- Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Curtis W. Marean, Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the associate director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, is interested in the relation between climate and environmental change and human evolution, both for its significance as a force driving past human evolution, and as a challenge to be faced in the near future. This is a natural transdisciplinary topic that thrives at the intersection of archaeology, geology, geochemistry, geochronology, and climate and environmental sciences. Curtis has focused his career developing field and laboratory teams and methods that tap the synergy between the disciplines to bring new insights to old scientific problems. He has spent over 20 years doing fieldwork in Africa, and conducting laboratory work on the field-collected materials, with the goal of illuminating the final stages of human evolution – how modern humans became modern.
Curtis began his career at Pennsylvania State University where he conducted research on dating ancient stone artifacts through obsidian hydration. His work as an undergraduate there resulted in the publication of the first directly dated Middle Stone Age artifacts (about 70,000 years old). This was followed by a move to the University of California at Berkeley where he received his Ph.D. 1990.
His dissertation research, published in Nature, showed that during the cooler periods of glacial stages the grassland ecosystems of East Africa were primarily deserts, inhabited by dry climate adapted mammals. This research also showed that the African grassland ecosystems of today are in fact quite recent developments from the combined effects of modern climate of the last 4000 years and regular burning of grasses by pastoralists. After completing his doctorate, Curtis joined the faculty at SUNY at Stony Brook where he served as director of the Interdepartmental Program in Anthropological Sciences (IDPAS), and in 2001 he joined ASU.
Curtis has always had an interest in employing new technologies to solve old problems in archaeology. This led him to develop a novel approach to studying fossil bones from archaeological sites that has changed the way researchers do zooarchaeology – the study of animal bones from archaeological sites. With his research team he developed a new image analysis based system for recording and analyzing fossil bone which has laid the foundation for all future zooarchaeological data recording and analysis systems. His application of that system overturned the widely accepted idea that archaic humans, such as Neanderthals, were primarily scavengers. This falsified the hypothesis that modern humans replaced Neanderthals because modern humans were hunters and Neanderthals scavengers.
Curtis’ early interest in ancient climates and environments has recently been revisited in a major international transdisciplinary project to develop a complete climatic and environmental curve for southern Africa spanning 400,000 to 30,000 years ago. This project, of which he is the principal investigator and project director, is called the South African Coast Paleoclimate, Paleoenvironment, Paleoecology, Paleoanthropology (SACP4) project. It includes about 40 scientists from 10 countries, and is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and a continuing generous funding from the Hyde Family Foundation. That project recently received another NSF grant for $1.0 m. That project has published in Nature on the earliest evidence for people exploiting coastal resources (shellfish), and very early evidence for the use of pigments and bladelet technology. In 2009 the project published in Science an analysis that showed that early modern humans in South Africa employed heat treatment technology as early as 164,000 years ago.
- PhD, University of California-Berkeley, 1990
- MA, University of California-Berkeley, 1985
- BA (with high distinction), Anthropology, Pennsylvanai State University, 1982