NSF 'Indiana Jones' Report Features CU-Boulder Anthropologist

Published: May 22, 2008

The National Science Foundation is featuring a University of Colorado at Boulder faculty member in connection with the latest Indiana Jones movie to illustrate where the real world of archaeology intersects with the "reel" world.

Anthropology Associate Professor Matt Sponheimer is one of six researchers selected by the NSF to show how their work differs and sometimes even intersects with the work of big-screen archaeologists like Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones series. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" opened worldwide today.

Sponheimer studies early human ancestors in Africa that lived more than a million years ago, finding clues to their travels and diets through detailed studies of their teeth. His work is featured in a special report on NSF's Web site.

While few believe the fictional Indiana Jones resembles real scientists, archaeologists concede that parallels do exist with their work, including facing some of the challenges familiar to fans of the films, Sponheimer told the NSF. "I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would be doing this," he said. "We have to travel constantly, occasionally deal with disease and poisonous snakes, and people shooting at you from time to time."

Sponheimer and colleagues have been using analyses of plant chemicals absorbed by ancient hominid teeth to infer where early human ancestors ranged when they were young and where they eventually died. The evidence, which indicates most, but not all, of the hominids spent their early lives in the same geological area in which they died, provides a pioneering look at land use and movement patterns of early human ancestors.

"Such studies are important for understanding the path of human evolution, and may help us answer unresolved questions such as how we became bipedal," Sponheimer said.

Other studies by Sponheimer have shown that Paranthropus robustus, an ancient four-foot-tall, upright hominid from South Africa once thought to be a "chewing machine" specializing in tough, low-quality vegetation, instead had a diverse diet ranging from fruits and nuts to sedges, grasses, seeds and perhaps even animals. The findings cast doubt on the idea that its extinction more than 1 million years ago was linked to its diet, he concluded.

The new NSF special report features tales of the scientific work being done by NSF-funded archaeologists working as far afield as Africa, the Aleutians, Egypt, China Mexico and the United States. The NSF special report is located on the Web at www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/archaeology/index.jsp. For more information on Sponheimer visit www.colorado.edu/Anthropology/sponheimer/.