Associate Professor of Anthropology; Indiana University, Bloomington , affiliated with CRAFT (Center for Research on the Anthropological Foundations of Technology)

This is a photo of me and a chimpanzee nest from the Ishasha River, Zaire

Research Interests

Investigating proto-human subsistence ecology is fundamental to understanding human origins. The earliest archaeological record in East Africa suggests that omnivorous diet and wide-ranging land-use patterns were distinctive proto-human adaptations. My research on this topic has led me out of the archaeological trenches and into the savannas of East Africa. Curious to understand how ancient environmental conditions would have influenced the dietary adaptations and ranging patterns of our early hominid ancestors, I have studied modern savanna environments analogous to early hominid habitats where sites have been preserved.

Because plant food remains are not preserved in early archaeological sites, the potential importance of plant foods in early hominid diet can only be evaluated using indirect evidence from the archaeological record. Knowing how modern plant food resources are patterned ecologically and geographically can provide clues for interpreting the distribution of archaeological materials across ancient landscapes. In Kenya and in eastern Zaire I have surveyed vegetation in National Parks, to measure the seasonal abundance and distribution of different types of wild plant foods probably eaten by early hominids. Harvesting these foods, and measuring their nutritional value, has provided key data that I am using to develop alternative models of early hominid foraging strategies.

Early archaeological evidence has often been compared to the behavior of living chimpanzees because of chimps' close evolutionary relationships to humans, their omnivorous diets, large ranges in savanna habitats, and their intelligence and technological skills. My current research is using field data on chimpanzee diet and ranging behavior to help interpret the early hominid archaeological record. In eastern Zaire I was able to study the diet and nesting distribution patterns of wild savanna chimpanzees along the Ishasha River, and show that these animals frequently nested in the same locations along a riverine galley forest. These results provide archaeologists with a possible behavioral explanation for how artifacts and feeding remains could have become concentrated along stream margins and formed archaeological sites before hominids had evolved the patterns of camping together and sharing food that are so typical of humans today. My latest project, in collaboration with Jim Moore (UC San Diego), is a multi-disciplinary study of savanna chimpanzees in the Ugalla region of western Tanzania, using both field survey and an analysis of remote sensing data at ACT to understand chimpanzee ranging and subsistence ecology in one of their driest habitats, analogous to environments in which early hominids evolved.

Some Recent Publications:

1994 (with G. Brooks) Reports of chimpanzee natural history, including tool-use, in 16th and 17th century Sierra Leone. International Journal of Primatology.15 (6): 867-878

1994 Beyond bones: archaeological sites, early hominid subsistence, and the costs and benefits of exploiting wild plant foods in east African riverine landscapes. Journal of Human Evolution 27: 295-320.

1994 Bone distribution in a semi-arid chimpanzee habitat in eastern Zaire: implications for the interpretation of east African faunal assemblages. Journal of Archaeological Science 21:217-235..

1992 Was there no place like home? A new perspective on early hominid archaeological sites from the mapping of chimpanzee nests. Current Anthropology 33(2):187-207.

1992 Archaeological evidence and ecological perspectives for reconstructing early hominid subsistence strategies. In Archaeological Method and Theory Volume 4: 1-56 M.B. Schiffer (ed) U. Arizona Press.

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Last updated: 12 February 1996
Copyright 1995, 1996, Jeanne Sept