Exploring the Past

Brian Richmond probes human evolution through new technology.

By Ari Kaplan

Photos by Jessica McConnell

A few years ago, researchers conducting an archaeological dig in a remote corner of Kenya stumbled across some fossil human hand bones. The first person they called was Brian Richmond, associate professor in GW’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology and specialist in the evolution of the hand.

Richmond and his team traveled to Kenya, where they found other hand and arm bones from the same individual. The fossils were discovered in sediments indicating they were more than 1.5 million years old. “It’s an incredibly rare discovery,” says Richmond. “The vast majority of fossils found from that era belong to animals, and the rare hominin fossils that have been found are almost always isolated bones or teeth. It’s very unusual to find so much of an individual appendage, and it’s extremely important for understanding the evolutionary history of manual manipulation and dexterity.”

Richmond’s expertise is not limited to hands, however; he also studies functional anatomy, especially the origins of the human gait, how the skeleton is shaped, and how its shape relates to function. His research, he explains, aims to infer behavior from skeletal structure in the human fossil record, focusing on the early evolutionary history of humans—the era ranging from 5 million to 7 million years ago when the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees took separate paths with humans’ predecessors taking the first steps to becoming upright walkers.

Richmond’s research also examines another crucial era in evolution—from 1.5 million to 3 million years ago—when primitive “australopiths” evolved to a dramatically more human-like Homo erectus with a much larger brain and a body shape and size similar to that of today’s humans. The era marks the beginning of stone tool use and animal butchery, a shift in diet, and a move to grassland environments.

A Passion for Human Evolution

This Neanderthal unearthed at Amud Cave, Israel, showed evidence of sophisticated behavior and had a brain size comparable to our own.

Richmond’s road to Foggy Bottom came by way of Rice University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and history in 1990. Richmond had planned to be a doctor, but anthropology classes and neurobiology thesis research during his senior year in college changed his mind. “I loved putting together a project, identifying a question no one has answered, and going out and doing the work,” he says.

After that, he was hooked. Following graduation, he shelved his plans for medical school, and instead spent two semesters studying anthropology at GW. “It was the right combination of biology, human origins, and anatomy for me,” Richmond says.

After receiving a PhD in anthropology in 1998 from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Richmond returned to GW for two years as the Henry R. Luce postdoctoral fellow in the University’s then-brand-new Human Origins Initiative. Following a stint as an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Richmond returned to GW in 2002.

One of his first assignments as a faculty member at GW was to assist the Department of Anthropology in creating a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology. Four years later, GW has more than 40 students majoring and minoring in biological anthropology and has doubled its offering of upper-level undergraduate courses in the field.

Richmond teaches a number of these courses, as well as an introductory class on the biological bases of human behavior and graduate courses in human evolution, functional anatomy, and analytical methods. In addition to his work in the classroom, he has brought undergraduate researchers into his laboratory, mentoring six undergraduate theses since arriving at GW.

He also teaches classes, advises students, and helps obtain external funding for GW’s Hominid Paleobiology Doctoral Program, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to training students in human origins. Richmond explains that GW doctoral students in the program study geology, anatomy, engineering, and microbiology to better prepare them to conduct cutting-edge research and understand the whole picture of evolution.

Tapping New Technology

While Richmond’s research has taken him around the globe, including expeditions to Ethiopia, Turkey, and Kenya, much of his work occurs on campus and at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, thanks to new imaging technology. “Improvements in technology allow us to ask and answer increasingly sophisticated questions,” Richmond says.

In research funded by the National Science Foundation, Richmond is examining the bone found inside joints, described as “spongy” because the plates and struts within it are connected much like a stiff sponge. Since this bone is a living tissue and is greatly influenced by individual activities and exercise, it provides important clues to human ancestors’ actions and behaviors when they were living.

These are casts of skulls of an extinct group of human relatives that lived in Africa 1 to 2 million years ago.

Taking advantage of recent advances in CT technology, which can provide high-resolution three-dimensional images of this bone structure, Richmond compares fossils and living tissue to draw inferences about human evolution. “This technology provides evidence about what an individual was doing while he or she was alive and, more broadly, about the origins of the human gait and the human skeleton,” he says. Richmond also uses software developed by collaborators at the University of Texas that enables him to quantify the differences between species.

In another research project funded by the NSF, Richmond is examining the evolution of craniofacial biomechanics, including how the skull has adapted for chewing. “It’s clear from the fossil record that some species have adaptations for powerful chewing,” he says.

According to Richmond, until relatively recently, there have been limited means of testing theories about the evolution of the skull. By applying finite element analysis—a computer modeling technique used widely in engineering but new to anthropology— Richmond and his team model the biomechanics of biting and chewing in modern monkeys and our extinct ancestors to test hypotheses about human evolution. These models are built in part on data collected using biomedical technology to measure muscle activity in live monkeys. These kinds of comparisons are the only way to study the biomechanics of fossil species—in effect, the next best thing to examining fossils in actual motion, says Richmond.

Next year, after returning from further excavations in Kenya, Richmond will take a sabbatical and work with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where he currently serves as a research associate with the Human Origins Program. There, he will finish analyses and articles reporting the results of his myriad projects. His efforts at the Smithsonian also will focus on collecting measurements and CT scans of the arm and hand skeletons of humans, apes, and other primates to uncover the ways in which the 1.5 million-year-old fossil arm and hand bones are like modern humans, and the ways in which they may be primitive or unique.

“It is a surreal feeling to pick up a stone tool or a fossil of one of our ancestors, to think this individual was born, lived, and died 1.5 million years ago,” Richmond says. “I love my job and wouldn’t give it up for any other.”

For more information, visit Brian Richmond’s Web site: http://home.gwu.edu/~brich

Ari Kaplan, JD ’97, is an attorney and freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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