Anthropology Magazine

5 Questions for Anna Goldfield

In this upcoming free live event, anthropologist and science communicator, Dr. Anna Goldfield answers five questions about new ideas and research in anthropology, Neanderthals, and how anthropologists engage with the materials and people they study.

In this live event, Yoli Ngandali, SAPIENS Media & Public Outreach Fellow, asks Anna Goldfield five questions about human evolutionary biology and Neanderthals. Anna Goldfield holds a Ph.D. from Boston University and specializes in analyzing faunal remains from archaeological sites, with particular emphasis on the diets of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. In this live Q&A, Goldfield shares thought-provoking data about our ancient relatives and humanity’s ever-expanding family tree.

Read a transcript of the CART captioning by Joshua Edwards

>> Yoli Ngandali: Hello and welcome, everybody. Come on in. We are just going to wait a few moments and allow everybody to join us. Come on in. Hello, welcome. We are just going to wait a few moments and allow everybody to join us.

>> Anna Goldfield: Oh, my mom is here. Hi, Mom!

>> Yoli Ngandali: Before we get started, I want to encourage you to click the link in our chat to join our SAPIENS newsletter. This newsletter can keep you up to date with upcoming SAPIENS events and delivers news stories about humans and our world every Friday.

All right. Let’s get started. So hello. Welcome. My name is Yoli Ngandali. I am a media and public outreach fellow for SAPIENS. I’m here live with Dr. Anna Goldfield, archeologist and science communicator and received a Ph.D. from Boston University and specializes in analyzing faunal remains from archeology sites with emphasis on the diets of Neanderthals.

Anna is a cohost of a weekly pot cast called the Dirt and our shared human past.

Anna is also a columnist for SAPIENS and writes about human evolutionary biology, Neanderthals and more. We are happy to have Anna here. Thank you so much for being here.

>> Anna Goldfield: Thank you so much for having me.

>> Yoli Ngandali: If you have any questions for Anna, add them using the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen. And we will answer them at the end. So let’s get started. My first question for you, Anna, is actually a three‑partner. So Neanderthals are one of our closest ancient relatives and they have become something of a celebrity.

What do you think makes them so fascinating? How are we anatomically modern humans different in our biology and behaviors from Neanderthals? And how are we similar?

>> Anna Goldfield: Okay. So go in order. I think one of the things that have made Neanderthals just really kind of a hot button topic, a celebrity is over the past few decades, it’s been really rehabilitated because of research that’s been coming out steadily and sort of reexamination of the archeological record of Neanderthals.

So they have gone through this Renaissance from hairy cave‑dwelling dumb, dumbs, to actual humans who were very much like us but not us. And we are learning more and more about the technological capabilities, their social organization, and just sort of more and more nuance about their lived experience.

And the other thing that I think it’s why Neanderthals are so fascinating to the public is that it’s tied in with this. It’s that conceptually we are used to being the only human species on the planet, as far as people tend to think about the past, it’s humans. And that’s it.

But the idea that there were once other humans that were like us, but not us is really fascinating to think about because it makes us think about questions like what was it like to be a Neanderthal? Did it feel like being a human? Or what would it have been like for the two groups to meet?

And in looking at that, we sort of start to have to wrestle with the idea of what is it to be human? Because we think about ourselves like we sort of define what we are by determining what we are not. And so with Neanderthals, it’s kind of a different flavor of human. And that comparison becomes so much more complicated and interesting.

Because it’s sort of, like, well, we have language. Did they have language? We have close‑knit family and larger social groups. Was that how they lived? We have these aspects of our physiology and our biology. What was that like? And so that brings me to the differences in biology, right.

So biologically, it’s really a matter of scale. If you zoom out and kind of you took a Neanderthal and you took a human, put them side by side, they would both be recognizably human, just two types that clearly took a slightly divergent evolutionary pathway.

So for Neanderthals, there are a lot of, if you sort of zoom in, then, to Neanderthals, there are a lot of kind of individual differences that put all together seem pretty different. But then again when you zoom out again, it’s sort of like oh, you know, a bit of a different human.

