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Stone tools, diet and sociality at the dawn of humanity

$2.4 M SSHRC grant funds international team of experts led by University of Calgary archaeologist in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge


Archaeologist Julio Mercader is working with a multidisciplinary team of researchers to study ancient diets, stone tools and sociality in the face of environmental changes at several sites known to be some of the cradles of humanity. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Heath McCoy

Earlier this summer University of Calgary archaeologist Julio Mercader began a project working with a multidisciplinary team of researchers to study ancient diets, stone tools and sociality in the face of environmental changes at several sites known to be some of the cradles of humanity, dating back 1.8 million years.

The multi-year excavations – made possible thanks to a SSHRC Partnership Grant for $2,461,839 over seven years – will mark the first time that a Canadian led team has ventured into the Olduvai Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Heavily excavated for decades, Olduvai Gorge has been invaluable in furthering the understanding of human evolution, demonstrating how social complexities developed in the earliest humans. Particularly revealing is the evolving production of stone tools discovered in the area.

And yet, this important paleoanthropological site has never seen an excavation program as comprehensive as the one Mercader has stepped up to co-lead. “There has never been a partnership this wide and far-reaching at the Olduvai Gorge, with so many experts from different labs, institutions and countries,” says Mercader, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary. “The mix of research topics is truly compelling, because we’re covering the technology, the climate, the diet, the plant life, the human realities. That mix is important. This is the sort of effort that no single team of researchers could achieve on its own.”

Indeed, the team Mercader brings together will include 20 scholars from 10 organizations and four countries, including universities in the U.S., Spain, Tanzania and Canada, with McMaster University the other Canadian institution on board. The partnership extends across disciplines to include archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, museologists, social and environmental scientists, geoscientists, biologists and conservationists.

Mercader notes that the biological diversity of the Olduvai Gorge adds greatly to its richness as a source of paleoanthropoligical discoveries. A key objective of his team will be to explore the correlation between climate change on the site and shifting technologies, food processing abilities and diets over time.

“For about a half a million years, from around 1.8 to 1.3 million years ago, we can see evolution from a technological point of view and we begin to understand how climate change had an impact on the resources these early humans exploited,” says Mercader. “We can observe how their diet went from simple to one more complex, where they began to combine meat and plant life. We’re looking at a complex manipulation of the ecosystem, in the face of climate change.”

Mercader adds that there is a contemporary value to studying the way early humans adapted to climate change. “We look at the ways in which drought impacted the landscape and the food resources and how early humanity was able to adapt to these changes, modifying their diets and the ways that they lived,” says Mercader. “These are problems that we also face today. We are still adapting to climate change.”

Olduvai Gorge is also invaluable for the technological changes it reveals in the same time frame, between 1.8 and 1.3 million years ago, as early humans moved from the use of crude tools to hand axes and cleavers. “This represents a seminal evolution in human technology,” Mercader says.

While their SSHRC Partnership Grant is for seven years, Mercader and his team hope to create long term opportunities in the Olduvai Gorge by building bridges with the traditional land owners in the area so that the work being done continues. The goal is to make Olduvai Gorge self-sustainable as a national and international resource.

“This Partnership Grant highlights our expertise in understanding how humans adapt to change, which is a key component of our Human Dynamics in a Changing World research strategy,” says Anne Katzenberg, Associate Vice-President (Research) and a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. “It also provides exceptional opportunities for international exchange and student training. We congratulate Julio Mercader and look forward to all that will be achieved as part of this project.”

Mercader was one of many from the Faculty of Arts to receive SSHRC awards this year. Here’s a list of the other winners and their respective projects:

Insight Grants

Susanne Carroll, Linguistics, Languages and Cultures
Project: Lexical transfer, syntactic categories, and categorization in L2 acquisition at the initial state

Barry Cooper, Political Science
Project: The political symbolism of the Upper Paleolithic

Marc Ereshefsky, Philosophy
Project: Natural Kinds, Classification, and Scientific Practice

Amelia Kiddle, History
Project: The 1938 Mexican Oil Expropriation and the Roots of Resource Nationalism in Latin America

Mary O’Brien, Linguistics, Languages and Cultures
Project: Producing and processing simplex and complex words in second language German

Friedemann Sallis, Jeffrey Boyd, School of Creative Performing Arts
Project: Mapping the acoustic space of live electronic music

Tim Stapleton, History
Project: Military Culture in British Colonial West Africa (c1860-1960)

Rebecca Sullivan, English
Project: The Legacy of Studio D for Canadian Feminist Media Arts Activism

Insight Development Grants 2016

Karen Bourrier, English
Project: How to Make it as a Woman Writer: Digitizing Dinah Craik

Pamela Campa, Economics
Project: Media Coverage, Monitoring, and Nuclear Plants Safety

Lindsay Driediger-Murphy, Classics and Religion
Project: The Nature of Roman Gods

Murray Leeder, Communication, Media and Film
Project: There Are No Tame Ghosts: Superimpositions, the Supernatural and Silent Cinema

Jack Lucas, Political Science
Project: Who Governs the Canadian City? Explaining the Long-Term Development of Urban Policy Authority

Cara MacInnis, Psychology
Project: Do cross-socioeconomic class friendships promote social mobility and positive class relations? A multi-method investigation

Amal Madibbo, Sociology
Project: Transnational Migration and its Impacts on the Sense of Identity for Canada: The Case of Africans in Calgary

Lucija Muehlenbachs, Economics
Project: Rate of Return Regulation and Environmental Externalities: Evidence from Natural Gas

Dennis Storoshenko, School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures
Project: Identifying Factors in Reference Resolution in Farsi and Mandarin

Chui-Ling Tam, Geography
Project: Climate communication and adaptation: engaging maritime publics in resource management

Atsuko Tanaka, Economics
Project: College Loans and Skill Accumulation on the Job

Lianne Tomfohr; Susan Graham; Sherri Madigan; Suzanne Tough, Psychology
Project: Does Where You Live Predict What You Say? Elucidating Associations between Socioeconomic Status, Child Sleep, and Child Language Acquisition

Daniel Voth, Political Science
Project: Rights as the “Descendants of the Original Lords of the Soil”: Empowering Métis Women Through Traditional Governance Structures

Saulesh Yessenova, Anthropology and Archaeology
Project: Atom and Cosmos EXPOsed: Cold War and "Future Energy" in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan

Connection Grants

Mary O'Brien, Linguistics, Languages and Cultures
Project: Pronunciation in second language learning and teaching

George W. Colpitts, History
Project: CHESS 2016 Bison Landscapes, Mountain laces

Morny Joy, Religious Studies
Project: Women, Rights, and Religion

Aritha van Herk, English
Project: Speaking her mind: Canadian women and public presence

Partnership Development Grant

Tom O’Neill; Piers Steel, Hamid Zareipour, Psychology
Project: The intersection of teamwork, culture and technology: enhancing soft skill development in post-secondary education through student-centred feedback

Knowledge Synthesis Grant

Peter Dawson, Anthropology and Archaeology
Project: The Design and Development of Digital Return Platforms for Northern Aboriginal Heritage