Shortcut Navigation:

Ian Tattersall Interview

An Interview with Dr. Ian Tattersall, 
Curator of Anthropology and Co-Curator of The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins

1. What has been your contribution as curator of the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins?

Well the curators of exhibitions at the American Museum are responsible for the scientific content, or at least for the oversight of scientific content in the hall.

2. What is your interest in Anthropology, particularly homonid systematics? What made you decide to pursue this area?

Gosh, I've been working on homonid systematics for many, many years now, for at least the last 20-25 years I guess. And it's been an interest of mine ever since I went into graduate school very many years ago. It's been fascinating watching the field change over those years. I fell into it accidentally, the only honest way to do anything is to make a serendipitous discovery. I don't know very many people who are doing today exactly what they wanted to do when they were five years old. But I've been very very fortunate in just happening to discover a field that I found fascinating and that continues to fascinate me.

3. What other exhibits have you worked on here at the Museum, if any?

Gosh, I've worked on many, many exhibits over the years. This is the third time that I've done a hall on human biology and evolution—the third permanent hall, in the 35 years that I've been at the Museum. But I've also worked on many really wonderful temporary shows. The most memorable of them probably was back in 1984 when we did a show called Ancestors: Four Million Years of Human Evolution when we assembled a whole large number of fossils —original human fossils from institutions around the world and brought them together for the first time and probably the only time ever, in New York City. So that the public could actually see what the physical evidence was for the biological history of human beings. Another one was Dark Caves, Bright Visions where again we were very fortunate to be able to assemble some of the great works of portable ice age art from museums in France and other countries in Europe and bring all these things together. It was a wonderful experience.

4. Describe your typical day - in the lab, or in the field?

There really is no such thing as a typical day for me, and that is what makes this job so wonderful—you really don't know what to expect when you come to work in the morning. And it varies of course, also depending on what one is doing. If one is working very hard on a permanent exhibition as we've been doing lately, then a lot of what one does is going to be devoted to the preparation of the exhibition. But curators here at the American Museum, for the most part, are in a research job. Our responsibility here is not just to look after the collections, but to do research on those collections and indeed on other subjects that fall within our area of expertise. And so a lot of our days generally are devoted to research.

5. Tell us about the project you recently undertook to streamline the resource literature on human fossils around the world in a more consistent way.

Well several years ago, a colleague of mine, a research associate here at the Museum, Jeffrey Schwartz, and I realized that we had, in the course of doing research on Neandertals, accumulated a lot of descriptions of fossil homonids that we'd made according to a very consistent protocol, and in such a way that all these descriptions could be compared directly with each other. And we realized that we had the basic element here of a resource that really wasn't available to the paleoanthropological profession. Virtually all known human fossils have been described in the literature but they've been described by different people in different times and in different ways, and usually using a sort of comparative schema which made it very, very difficult for you to use one description in the record from one source with a description that's gained from another source. So we decided to try to see nearly all the fossils, or all of the homonid fossils that we could get access to, and describe them all according to this single protocol that we developed. So that basically we could create a resource that our colleagues from all over the world, who hadn't been able to actually see the original fossils could take and use as a basis for making their own comparisons.

And is that complete now or is it still in progress?

All works of science are obviously continually in progress, but we've published three volumes of the Human Fossil Record. And these three volumes basically cover what's available right now of the crania and dentitions of fossil homonids. Some more colleagues have done a volume on the endocranial casts, on the brain casts, of fossil homonids. And ultimately we are hoping to put out a volume on the post-cranial, the body skeletons, the body bones of early homonids too.

6. Another of your research interests is the nature and emergence of modern human cognition. The new hall covers this question, of What Makes Us Human? What discoveries have recently been made in this area?

Gosh, there's always an interest, among scientists just as among the public, in what it is, really that sets us apart from the rest of the world, and of course what gives us this sense of being so different, even though we're part of the larger nature. We are, in some ways, very distinctive, and what gives us this sense is principally our cognitive differences. The way that we have a symbolic cognition where we don't just live in the world as nature presents it to us, but we remake the world in our heads, and we recreate our own explanations of the world for ourselves, and for our colleagues. And this is one of the elements that we pursue in this exhibition, we ask the question: What is it that makes us different, and how did we acquire it? And we've chosen four elements in the hall, we've chosen toolmaking, and language, and art, and music as four things that we uniquely do. We can find elements of all of these things in other creatures around us, but nobody puts them together the way that we do. And we put them together in this way principally because we have this symbolic cognitive capacity that underwrites everything that we do.

