Ancient Humans and Modern Choices: an interview with Briana Pobiner
by Emily Ruppel
Dr. Briana Pobiner is a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where she works to understand some of our most basic questions about ancient people—their habits, their diets, and their relationships to each other and the environment. She spared a few minutes to talk to God & Nature about her work and life, and also about how a “deep history” view of human culture and development can help inform the way we think about women’s roles in society, today.
So tell me again where you’re heading?
I’m heading to Kenya to do some research on a few fossil collections at the National Museums in Nairobi there. The animal fossils I’m looking at are about a million years old, and I’m interested in learning more about what early humans ate—as I sometimes call it, the “real Paleo diet.” What I specifically want to know is about the evolution of eating meat in general, so I’m looking for marks from stone knives on these fossils. Butchery marks have specific characteristics, so you can look at them to tell whether humans created them—but they have to be analyzed in person. It’s hard to tell anything from photos.
Given your research and background, do you think there’s good science behind some of these fad diets, the Paleo diet in particular?
I think there’s a decent basis for it but many of the premises touted by enthusiasts are not right. We had a particular lifestyle back then and we have a particular lifestyle right now. I think the core idea, which is that we haven't had time to evolve to eat grain, isn’t true because there’s a lot of evidence to suggest recent evolution in human beings, especially dietary evolution. A great example of evolution in modern humans is the ability to digest lactose. About a third of our population can digest milk post-weaning—yet about 7,000 years ago no one could. The people who raised and lived with cattle are the ones who inherited genes to digest lactose because the people of that community who first developed that beneficial mutation were the most successful, and they passed on those genes to future generations.
The thing we have to understand is that populations are constantly in flux; it’s really hard to know what our ancestors ate in a holistic way, and in what proportions. Even hunter-gatherer people today from different parts of the world eat wildly different kinds of food and the things they eat vary by season, too—so to think that there’s one “correct” way of eating and which shouldn’t be varied is, in my opinion, not very scientific.
One of the interesting things we’re finding out now is that there are particular genes from other species we don’t consider “human” in that they are not members of our species (Homo sapiens) but which passed into the modern human genome through interbreeding events. One example of this is a resistance to altitude sickness, which some people have inherited from the Denisovans living in Asia about 30,000 years ago (the Late Pleistocene).
So can we gain any wisdom about our daily habits in the 21st century by studying ancient people?
Well, the thing that determined what our ancestors ate is what was feasibly available to them throughout the year. This type of diet is not really relevant to those of us having to choose what we eat, today—being aware of local and seasonal availability is a good exercise, but I like eating blueberries all year round, and an ancient human could never do that. What I do think is a good idea is to not eat highly processed food, because there’s good evidence to suggest it’s not very good for our health.
What led you into this field of research? What was your path through the sciences like?
My path to science started in college. In high school I wasn’t really that interested—and I think this aversion had to do with how science was taught. It was too rote, not creative, and so, not that interesting. But when I got to college I told the dean who was advising me that I’d like take calculus to get it over with, and a foreign language because I thought I might be a comparative literature major. Those classes plus freshman English, but I still had room for one more class. She said, “Why don’t you take anthropology?” I didn’t even know what anthropology was! I really liked the class but it wasn't ’til the second semester when I took primate evolution and behavior that I fell in love with it, the idea that there were so many research questions out there not yet answered! It was taught by my undergraduate advisor who is a well-known scientist, Dr. Janet Monge, and she’s absolutely the reason why I got into this field. Then after my first year of college I got an internship at the American Museum of Natural History, and got to go the western United States and collect invertebrate fossils. I just loved the discovery aspect, going out in the field every day and identifying things and collecting them for study.
Have you met any challenges along the road that are specific to being a woman?
I never experienced any sexism or people thinking that I wouldn't have gumption to make it in field, but I also applied to a grad school that had a good track record of women doing fieldwork. One thing I sought out from the start, I looked for strong women role models. There aren’t that many women running their own field sites and I wanted to know more about how that would work.