So for example, their body shape would have been different than us. So humans when I saw humans here, I mean homo sapiens, we tend to be more docile. I don’t want to say delicate. But when it comes to Neanderthals, they were more robust. Bones were denser and thicker. They were beefy. They would probably have been a little bit shorter in stature than the average human.

And heights differ between males and females, but that difference, you know, is accordingly between humans and Neanderthals. And there’s lots of differences in the head. So, like, the really big place where there’s a difference for Neanderthals is kind of in the organization of the cranium.

So the cranium is the part of the brain ‑‑ sorry, the part of the skull that holds the brain. And so we have, human faces, so that’s very helpful for demonstrating. Your face everyone watching is kind of nicely tucked under your forehead. There’s a relatively straight line down from your forehead to your chin.

That’s not the case for Neanderthals. They had a very low forehead. They had these big brow ridges. So under, it’s actually bone. It doesn’t have anything to do with the eyebrows, but under where the eyebrows were, there was this big ridge of bone. And the front of the face, if you can imagine a face made out of clay or some other pliable material.

If I reached in and grabbed the nose in the top of the mouth and pulled forward a little bit, that’s sort of what Neanderthals have going on facially. And so they don’t have much of a chin. So we have something called a mandibular eminence, it’s bony. Neanderthals don’t have that. They have a receding chin.

And their face is pulled forward a little bit. So they would have some space behind their molars that we don’t have. And the biggest thing is the back of the cranium. Neanderthals have this really big kind of football‑shaped really on rugby‑shaped back of the head. So their brain would have been organized a little bit differently.

They would have had less going on in the frontal cortex in terms of actual brain matter, but a lot going on in the back occipital. But what that actually means for cognition and actually how their brain was organized, we don’t really know because synapses can connect in all different ways.

And we don’t have any living Neanderthals to talk to. So it’s very difficult to get at that. And then your final question was about behavior.

>> Yoli Ngandali: Right, yeah.

>> Anna Goldfield: From biology to behavior. And so differences between Neanderthals and humans in terms of behavior is getting more and more interesting and complicated to parse out as we learn more and more from the archeological record.

So broadly, I’m speaking really, really, I’m generalizing hugely here, but homo sapiens developing in Africa and at the same time that Neanderthals are doing Neanderthal stuff in Europe, there’s more and more evidence for humans doing things that were slightly more intensive versions of what Neanderthals were doing.

But what we see in Europe is Neanderthals are using nonstone technology, so they weren’t just out there banging two rocks together. They were using bone. They were likely using wood. We know that they made composite tools out of multiple parts. So they had material that could be used as an adhesive and they would bind things together to use as tools with handles, things like that.

There is very, very little, so take this with a grain of salt. But they may have used fiber and string. And there is evidence for art and symbolic behavior at multiple sites. So there’s a site in France called Brunakel (phonetically) cave where Neanderthals built a circle out of stone stalagmites. Idea why they did it. They snapped off stalagmites and put them in circles.

There’s some evidence for Neanderthal painting. Maybe, in Spain. And there’s evidence for personal orientation, so shelves or bone or tooth pendants, raptor talons, not dinosaur raptor, but bird of prey raptor. That would be a whole ‘nother problem!


>> Anna Goldfield: But, so in Africa and in Europe, both populations of human, of Neanderthal and homo sapiens, were doing interesting things. It seems like Neanderthals might have been doing this more intensively. Humans may have been making more complex tools.

There’s some evidence that homo sapiens may have been using bow and arrow technology which is not something you see in the Neanderthal record. Now, that doesn’t mean that Neanderthals couldn’t or wouldn’t do that. It just means that we don’t have the evidence, right. And so there are lots and lots of factors involved in why people do the things that they do.

And largely it’s chalked up to environment and resources and need. And so both of these populations were doing things that fit their needs in different ways. And they took their own biological and behavioral pathways. But ended up remarkably similar.

>> Yoli Ngandali: Thank you so much for that. That was really interesting, especially how you were talking about being able to zoom out a little bit and understand that we really do have a lot of the same, you know, behaviors in everything like that.

