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Anthropologist coaxes stories, history from skeletons and their genetics

March 24, 2009 By Jill Sakai


Old bones come alive when you talk with associate professor of anthropology John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist who studies human evolution, using everything from skeletal form and behavior as assessed in the archaeological record to genetics to help reconstruct our evolutionary history. His work has shown that modern humans are just as subject as our ancestors to the pressures of natural selection, and human evolution has accelerated during the past 5,000 years.

Hawks is also an avid blogger and artist, chronicling his thoughts, analysis and links about human evolution, fossils and science in general — all illustrated with his own hand-drawn anatomical sketches — at

Wisconsin Week:

What do you enjoy most about your work?


I love that there are surprises for everyone in what we’re learning about human genetics. I can give talks to people and there’s always something in it for them, something people always wonder about themselves or other people. It’s not just abstractions.

WW: What about your field do you think surprises people the most?

JH: I think people are always surprised to hear how different we are from people who lived only 10,000 years ago. Our evolution has been going so fast that if we went back in time we would find people who didn’t have genes that are very common now. Nobody would have blue eyes, no adults anywhere could tolerate milk — there’s a shock for Wisconsin!

The fundamentals would be the same — people would be talking to each other, taking care of their families. But it would be like culture shock, lots and lots of little differences that add up.

WW: Who has had the most influence on your work as a scientist?

JH: My adviser at Michigan, Milford Wolpoff, without question. From him I learned three really important lessons. Science is not impartial — we all are advocates for some point of view, which leads us to investigate the basis of our ideas very systematically. Second, you have to try to understand your opponents’ ideas better than they do themselves.

And third, you have to be willing to scrap everything and start over. In paleoanthropology, you could be developing a body of theory for 20 years before the fossil comes along that can test your ideas. But if it shows you’re wrong, there’s no shame in admitting it.

WW: What got you started drawing your own illustrations?

JH: Another thing I learned from Milford is that when you draw a piece of anatomy, you’ll have a much better memory for it than almost anything else you can do. So I’ve long been in the habit of drawing. I really enjoy it, it forces my brain to accept what my eyes are seeing instead of what it thinks ought to be there.

WW: What’s the research question most on your mind right now?

JH: Right now, I’m most occupied thinking about Neandertals. These ancient people have been gone for 30,000 years and all we’ve been able to study is their bones. But a draft of their genome is coming out this year, and we’ll be able to study aspects of their biology that we’ve only been able to speculate about before: Did their digestive processes differ from ours? How did their brains work? Did they have a superhuman sense of smell?