphor too literally in human origins research is that it is exceedingly unlikely that our species’ uniqueness arose from just one small change. Nothing in evolution is that simple. A particular scientist may champion one factor or another as a prime mover in human evolution, but this has more to do with academic politics than it does with a realistic view of how evolution actually works. Programs like The Human Spark are good because they show the wide range of information we paleoanthropologists have to pull together to create testable hypotheses about the course of human evolution.

How did you become interested in paleoanthropology and eventually wind up at Stony Brook University?

When I was young, I read many books about ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. I was also interested in woodcraft – hiking, fishing, camping, and other “Boy Scout” kinds of things. These interests converged in studying archaeology at Boston University. At Harvard, I became especially interested in finding links between archaeology and physical anthropology.

John Shea shows off some replica spears to Alan Alda in front of the Human Spark film crew. Photo: Maggie Villiger

What you are working on these days?

I am currently researching the origins of projectile weaponry (bows and arrow, spearthrowers, etc.) by making and using replicas of these weapon systems. Projectile weapons are used by all known human societies and used only by Homo sapiens among all living animals. My research suggests projectile weaponry enabled our ancestors to create a broad, flexible, and stable ecological niche that gave them a competitive advantage over other hominin species.

Why is this kind of research important to pursue?

How we humans differ from other animals and from one another is the most important question in anthropology. It is, in essence, the question from which all other anthropological questions originate. If projectile weaponry played a significant role in our species’ origins and global dispersal, then we may have found one part of the answer to the “big question” of anthropology.

What are the wider-ranging implications of your projectile research?

If projectile weaponry is as ancient as my research suggests, then this implies that responsible weapon use is an important part of our evolutionary heritage. It has got our species through some tough times. I think it is important to preserve this ethic of responsibility. I strongly support the right to bear arms, provided the people who do so possess the same responsibility and intelligence about using them as our Ice Age ancestors did.

John and Alan try their hand at hunting with projectile technology – but their prey is a Styrofoam deer. Credit: © Larry Engel 2008

John and Alan try their hand at hunting with projectile technology – but their prey is a Styrofoam deer. Credit: © Larry Engel 2008

What’s it like actually doing the day-to-day work that leads to all the big ideas and theories?

Few big ideas actually occur when I am surveying, digging or working in the lab. My best ideas typically crop up when it is least convenient to write them down – while lecturing to students in class or while riding my mountain bike through the woods.

What do you think the future of your field might hold?

As we learn more about the earliest phases in the evolution of Homo sapiens, we are either going to find that their behavior was just as complex as ours or that it was organized fundamentally differently from ours. In either case, what we find is going to challenge people’s assumptions about human uniqueness.

What was it like working with the Human Spark film crew?

Television airtime is expensive. You have to make your point quickly and economically. A good producer, like Graham Chedd, helps you learn how to do this. Several times, I dashed back to my office to write down a new idea, or some particularly apt way of phrasing something that occurred to me while filming.

Also check out this interview clip of John Shea talking about The Human Spark and his contributions to the show.

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