I just cannot even imagine living on the same landscape with another type of human. I feel like that is ‑‑

>> Anna Goldfield: I know.

>> Yoli Ngandali: ‑‑ an interesting idea and thought experiment.

>> Anna Goldfield: I can’t think about it too much without kind of freaking out. So I try not to.

>> Yoli Ngandali: I am going to move onto question number 2. Your research addresses questions about the diets of Neanderthals and other paleolithic humans. So how do ancient animal bones help you figure out Neanderthal hunting and food processing behaviors?

>> Anna Goldfield: Okay. So I’m so excited for this question. So there are lots and lots of things a surprising number of things you can learn from archeological. So first of all, what animal is it from? And sometimes a lot of the answer is I don’t know because a lot of times the preservation of bone when you are going back 30, 40, 70, a hundred thousand years into the past, the preservation of an organic material like bone depends on the environment.

And I will get to this, but processing that bone often involves smashing it into little tiny pieces which is not helpful when you are trying to tell what animal it came from and you are going from a little piece of bone that sort of looks like a wood chip.

Under the best circumstances, the bone can tell you what animal it’s from, what part of the body it’s from. You can determine whether there are marks on the bone from stone tools or from teeth. And you can look and see whose teeth are makes those marks, is it human? Is it hyena? You can get some data on how old the animal was, if you find the right types of bone.

You can determine whether the bones were burned, and then you get some sense of maybe they were using fire to cook their food. You can look at what parts of the bone are present. So I will go back and I will kind of elaborate on each of those.

So figuring out what animal a bone is from, that is really the first step toward understanding how different groups of humans were using the resources in the landscape. And so you have to be aware depending on where in the world you’re working of the types of animals that would have lived in that ecosystem at a given time.

So generally someone who is a faunal analyst when they are joining a project, needs to first familiarize themselves with sort of accounts of the paleo environment. So to figure out what types of animals would have been there? Are they seasonally moving animals? Is there a lot of variation in animal size or was it mostly middle‑sized herd animals?

When you get a little more specific and you look at what parts of the body you are looking at, that is telling you decision‑making on the part of the hunters. Because let’s go with the assumption that bones that are accumulating at an archeological site are the result of human activity. They may or my not be, but you can determine that.

So if you are seeing, for example, a lot of skulls and vertebral bones, so neck and spinal bones and ribs, along with leg bones and hip bones and things like that, it’s much more likely that animals were being killed relatively close to a home site and being brought back to that site.

If on the other hand you see not so many skulls and vertebral bones and you see a much higher proportion of legs and sort of the really meaty parts of an animal, then you can make the assumption that animals were being killed a little bit farther away, and since things have to be transported and there’s no cars or beasts of burden except people, and so you’re bringing back the parts that are most nutritionally valuable to you or most valuable for whatever purpose.

Like if you are going out hunting for the purpose of getting hides, a lot of this is lumped together. So you get a sense of what people were bringing back home to feed themselves or clothe themselves or use whatever resources were available.

The marks on the bone can tell you how the animals were being butchered. If the bones r really broken, especially the long bones, so those are the loans on us it would be our arms and leg bones, so the limb bones of the animal, that’s where bone marrow is. And if those bones are broken open and in lots and lots of pieces, it’s very likely that that was part of the butchering and the processing to get at that marrow which is pure fat, very delicious, I mean, if you are into that kind of thing, really, really, like, full of calories which if you are sort of living on a day‑to‑day hunting to feed yourself basis, that’s really nutritionally valuable. If you get limb bones of an animal and they are not too broken into pieces, you can get a sense of how old the animal was at the time of death.

Because there are parts of the bone when an animal is born, those parts of the bone are not connected. The very end of limb bones, they are called epiphysis, they are not connected at the time of birth. As the animal grows, they gradually fuse. At a certain point in the animal’s development, everything is fused together.

If you see bones that are missing those little ends, then you know because you know at what age generally in that particular animal’s life those bones tend to fuse. So you can say oh, this deer was killed before it was X number of years old. You can get that kind of idea.

