Terhune Discusses Research at Famous Fossil Site in Romania

Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas, highlights research and scholarly work across campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work.

Matt McGowan: Hello and welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan. Today we are talking to Claire Terhune, assistant professor of anthropology in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

Claire Terhune: Hello, thanks for having me.

Terhune making a microwear molding of teeth.

MM: I guess the first question I want to ask you is to talk a little bit about your field, generally. I recently re-learned, I guess, that anthropology, at least as practiced in U.S. colleges and universities, has four distinct fields; biological anthropology, cultural, linguistic anthropology and archeology, which all seem very different to me. You are a biological anthropologist. What does this mean and what do biological anthropologists do?

CT: That’s a great question. So, anthropology is I think one of the most important things we can think about as human beings. Anthropology simply means the study of humans, and it’s thinking a little bit about how we relate to one another both on a biological or cultural level. So cultural anthropologists study living people, linguistic anthropologists study languages, archaeologists study things that people have made, and then biological anthropologists like myself study bones or how we are related to one another or the shape of our heads or the shape of our limbs or why we look the way we do. Which I think is pretty cool because obviously we have a lot of variation in humans and we need to understand where that variation and diversity has come from in historic and prehistoric times and how we’re related to other animals, like primates, like chimpanzees, like other mammals. We have a lot of similarities and yet a lot of differences, which are kind of cool.

MM: Recently you and colleagues at two other universities, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Marquette University, received funding from the National Science Foundation to study… bear with me here, the temporomandibular joint. What is the temporomandibular joint? Why is it important and what will your study address?

CT: So, the temporomandibular joint or the easiest way to say that is just the TMJ; that’s your jaw joint. One of the big focuses of my research is understanding why the human skull looks the way it does. So why our heads look so different from other primates. And part of that is that we eat very different things, we chew very differently. So a lot of what I think about is stuff that we do daily, three times a day, typically and we use our jaw joint obviously when we talk as well. So we yawn and we have all sorts of behaviors that we don’t even think about that include our jaw. I like to think of the temporomandibular joint, the TMJ is the most important joint in the body. I’m not biased or anything on that front. But basically what I want to understand is how the joint is functioning in humans and how it compares to primates. So this research is combining a lot of different tracts of data. So the shape of the teeth for example is the component that my colleague at Johns Hopkins is looking at. And my colleague at Marquette University is looking at pathologies of the skull. So if you lose teeth before you die, for example, you might have some differences in how you chew. And then I’m looking at overall shape of the skull. So we’re trying to put all those pieces together where people haven’t put those pieces together before, trying to understand how the teeth and the joint and the overall skull are working together in both individuals who don’t have anything wrong with their jaw, but also individuals who do have things wrong, who do have problems with their teeth or their jaw and things like that. We’re hoping to apply this later on to human health, but right now we’re mostly looking across primates. Humans have… there’s some ridiculous number of percentage of humans that have problems with their TMJ. In your lifetime, probably, you might bite on something weirdly or grind your teeth at night, and you might experience some pain in your jaw. Most people will experience something like that, a lot of people also experience more severe symptoms and they’ll seek out medical help for that. And there are medical things that we can do, but it’s kind of an unclear illness. They’re not clear, not clear treatments for when people have problems with their jaw joint. So one of our questions is how often do primates have problems with their jaw joints, do we see the same level of issues in say a chimpanzee or a baboon that we see in humans, and can we look at the bone and figure that out? People will end up with osteoarthritis in their jaw joint and you can see changes in the bone for that.

MM: It’s fascinating how much we use this joint how popular it is in that sense and yet how much we don’t know about it.

CT: Exactly right. Like there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of shape variation in the joint and your joint might look very different from my joint and that might be related to the fact that that you’re a male and I’m a female, but it could also be related to how we’re eating different food items or just how differences in our skulls are manifesting in the joint. And so humans have a very different joint from other primates too, so it’s really interesting to look at the range of variation. One of the best parts about my job is that as part of this NSF I get to go to places like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Which is where I was a few weeks ago and just sit in rooms where I’m surrounded by a bunch of bones and a bunch of skulls and just do science. It’s really exciting.

MM: So for the past five summers you’ve spent significant time at the… let me see if I pronounce this correctly, the Emil Racovita Institute of Speleology in Bucharest, Romania, and you’ve taken several of your students there with you. Tell me about the work you’ve done at Emil Racovita.

