David Begun is a paleoanthropologist who teaches at the University of Toronto.
What compelled the leap between being interested in paleoanthropology and thinking that you had something to contribute to the field? Well, that is an interesting question. I’m not sure I had such lofty ambitions. I just knew that I was interested and wanted to do work in that field. The idea that I could contribute or could advance the work being done — that came much much later on. That really wasn’t a motivation at the beginning. I knew something about paleoanthropology from a young age because I spent my childhood in southwestern France which is a rich area for paleoanthropologists. That’s the area where Cro-Magnon was from. There are lots and lots of caves there. It’s one of the famous sites of early humans like neandertals and cro-magnon man. It’s really the first area that was investigated for understanding human origins. It has a very rich history. My grandparents took me to the famous painted caves where there are paintings of bison and horses on the walls. So there was an interest early on. Later, I recognized that I enjoyed the undergraduate courses that I took in paleoanthropology. I actually went to a university that was renowned for it’s pre-med program. I was in a pre-med prep program. I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was sure I was going to become a physician. I took a course on the subject [of paleoanthropology] and a year later I changed universities because paleoanthropology wasn’t adequately represented at the first university I went to. So it was a passion of mine. I knew I was good at it and I worked well with the profs. I did some teaching. My main motivation was just wanting to do it. I went to my second university — the University of Pennsylvania — knowing that paleoanthropology was something that I wanted to do for my life’s work.
How do you know where to dig for stuff? I get asked that all the time. The first way is by digging where others have dug before and have found stuff. If we want to find new localities there are various methods — some are simple and some are complex. We can use geologic maps that show the age of the rocks. Those are made by geologists who are looking for ore or metals and precious minerals. They make these maps, but we can use them. These maps have been around in various forms since the 1840s. We focus on the ones that show rocks that are of the age we’re interested in. For example, I’m interested in the time period when apes and humans diverged, so I’m looking for outcrops that fall within that timeframe. That’s one way. Then there are also high-tech approaches we can use like satellite imaging. We use satellite imaging to see the surface and see what is very difficult to see on the ground. We can see where rocks are exposed. But we can also use satellite images to look below the surface. So there are a variety of methods.
Has studying human origins made you think differently about humanity? Probably it has. When I first started out I don’t think I thought too much about how humans fit into the grander scheme of theings. Maybe that was due to youth and inexperience. Today I certainly recognize how paleoanthropology contributes to our place in the natural world and that we have a place in the natural world. There’s nothing special about humans in terms of evolution. We have special capabilites, but we evolved like every other organism did. I have a pretty good sense of where we came from in an evolutionary point of view. I think it’s very important for everybody to understand that we evolved like other organisms did. That’s something I try to promote, especially when I speak to younger people. We’re like other organisms on the one hand, but on other hand we have such a huge capacity to alter the environment and it’s up to us to either save the world or destroy it. Those kinds of things didn’t occur to me when I was younger. But like I said, the fact I think about them now could be due to age and experience.
What was the last creative thing you did? The very last creative thing I did was this afternoon, when I was installing some base molding and I coped a joint.