And then lastly, if there is let’s say that the bones are really, really broken up, there’s the mid‑part of the bone, the shaft of the bone is really broken. So you can tell that they were trying to get at the marrow. The ends of the bone also have lots of really, really nutritious available fat. But it’s not just kind of hanging out in the middle like it is with the marrow.

It’s all bound up in a spongy bony tissue. And so to get at that what you either need to do is chew it, gnaw at it and just chomp your way through it, or you can smash it to pieces and make a paste and consume that. So if you are finding a lot of middle parts of bone but not a lot of end parts of bone, you can make the assumption that these bones were being really heavily processed.

The marrow for all the available fat, obviously for the meat, and so you can get the sense that this might have been a period of nutritional stress because these animals were being processed so that every last piece of, you know, available nutrition can be drained out of them. And so you can get a sense of what life was like in terms of nutritional abundance or stress or sort of how successful, mmm, successful is a relative term.

But how easy or difficult it would have been to live in a particular environment at a particular time. There are so many things that bones can tell you. I get very excited about bones.


>> Yoli Ngandali: That was really interesting. Yeah. I feel like context matters in all of these situations.

>> Anna Goldfield: Always.

>> Yoli Ngandali: In your SAPIENS columns, one theme is the mapping of modern and human Neanderthal genomes. So how does Neanderthal DNA help us understand our complex human story?

>> Anna Goldfield: So there’s really two kind of opposing ways that DNA can tell us things about our story as it intertwines with Neanderthal. And one, it can keep us see the divergens from Neanderthals from our evolutionary pathways from our shared ancestor, whoever that was.

It was still unclear who it was the last common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals. We know it was some species that was around about six hundred thousand years ago, in that neighborhood. And for a long time it was thought to be (term). But that is seeming less likely and it’s actually probably somebody else. That’s interesting, exciting.

So we can compare our DNA to that of the Neanderthal genome and we can see how much we overlap and where we differ. And so we can see where evolution took place after the split in both directions.

But then kind of conversely, it can help us to see the points where after that split it was intermingled again because we have evidence of interbreeding events which is a very clinical way to put that. But these populations I think a lot of the time people think of the deep, deep past as very sort of static, almost like a series of museum dioramas. Here are the Neanderthals over in this corner of the world.

And here humans are being humans over here. But actually once humans kind of made their way out of Africa and started bopping around Europe and these environments, these populations were moving around the landscape. They were coming across one another. They were interacting. And clearly from our DNA evidence we can tell that at certain points throughout that period of bopping around, they got to know each other very well. And so portions of the existing human population do now have some Neanderthal DNA. There’s also other DNA kicking around our population and we know that they and Neanderthals had instances of interbreeding. So it was just kind of a party in the paleolithic of different groups mixing and meeting.

And so we can also get a sense of exactly which genes were interchanged between homo sapiens and Neanderthals. And there are some that I just to bust a myth, if you are a homo sapiens with red hair, that did not come from Neanderthals. I know a lot of people are, like, oh, I must be four percent Neanderthal. I have red hair and my mom has red hair.

No. It is my understanding that the gene for variation in hair color in humans happened independently. Although Neanderthals are known to have had a lot of red hair. So there are ways we can see that Neanderthal, what sort of, so genes express as physical traits, right. So in the traits that have made their way from the Neanderthal genome to us, we can see how they express in homo sapiens.

And we can get a sense of maybe how they would have expressed in Neanderthal populations as well. As long as our biology and physiology is so similar, but maybe there are some differences. It’s really hard to say and that is fascinating. And I think really genetic DNA and genetics and the ability to reconstruct pieces of the genome to see what that would have meant, I think that’s going to be a huge part of what comes next in untangling the Neanderthal story.

>> Yoli Ngandali: Yes. Definitely. I’m really interested to kind of know a little bit more about how you tie in the DNA to the archeological context of that or, like, to actually get those dates. Do you have any information on that?

>> Anna Goldfield: Do you mean where the samples come from?