CT: A large component of my research, in addition to the work that I’m doing looking at living primate skulls for Example, I look at fossil humans I try to understand how humans evolved, here we came from, how we migrated and dispersed across the globe, and my work in Romania really helps me get at that. I have several colleagues both in Romania and in the U.S. who I’ve been working with for a number of years on this, and the idea is that about 1.8 million years ago humans, probably something like Homo erectus, migrated out of Africa for the first time. Probably a little bit older than that but our best estimates put some around 1.8 million years ago. But humans don’t really get to Europe, so we have fossils in the Republic of Georgia, which is kind of Western Asia, and we have fossils in Spain by about 1.4 million years ago. So why did it take them so long to get through Europe and into to Spain, for example? And when they did do that, somewhere between that 1.8 to 1.4 million years ago, how did they get there and what were the environmental conditions like? Romania is kind of on that pathway, it’s kind of the gateway to Europe in a lot of ways and so we’ve been working in Romania as a way to try to understand migrations of humans, early humans into Europe. And the reason we worked there is that back in the 60s the, the research area that we’re particularly interested is called the Oltet Valley, Oltet River Valley. And back in the 1960s there were a number of larger scale excavations that were conducted in that research area in that River Valley, and they uncovered at the time what is still to this day the most fossiliferous site in Eastern Europe. So that means most fossils and so there’s somewhere around five thousand or so fossils from this fossil site. And they also have evidence this kind of big monkey that lived in the area at the time they suggested, “Hey we think we have some stone tools that humans might have left behind.” But over time people have questioned whether those are legit stone tools, whether they’re really left by humans, created by humans. But we have this excellent opportunity to go back to the site, go back to this research area and try to look for evidence of humans, try to validate whether those stone tools are real, try to find more fossil sites and analyze a lot of the fossils that were excavated back in the 60s because while there were some publications that came out describing some of those fossils, not a whole lot has been done with them for a while, and we’re really excited to get back in and use some modern techniques, looking at some some chemistry of the teeth, looking at like little tiny scratches on some of the teeth and various different techniques to try to understand what this this region was like 1.5, 1.8 maybe close to 2 million years ago.

MM: So scientists and paleoanthropologists such as yourself and archaeologist are looking at the Oltet River Valley. Tell me again what the name of the most important site there is.

CT: The name of that site is called Grăunceanu.

MM: At that site and others possibly, one thing that scientists are looking for is perhaps evidence of human life there or in some way or another through tools or through actual fossil remains. Why would that be important if you were to find them?

CT: So that’s a great question. So one you know it’s one thing to go look at the fossils that are from a site and just try to understand the environment which that is really important. What was the environment like at that time in Europe, what was the landscape like, what type of animals were there? For comparison at that time, in Europe we’re talking about a landscape that would have included saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas and woolly rhinos and mammoths and giraffe-like species and deer and horses that you would expect most the time but this is a very landscape than what you see in Eastern Europe today. So one it’s valuable to compare those but too looking for evidence of humans in that area could tell us about how they’re getting through into Europe, how are they interacting with other animals. Were there saber-tooth cats for example that they were having to compete with to access food? Because they’re all eating the same thing, and at sites in Africa, for example, you’ll actually see cut marks and animal tooth marks right on top of each other. And sometimes the humans got there first, sometimes the carnivores got there first, sometimes vice-versa. Sometimes we actually have evidence that humans are scavenging from carnivore kills. So our questions have to do with how are those animals interacting on the landscape? How are they moving through? Were they not able to even get into this area because they were out-competed by these other animals? It’s really exciting to think about what these hominids might have been like. Hominids just means ancient human, fossil human. So what would they have looked like, how would they have behaved? If we, I would I hope that we will find a skull at some point in time, for example, fossil human and and that would be really exciting because then we could try to understand what species is it? How does the skull look? How big were they? Some of these hominids, some of these humans the ones that first migrated out of Africa into the Republic of Georgia were really small; and so you’re talking about this little tiny human that doesn’t have a brain the size of ours. Probably behaved in some ways like us, but this little tiny human with some human behaviors on a landscape competing with saber-toothed cats competing with hyenas surrounded by mammoths. I can’t even imagine what that’s like and it’s exciting for me to think about.

MM: Thank you, Dr. Terhune for taking the time and talking with us today about your research. Really interesting, appreciate your time.

CT: Thank you so much. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m always interested to hear feedback and if people have questions, I think again one of the most important things we can do as scientists is to talk to the public about what we do, and share what we learn.

MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts go to kuaf.com or researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.


About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or dmcgowa@uark.edu.

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu

Robert Whitby
science and research writer
479-387-0720, whitby@uark.edu

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