7. What do you think is the most important feature of the new hall?

Oh well that's like asking who's your favorite child. It's very difficult to single out any one thing. But I would say what really makes this hall unique is the overarching concept, which is to integrate the molecular and fossil records of our human past. We have these two sources of evidence from the comparison of molecules, and from the fossil record that have been considered separately, normally. But basically both illuminate the same story and we try to tell the same story from these two different perspectives, and integrate those perspectives. And nobody else I think has ever tried to do this in a museum exhibit yet.

8. How has the new Hall of Human Origins evolved compared to the prior Hall of Human Biology and Evolution?

Well it's about thirteen years since we opened the old Hall of Human Biology and Evolution and since that time there's been an awful lot of new discoveries in terms of human fossils. We know of a lot more human fossils now than we did even back then. So that's one thing, we've enlarged our scope of what we can tell about the human fossil record. And the other thing is that the science of molecular systematics, back in 1993 when we opened the old hall, was in its infancy. And now it's been making dizzying strides, and so at this point we're able to make this integration which I was talking about, which we really weren't able to do before.

9. Another of your research interests concerns lemurs in Madagascar. Why are they important? Tell us a little about this, and maybe an anecdote concerning this work?

Oh, the lemurs of Madagascar have always been a fascination of mine. And they are lovely, charismatic beasts, with which I basically fell in love. Why they're really important, in a scientific sense, is that they're a whole parallel world; they're a separate independent radiation of primates that show exactly how primates can exploit their basic primate potential to do many many different things. And they give us a new perspective on ourselves, on our own evolutionary group, by makin this comparison. And they also are our best living analogs to what our own ancestors were like, say 50 million years ago.

I actually saw a documentary once, there was a ring-tailed lemur whose baby had fallen out of the tree I guess, and died, and the mother wouldn't leave it. She kept trying to revive it and she was making these noises like she was crying—it was just so human.

Yeah, no, we can see a lot of ourselves, even in lemurs. We are primates, and we carry a lot of our past around with us, you know, inside our brains, even though we are somewhat different from all other primates, our heritage is very much part of what we are.

10. Rob DeSalle told us about the children's book you co-authored together. Can you tell us about the book you co-wrote for adults, titledHuman Origins: What Bones and Genomes Tell Us About Ourselves?

Well the children's book was aimed, obviously, at children about 8-12, to amplify their experience of the hall, to give them something to take away once they'd seen the hall, to remind them of it and to amplify the experience that they'd had. And the adult book is basically to do the same thing for adults. In a museum exhibit you're strictly limited in the number of words you can use; there's a limit to the number of words a visitor can absorb in a visit of 30 minutes, or an hour, or even 2 or 3 hours. And a book gives you the opportunity to amplify upon what the visitor has learned in the hall and to be a bit more discursive. You know, the visitor can then go home and sit down with a book, take the weight off their feet, and absorb a lot of additional material in relative comfort. And we think it's a wonderful thing to have this complementarity, between the hall itself and then the book that accompanies it.

11. If people will take away just one important point from this new hall, what would you want that to be?

One important point, gosh. You know I think essentially the crucial point we're making in this hall is that even though we have this feeling of being different from the rest of nature, and there are many things that we talk about, that do make us different from any other animals, that we know of, we are still an integral part of nature itself, and we're still part of that great tree of life, which the American Museum is all about, in fact. And it's this sense of apartness yet integration that I think is our basic message in the hall.

12. What advice would you have for a young student who wanted to be an anthropologist?

I think it's probably the same advice that one would probably give to anybody. In the modern world, you know, paper qualifications are supremely important. A hundred years ago you could fall serendipitously into a field; today you have to have a specialist training. And anybody that wants to be an anthropologist has to have their eye on acquiring this essential background from the very beginning.

American Museum of Natural History

Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024-5192
Phone: 212-769-5100

Open daily from 10 am - 5:45 pm
except on Thanksgiving and Christmas
Maps and Directions