>> Yoli Ngandali: Yeah. So where the samples come from, how do we actually tie in the Neanderthal DNA into actually get a specific date?

>> Anna Goldfield: Okay. So the date is largely again context is everything. So the date is totally dependent on where the DNA sample was taken, where it comes from and the things around it that can also be dated using other methods. Like carbon dating or other radio metric dating methods, things like that.

There’s two, and I’m not a geneticist, but there are two main ways that genetic information can be taken from Neanderthal remains. And so DNA extraction is possible if the preservation is good enough. DNA is an organic, it degrades with time. And so if you get sort of a late‑stage Neanderthal, so Neanderthals were around from about three hundred thousand years ago to very, very, the earliest sort of Neanderthals, to between 40 and 35 thousand years ago is the most recent kind of dates in that, I believe. And so that’s a huge amount of time. And there are a lot of populations moving around and kind of changing subtly over that time. But the more likely to be able to find viable DNA from the later end of that, because that’s younger.

So there’s DNA that’s preserved. And then that can be extracted, sequenced, the same way exactly that you would do for the human genome. And so if that happens, then the sample that has DNA taken from it needs to be from a solid dateable context. If it’s not, then you can’t really associate it with a particular time unless you can also carbon date the bone.

>> Yoli Ngandali: Okay.

>> Anna Goldfield: Carbon dating is only accurate to about fifty thousand years ago. That’s the threshold when it starts to get wobbly and it’s not accurate. Yes, and the other way to success DNA information is where chains of proteins are extracted instead of DNA. But since DNA codes for proteins, it can be sort of retroactively constructed.

So you can take the sequence of proteins and figure out the string of DNA code that would correspond to those particular proteins. And you can kind of reverse engineer the DNA from that. But that’s much less likely to be dated. So you have to be able to date it using some other technology, yeah.

>> Yoli Ngandali: They all kind of work in accordance with each other.

>> Anna Goldfield: Yeah, it’s many, many methods that all contribute to sort of a combined story, right. So it’s, like, you have multiple sources of information that all give you pieces of the puzzle. And you are just trying to put them all together in a way that answers your questions.

>> Yoli Ngandali: Right, right. Thank you so much. We are going to move onto question number 4. What is your own story? What are a few important things that we should know about you and how you approach your work as an archeologist and science communicator?

>> Anna Goldfield: Well, as you mentioned I got my Ph.D. in archeological from Boston University. And then pretty much right after I graduated, I realized I didn’t really want a career in academia. I think that a lot of, especially graduate students, but maybe also undergraduate students have an idea that going through graduate school means you are being introduced and fed into two possible pipe lines, as a researcher or as professor or some combination of those. And it took me a while to realize that that’s really not what I wanted to do. And it was actually writing for SAPIENS that kind of first pushed me in that direction. I first started writing for SAPIENS. I answered a call for, an application to be a writer at SAPIENS in 2017.

Practice and so working with that team of editors and kind of finding a voice to write for the public, all of the sudden I realized that not only is this something that I have an aptitude for, but I really like doing it. And it really makes sense to me. It feels like I’m filling a need to bridge the gap between the academic world and then the public.

And so, so both as an archeologist, as an archeologist, I find myself often very frustrated with the way that archeology is written about by academics and journalistically. Because often academics write for experts within their own field. And there isn’t necessarily an exchange with journalists so that even if the journalist is a good writer, sometimes they miss the mark or there’s an interpretation that isn’t necessarily what the researcher would have wanted to come out of that research.

And so as an archeologist, I want to kind of facilitate, I want to make research accessible to people who want to write about science and archeology and anthropology for the public. And as a science communicator, I have two goals. I want to expand the perception of what archeology can be, how much studying the past can bring to the present.

And then the other direction, I want to kind of work against the idea of gatekeeping of sort of the academics are the ones with all the information and what science doesn’t want you to know, which is kind of a ridiculous thing. If you have ever met a scientist, they will not shut up about their science. The way they won’t shut up about their science isn’t necessarily written or expressed in a way that’s engaging for the public.