So while I never experienced people thinking I couldn't hack it so to speak, I know that there are lots of problems facing women in science. When I began to think about new challenges is when my husband and I wanted to start a family. I have a two year old son now and the work/life balance is very different. When I decided I wanted to have kids (which was actually not that long ago!) I talked to everyone about how they managed their time, when is a good age to start bringing kids to field—everything from logistics to emotions to partnership. I’ll go to conferences and just go up and talk to women who have brought their kids to the field to gain wisdom and advice about how to make it work.
In a way, the timing of my son’s birth was really good because I was finishing up some long-term fieldwork and we haven’t yet gotten funding for another round, so I am doing shorter visits to Kenya and more research that I can do based in the DC area. But, I definitely plan to take my son to the field when I feel like the time is right, and my husband is very supportive of that decision. Having a supportive partner is very important. He’s been mostly a stay-at-home dad since my son was born, which has been fantastic, and only recently has he started back teaching more consistently at our local community college. In my life I know I couldn't do it without that kind of partner being okay with me being the main breadwinner, at least for now. We are both very happy with where we are since he had already decided he didn't want to do research anymore when he was finishing his PhD. It’s been tough on our finances to only have one main income, but worth it - we are glad we’ve been able to have one parent home with our son for nearly three years.
Have you ever felt pressured by people in your community to take on a more “traditional” role as a woman?
I have to say I haven’t felt that and maybe that’s because I surround myself with people who have similar values and are open to having a two-parent working family or a one-parent working family – and that goes for my and my husband’s families. One of my closest friends here in DC, her husband is also mainly a stay-at-home dad—that’s becoming more of a thing now. My husband is part of a local stay-at-home parents group and he isn’t the only dad there anymore. I think because I’ve always had such a personal drive in my career, people weren’t surprised that I would want to keep working. Although some people said, “Well maybe when you have a kid you’ll feel differently.” But that wasn’t the case; I did want to go back to work after a while, and I do feel like I’m a better parent for it. I think it’s a shame that there would be pressure one way or the other—the “mommy wars” are all over everything about how you should raise your kids, this way, that way, and the other. Honestly I don’t think you should listen to anything that doesn’t agree with how you feel when it comes to working or not. The people who think you're doing it all wrong aren’t going to help you.
Recently there’s been a surge in women adopting “natural” practices for childbirth and child rearing. Do these come from a place of wisdom or fear about our past versus our future?
I think when it comes to childbirth it’s still really up to the woman and her preferences—I think some of the ideas about birthing at home and birthing in a pool and having a doula is a pushback to a very medicalized birth practices in the first world today. Lots of women and babies used to die in childbirth and we have to keep that in mind, but I really do think people need to follow their hearts on some of these issues. Where I draw the line is people not vaccinating their kids. There’s no good scientific evidence that vaccinations are harmful or cause autism and not vaccinating kids is detrimental both to their own kids and to other people’s kids—this is something feel very strongly about. But when it comes to breastfeeding or not breastfeeding and things like that, I think it should be up to you because being a healthy happy mom is the most important thing to your kid.
If you’re interested in these issues then there’s a book you should read called Paleofantasy, which kind of dispels all the myths that say the problems we have today are because people are maladapted for the modern way of life, or that the diseases we suffer from are a mismatch of our current lives and our ancient way of life. Evolution is ongoing. I think there’s always been a tendency to try to reject what is too “modern,” and so people get this misty-eyed idea of going back to the way things were—but we never were and never will be perfectly adapted to our circumstances and environment, it just doesn’t work that way.
What about religion? You’re Jewish and most of our readers are Christian. A lot of scientists in the public eye mock religion as something humans created to make people behave or to explain away natural phenomena we don’t understand. Does this view of spirituality as just another consequence of evolution hold any water?
You know, I just had lunch with someone, a recent PhD in anthropology—and she said that she tells her students that being religious is one of the most human things a person can do. We are the only species with evidence of having a belief system and a yearning to know God. It’s unfortunate that media portrays the science/religion relationship in conflict—because it can be so many other ways that are complementary. I think that believers working in the sciences are probably not as much of a minority as people think, and there’s even been some recent research that bears that out.