Anthropology Professor Amy Rector Awarded $390,000 Grant to Study Human Evolution

June 17, 2019

It’s a common misconception that human evolution has progressed in a linear fashion starting with our earliest primate
ancestors 55 million years ago and culminating with Homo sapiens as we are today. However, the reality is far more complex with human evolution branching into several species not only living simultaneously but even interbreeding. Research by anthropology professor Amy Rector, Ph.D., in Ethiopia’s Afar region has been focused on exploring this evolutionary diversity and has just been awarded a $390,000 collaborative  grant by the National Science Foundation. This grant is the largest single grant received by VCU’s Anthropology program!

Rector first became involved with anthropological work at the Ledi-Geraru site in the Afar as a graduate student at Arizona State University in the early 2000s. The research gained momentum a couple years ago when anthropologists found early human remains dating to almost 3 million years ago. The grant will fund two years of field work with a team consisting of Rector as well as professors from Arizona State, Penn State, George Washington University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The field work and research is especially significant because so little is known about human evolution between 3 and 2.5 million years ago; due to geological processes like erosion, the fossil record has preserved very little of this time period. As Rector told VCU News “Ledi-Geraru preserves this time period [so] we have the potential to learn more about what triggered the evolution of our own genus, and how climate and ecology may have influenced the evolution of ourselves and other ancestors on our family tree.” As a result “each discovery could be something brand new.”

Rector has always been passionate about human evolution and specializes in paleoecology, the reconstruction of anthropological habitats. She hopes this project, titled "Collaborative Research: Hominin diversity, paleobiology, and behavior at the terminal Pliocene," can eventually involve student work comparing fossil communities.

Rector describes anthropology as the “holistic” study of “why and how humans are the way we are” and how “biology and culture intersect.” She hopes her students will learn how to “use an anthropological lens to do any job” from project management to law.  

To learn more about Rector’s project and grant, please visit the official NSF page.