Professor Profile: Professor Caroline Van Sickle

By Kate Hawthorne, Staff Writer

This year the Bryn Mawr community welcomes Visiting Assistant Professor Caroline Van Sickle, a paleoanthropologist and veteran of the Rising Star Project, into the anthropology and archaeology departments here at Bryn Mawr.

Professor Van Sickle focuses on paleoanthropology, the study of human bones and the kinship lines between humans and their fossil ancestors. While identifying recent bones is relatively easy, older fossils are more difficult. Professor Van Sickle’s focus is on Neanderthals and, more specifically, how to determine sex in the fossil record, as well as the process by which male and female bodies evolved. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Michigan on how Neanderthals gave birth, and as a result, she became very well acquainted with pelvic fossils. She then did her post-doc in feminist biology at University of Wisconsin Madison, a new program that investigates how to encourage feminist principles in biological research – for example, to see if sexism and gender biases play a role in biological research.  

In 2013, the public became aware, through a series of tweets, of the Rising Star Project, an excavation in South Africa focused on finding Homo naledi, a small bodied species of humans. Professor Van Sickle, who was working on her Ph.D. at that point, recognized the project’s value immediately. “Here was an example of public paleoanthropology, which you really rarely get, and it’s a way for the public to engage with how an excavation on a paleoanthropological site works.”  The public became even more aware of the rising star project in 2015 after it was featured in both National Geographic and The New York Times.

In February of 2014, the project released an ad on Facebook seeking early career researchers who could contribute to the project by looking at and analyzing the fossils. Professor Van Sickle jumped at the chance to take part in what would become a groundbreaking project and was chosen as one of about 60 scientists whose job it was to figure out if Homo naledi was, in fact, a new species.  

The first few days were strange and hectic. When the researchers arrived at the university campus, they were greeted with a vault with “shelves upon shelve” of fossils. “There’s this law in South Africa where hominin remains have to always be under lock and key. They had this tiny broom closet of a vault before, where they kept all of the fossils that had been found in South Africa, … and it was kind of overflowing. They had just gotten done redoing [the vault], [so that] it was the size of a classroom that would … maybe fit 20 people in it … it was lined with shelves and beautiful wooden cabinets.” Van Sickle recalled, “[They]… thought, ‘Oh, this is great, we can work on filling this up for years to come.’ Rising Star took up a whole wall – it practically filled the vault.”

The researchers spent two weeks organizing the bones, figuring out what bones they had and where exactly they went. By the end of the summer, they learned that the bones represented a total of 15 individuals – from babies to adults of a relatively great age for the species. Here was a large enough sample for paleoanthropologists to be able to ask questions: about age, social discrepancies, growth patterns and biological differences between male and female.  Now that the preliminary description of the fossils has been published, Van Sickle says, they can move on to analyzing the bones in more detail and hypothesizing about how Homo naledi lived. She believes that one of the best things that came out of the project, in addition to the discovery of an entire new hominid species, is the recruitment of new scientists. This inclusiveness helps to reverse the age-old hierarchy in which older, white males are viewed as more legitimate scientists than younger, ethnically diverse and gender-diverse researchers.

She finds Bryn Mawr students to be fantastic and smart and to ask great questions while being exceedingly enthusiastic about the material. As a professor at a liberal arts college, she is drawn to the small class sizes and the opportunity to get to know her students one-on-one. She hopes that she can stay another year before heading off to – hopefully – another teaching job that focuses on anthropology somewhere else in the wide world.

From the print edition published on Oct. 5, 2016

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