So my goal is to not only help scientists talk about their stuff, but also to counter public mistrust of science by making it accessible and humanizing it and making it friendly and exciting. And so my approach to that is looking at the world with curiosity and joy and empathy and humor especially if it’s appropriate, and conveying that in the presentation of science to the public.

These are all infectious emotions. They are really what grabs a reader, that and a story. So one of the key skills that I’ve developed, and something I’m still working on, but one of the key skills that I have accumulated in large part thanks to the editorial team at SAPIENS is the ability to take pieces from lots of different fields, from lots of different sources, and pull them together into a story that would pull someone along and make them care about whatever it is that I’m writing about.

And if you’ve made someone laugh or feel strong emotion, they are more likely to remember what you have told them. And so being able to not only crystalize a lot of complex topics and a lot of sort of often very dense academic stuff into that kind of story line is really difficult. But it’s really, really rewarding.

And I think that that’s more of that is what’s needed. And that’s sort of what I’m going to do is just more of that, in every possible medium I can. And so one of the things that I advocate really strongly for towards that goal is collaboration.

For one thing, because it means that you don’t have to do every single thing, and something that might not be in your wheelhouse may definitely be in someone else’s wheelhouse. And my collaborating, you are doing a much better job than you would have been able to do on your own, but also being able to platform.

So scholars from all career stages and all backgrounds, people who are creating content, being able to amplify someone’s voice is really valuable, especially when they really know what they are talking about and I don’t. My ability to kind of construct the story around what they have to teach is what I can bring to that. And so being able to find a voice, find a scientific writing voice, but also hear and amplify and incorporate others’ voices is, I think, one of the best skills sets that’s needed for bridging that gap between the world of science and the world of just everyday experience. I really had to learn how to write an academic. There was a steep learning curve.

>> Yoli Ngandali: Well, we are so grateful to have you here at SAPIENS, because your columns are always such a highlight for our ‑‑

>> Anna Goldfield: Thank you.

>> Yoli Ngandali: ‑‑ for our publication. We are getting really close to the end of time here. But I did want to ask one question from the audience real quick from Steven R. How accurate or not is the clan of the cave bearer? Do you know that one?

>> Anna Goldfield: So I’ve never read it. I haven’t read clan of the cave bearer. But I have it on very, very good authority from lots of other anthropologists that really, the author (name) did a really good job at least with the amount of information that she was working with in the ’70s. It was written in the ’70s?

Of kind of recapturing what it would have been like for these two groups, Neanderthals and humans, to interact. As for, you know, accurate depictions of Neanderthal anatomy or hunting behavior or things like that, again, I haven’t read it. I guess I’m a terrible anthropologist because I just never got around to reading it.

Every time I tell someone I get the same reaction as when I told someone a couple of years ago that I had never seen Jurassic Park. And I immediately was told to watch. I know, yeah, it was that face! I was immediately forced to watch Jurassic Park. It was great. I loved it. So I should probably sit down and read clan of the cave bearer.

But I think for what it was, it’s an excellent fictional exploration of that time and those groups and sort of a really wonderful entry into that world. I’m sort of afraid to read it because I’m wondering if I will sit and critique it and be, like, well, that didn’t happen. So I’m a little worried.

>> Yoli Ngandali: A lot to say about that.

>> Anna Goldfield: Check back with me in three months.

>> Yoli Ngandali: Thank you so much. We are almost out of time here. If this has piqued your interest, go ahead and read many of Anna’s columns at The link was put in the chat there and go ahead and subscribe to the Dirt podcast. It is available on all major podcasting platforms and at the Dirt

So that is it for today. Thank you so much for being here with us, Anna.

>> Anna Goldfield: Thank you. And thank you, everybody for tuning in. This was awesome.

>> Yoli Ngandali: People, look out next month and we will have another five questions event. Thanks, and have a wonderful day.

>> Anna Goldfield: Bye, everybody!

This text is provided in rough draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings.


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We’re glad you enjoyed the article! Want to republish it?

This article is currently copyrighted to SAPIENS and the author. But, we love to spread anthropology around the internet and beyond. Please send your republication request via email to editor•

Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.

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