The moment of discovery of 9500-year-old human remains at Hora Mountain in Mzimba, Malawi
I am an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Emory University, but really I am a Paleolithic archaeologist – someone who studies ancient human behavior in the Stone Ages. Many Paleolithic archaeologists will specialize in a specific time span – after all, there are millions of years from which to choose. I choose them all.
I have three major research projects, each intersecting with one of the three main “Stone Ages” of Africa. Although these categories can be broad and are sometimes over-generalized, they can also be useful.
The Later Stone Age is the time when people were still exclusively using stone tools to hunt and gather for their food, but in every other way they were just like you and me. They had social networks, belief systems, and solved complicated problems in their environments. This was the way that our ancestors lived for many thousands of years, well before the independent invention of agriculture around the world began to push human populations to larger and larger numbers. Now, inter-group conflict seems to be a fact of our existence. But was it always that way? Is aggression a part of “human nature”, or is it a response to our modern circumstances? Only the archaeological record can tell us that. I lead the Malawi Ancient Lifeways and Peoples Project to discover the cultural remains and human skeletons we need to answer these questions.
Some of our drone footage of this remarkable landscape is shown here.
Enjoy the view: All those fallen boulders at the base of the mountain are archaeological sites at Hora Mountain
My second main research interest is understanding how and when the earliest members of our species – Homo sapiens – interacted with one another and with their environments in the poorly-documented region of central Africa. These Middle Stone Age people are the folks who ultimately would leave their home continent of Africa and go on to inhabit the entire planet – something never done before by any species. So how did they do it? Perhaps by interacting with their environments in new ways. To find out, I lead the Malawi Earlier-Middle Stone Age Project in northern Malawi.
Future archaeologists excavating in Karonga, Malawi as part of the UQ Archaeological Field School
During the Earlier Stone Age, we see the first time any member of our lineage picked up two rocks and created a stone tool. My third research program deals with the problem of what they may have done with those tools. I study marks made by butchery and other actions on fossils, and use that information to understand the ecology of our earliest ancestors. Field sites include localities in the Afar region of Ethiopia that have yielded some of the richest fossil records of our evolution: Dikika, Hadar (including the field school), and Middle Ledi-Geraru.
Checking out some crocodile-chomped fossils dating to about 3.3 million years ago at Hadar, Ethiopia
I have two main areas of methodological expertise to bring to all of these projects. The first is taphonomy: what happens to an organism’s body after it dies. I use marks and other traces on fossil bones to understand ancient human and human ancestor behavior within their ecological contexts. The second is archaeological field methods. I love those times of year when my office is the outdoors. I love to find new sites, and I especially enjoy the mystery of never knowing what lies under the ground until your excavation reveals it.
Using modern technology to learn about ancient technology is one of the many reasons to love archaeological fieldwork
I have been joining excavations since the late 1990s and running them since 2010. I also enjoy training students; one of my favorite moments is picking up a new group of students at the Lilongwe airport and seeing them realize how different their lives are going to be for the next several weeks (in a good way!). I feel extraordinarily lucky to work at the intersection of research, education, and outreach, and I hope to continue this work in the future.
More on my research can be found at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jessica_Thompson22
Any questions? Email me! jessica [dot] thompson [at] emory [dot] edu