Indiana State University Newsroom

Smithsonian scientist to speak on Feb. 17

February 13, 2017

The head of the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program will discuss paleoanthropology and environmental effects on human evolution during the first Wittman Speaker Series talk Feb. 17 at Indiana State University.

Richard Potts, who also holds the Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History and curates the Hall of Human Origins and the traveling exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, "Exploring Human Origins," has garnered attention for his ideas on how human evolution responded to environmental instability and the research it sparked in several scientific fields.

The speaker series is funded with a contribution from Laura and Jim Wittman, alumni of the department of earth and environmental systems who wanted to bring to campus guest lecturers focused on subjects such as archaeology, anthropology, liberal arts, current topics in science and student success.

"It's a great gift to us and helps us bring in some more prominent speakers," said Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology and coordinator for the Wittman Speaker Series. "Evolution and climate change are hot topics; we hope bringing Rick to campus will bring in an audience who wants to look at the evidence and discuss what we see as scientists."

A committee of four was tasked with selecting a speaker focused on anthropology and archaeology. Potts was recommended as a speaker by Russell Stafford, professor of anthropology.

"I know paleoanthropology is a big topic that draws people in because we want to know where we come from," Stafford said. "I heard Rick give a lecture a few years ago as part of a symposium about some of the work he's done in Africa, and I know that he's a good speaker."

It also helps that Potts and Jeffery Stone, assistant professor of environmental geosciences, are currently working on a $5 million National Science Foundation project (the Human Sites and Paleo-lakes Drilling Project). Potts is exploring lakes in the Kenya area, while Stone examines lakes around Northern Africa to study human origin and how climate variability may have enhanced or created problems for humans as they evolved.

"I work with microscopicalgae that are found in the lakes where early humans lived. They represent the environment that the lake was experiencing and we can use that to reconstruct the climate," Stone said. "My information feeds into models for what was going on in the lake environment, which responds to changes in the climate. How these changes might have affected humans is what comes out of Rick's association with this project. Rick has been really focused for a long time on how climate variability and stability might have influenced patterns in human development."

Potts has developed international collaborations among scientists interested in the ecological aspects of human evolution. He leads excavations at early human sites in the East African Rift Valley, including the famous hand axe site of Olorgesailie, Kenya, and Kanam near Lake Victoria, Kenya.

He also leads the team that recovered the first long sediment core drilled from an early human site in East Africa, and he has co-directed projects in southern and northern China that compare evidence of early human behavior and environments from East Africa to East Asia.

Potts joined the Smithsonian in 1985 and has focused his research to piecing together the record of Earth's environmental change and human adaptation.

His presentation will be at 4 p.m. room 012 of the Science Building. The event is sponsored by the Wittman Speaker Series and Indiana State's department of earth and environmental systems. It is free and open to the public.


Photo: - Richard Potts

Contact: Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology, department of earth and environmental systems, Indiana State University, Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or