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The Way We Were: Schepartz Awarded New Grant

When Lynne Schepartz, associate professor of anthropology, travels to China this spring, it won't be for a vacation.

Date: 2/18/2005
By: Billie Dziech
Phone: 513/556.1707
When Lynne Schepartz, associate professor of anthropology, travels to China this spring, it won't be for a vacation. She'll make her seventh trip to its southern region because her excavations in the Panxian Dadong cave have attracted international attention -- and thousands of dollars.

The reason for all the notoriety? The cave deposits date to at least 250,000 years ago, and the archaeological elements preserved there are rarely found together in other southern Chinese sites of the same time period. So far Schepartz's team has discovered over 40 mammalian species (including five human teeth), stone tools, burnt and cut animal bone, charcoal and ash. By investigating how humans used the resources of environments like those of Panxian Dadong, she can better analyze the role of language and other complex behaviors, such as strategic planning, in the evolution of human populations.

She believes, “We need to go back to the past in order to understand what we are today. This is the great challenge to anthropology. Learning how we solved basic and critical human problems, such as obtaining food and shelter, tells us how humans are similar or unique in their behaviors. Why did we evolve speech when other communication systems work perfectly well for other species? What do those systems lack that we need for a human life way?”

Thus far monetary backing for the Panxian DaDong Collaborative Project, an international team of anthropologists, paleontologists and geologists, has been impressive. The National Geographic Society recently notified Schepartz and her colleagues that they have a grant for excavations this spring. Previous field seasons were funded by the National Science Foundation, the Henry P. Luce Foundation, Wenner-Gren, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, and UC.

But the southern China work is only one of Schepartz's attempts to decipher the human riddle. Describing herself as “a paleoanthropologist/skeletal biologist,” she says, “I'm particularly interested in understanding what behaviors were important in the development of modern humans. I think there is substantial archaeological evidence for complex behaviors and language preceding the evolution of modern humans. More recently, I've returned to the physical evidence for language by looking directly at fossil brains.”

To do this, Schepartz is working with colleagues from Beijing's Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and Florida State University to study brain “endocasts” of early Chinese human fossils, known by the scientific name of Homo erectus. Endocasts are models of the brain formed by casting skull interiors. Having found in these half million year old Chinese brains previously undocumented differences that suggest more variation in Asian Homo erectus than generally recognized, she and her teammates now plan to expand their comparisons of evolutionary changes in human skulls to southeast Asia and Africa.

Anthropology department head Martha Rees recognizes that Schepartz's research is growing exponentially and in very exciting new directions: “This is the essence of the anthropological perspective. Schepartz's work is interdisciplinary, as is all of anthropology. She looks at human biology and history (the bones) as well as ancient belief systems (represented in burials). Her work moves toward explanations of the origins of language, the quintessential human behavior. It is important in adding to our understanding of people today and in forging working relationships around the globe. ”

Proof of this lies in an invitation Schepartz received to do research in Daxinzhuang at a recently discovered Shang Dynasty burial site dating from about 1700 BC. Some of the remains there are from rich burials with bronzes and jades, but others may be those of human sacrifices. The site initially attracted attention in 2003 because it yielded the first oracle bones outside the main Shang area. Oracle bones, portions of animal skulls or turtle shells with incised simple forms of Chinese characters, were used by the Shang in rites of divination. They are the earliest evidence for the writing of Chinese characters, so the material from the site is important in understanding the development of Chinese society.

In reality, all of Lynne Schepartz's work is an attempt at understanding human beings from half a million to a few thousand years ago. “The study of past human behavior is the most exciting quest for knowledge. The more we learn about the way we were, the better we can understand where we are headed.”

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