Game of Bones

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: People Issue: January 2016
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Photo by Brandon Sullivan; Piece of the 2.8-million-year-old jawbone

ASU professor Kaye Reed travels the world searching for fossilized clues to humanity’s origins.

Years ago, when Kaye Reed managed the marketing department at a computer company, she didn’t suspect she had a knack with Ethiopian Afar people. When she started digging into her Scots-Irish family tree, she had no idea she’d uproot Neanderthal DNA. When she played hide-and-seek with her son, she didn’t fathom that one day, she’d lead the team that found the oldest fossil of the human genus.

She only knew she regretted dropping out of college. So, in the mid-1980s, after 14 years in business, Reed enrolled in Portland State University, took an anthropology class, and found her calling. “I’ve always been tracing my ancestry, so [paleoanthropology] is a further extension of that,” the Pennsylvania native says. “Where did my family come from? How did they get there?”

She would spend her career leafing through one of the most mysterious gaps in the human family tree, looking for the first sprouts of the Homo genus. Her search would culminate in the March 2015 announcement that her team had unearthed a 2.8-million-year-old Homo jawbone, pushing back humanity’s origins by 400,000 years.

Still, even as she pursued her Ph.D. at New York’s Stony Brook University in the ’90s, Reed never dreamed she’d be a field anthropologist. Her first field work involved cracking open rocks in Montana to look for mammal fossils. She was bored stiff – which would not surprise anyone meeting her today at ASU’s Institute of Human Origins, where she’s a President’s Professor. Animated and no-nonsense, Reed says she likes fossil hunting but has no patience for delicate digging. She sometimes knits in the field to keep her restless hands busy.

But when, in 1994, paleoanthropologist William Kimbel asked her to go to Ethiopia with him and Donald Johanson – discoverer of Lucy the Australopithecus (see sidebar) – she couldn’t say no. “And I really liked it,” says Reed, who earned her Ph.D. in 1996. “I was really good at organizing the field work.”

Photo by Brian Villmoare; Members of the 2013 field and camp crew for the Ledi-Geraru Research Project

From that point, her resume looks like it was photocopied from the desk of Indiana Jones. Co-director: Expedition to Buri Peninsula, Eritrea. Paleontologist: Sopeña Cave, Spain. Paleontologist: Contrebandiers Cave, Morocco. Director: Western Cape Survey, South Africa. And, currently, co-director: Ledi-Geraru Research Project, Ethiopia.

Since 2002, Reed has made expeditions to Ethiopia’s Afar – a stretch of sun-parched badlands studded with so many early human fossils it’s called “Hominid Valley.” She’s searching in the darkness of a sparse fossil record for the dawn of the human genus.

Here’s what Reed knows: Until about 3 million years ago, East Africa was populated by Australopithecus afarensis – Lucy’s bipedal, ape-faced species. Then they disappeared, climate change desiccated Africa, and Homo made its debut. But until recently, the oldest known Homo specimen was 2.35 million years old, leaving a gap 700,000 years wide.

Reed wants to know if climate change caused Lucy’s species to die off, or if they slowly evolved into Homo. And why? To find out, she studies not only hominid fossils but ancient animal communities, climactic patterns and ecology – the engines of evolution. “I have a working hypothesis,” Reed says, “that at that time you have some populations of Lucy’s species that start focusing on eating underground roots and tubers, so they get these big jaws. And another population starts scavenging meat, and that lineage becomes Homo.”

Human Family Tree

Each time Reed directs an expedition, she employs her managerial acumen. She maps out the team’s scientific goals, applies for research permits and funding grants, rounds up the equipment, and coordinates around 20 scientists’ schedules. “It’s like herding cats to get all of these people there,” she says. Then she requests permission from a hierarchical series of Afar and Highlander leaders, plus hires, trains and pays tribal workers.

When something goes wrong, she smoothes it over. Like the time scientists were stranded in a stalled vehicle while the enemy Issa clan closed in, and she had to procure a mechanic and rescue them. Or the night their camp was awakened by a roaring lion, and Reed assured the students it was at least five miles away. “I had no idea how far away it was,” she recalls. “I just picked that number.”

She also directs the fossil hunts. Like the time in 2013 when ASU graduate student Chalachew Seyoum discovered the 2.8-million-year-old Homo mandible in Ethiopia. The Ethiopia-born student called out to Reed, “We found one!” And they celebrated with a hug that, for Reed, was 11 years in the making.

It took two more years of fossil analysis before the find’s significance shook the scientific sphere: The human genus is 400,000 years older than previously thought.

Many mysteries remain. Did the bone belong to early toolmaker Homo habilis or a new species? Did this creature hunt? Scavenge? How did it evolve? Reed will dig into these questions on subsequent expeditions. “And then,” she says, “ I’m going to retire and knit.”