Zeresenay Alemseged conducting a survey at Dikika

Five questions with Dr. Zeray Alemseged, Academy Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology.

What motivates you every day?

The process of scientific discovery is inherently exciting. The accomplishments that punctuate years of hard work may seem more thrilling, but in actuality, it’s the process of getting there that really drives me. Interacting with Academy visitors is another source of inspiration. The questions they ask are so different from the questions scientists ask each other; it challenges me to look at things in new ways.

How do you split your time between San Francisco and Ethiopia?

In a given year, I spend two months looking for new fossils in the field, most often in Ethiopia. I also spend about two months working with the collections at other museums. For instance, I recently returned from a month-long visit to Ethiopia’s National Museum, where I and my colleagues collected enamel powder from the teeth of 100 human ancestor fossils representing three distinct species and a time span of four million years. The goal is to analyze their isotopic signals for evidence of how and when these species’ diets and habitats changed, building upon some recent research I did on early human diets.

In San Francisco (where I spend the other eight months of the year), my time is spent writing papers and proposals, reading, attending, and presenting at conferences, training graduate students, doing public outreach, and collaborating on Academy exhibits like Human Odyssey.

What are the conditions like when conducting field work in Ethiopia?

We aim to visit the Afar region of Ethiopia during cooler times of the year, but temperatures in the desert are still at least 100 degrees. The work is physically demanding, and it can be a challenge to think like a scientist in that kind of heat. Paleoanthropology is a field in which you must be willing to wear many different “hats”—driver, cook, diplomat, road builder, and of course, scientist. For instance, we built the first and only road into the Dikika site in order to begin working there in 1999. Today, that road is used to deliver polio vaccines to the local population, which I’m very proud of.

What are some of your favorite items in the Academy’s anthropology collections?

There are two types of specimens in anthropology collections around the world: archaeological artifacts, which provide a window into ancient civilizations, and ethnographic artifacts that document historical cultures from more recent times. At the Academy, our collection’s strengths are ethnographic holdings from the U.S. Southwest and the Pacific islands, and basketry from California. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite, but when I walk through those rooms full of baskets, pottery, textiles, and other creations, I can’t help but see them as an extension in time of the primitive tools that our ancestors used millions of years ago.

“Selam” is of course a favorite specimen, and we have a beautiful cast of her (and many other notable fossils) at the Academy. But as is the case with all fossils, the original remains in the country in which it was found, which in this case is Ethiopia.

How is the development of early human ancestors relevant to life today?

When people look at each other, they tend to focus on differences—in hair, skin, shape, culture, and so on—but in reality, 99.7 percent of our genes are identical. Understanding more about our species’ evolutionary history can make us think differently about how we are all related.

Humans are also part of a larger community of plant and animal species that are connected, not just through food chains and proximity, but through time. It’s a community much bigger than the neighborhoods, states, and countries that we tend to identify with. Studying our ancestors allows us to reflect upon who we are today, how we got here, and how we relate to our non-human relatives. When you feel that you belong to a community, you have a stake in sustaining and protecting that community, which is fundamentally in all of our best interest. The Academy is heavily invested in this endeavor.

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More About Dr. Zeray Alemseged

Academy Research Associate
Department: Anthropology 
Expeditions: 40
Current Expedition: Afar Depression, Ethiopia

Profile Videos:
The “Most Curious” Species
Dikika: Remote, Hostile, and Hot
Evolution of Diet
Our Role in Biodiversity

Related Websites:
Dikika Research Project 

Related Content: 
Human Tool Use, Science Today
What Makes Us Human?PBS
Becoming HumanPBS
African VoicesCNN
The Search for Humanity's RootsTED Talk


Dr. Alemseged on IBSS

Learn more about Dr. Alemseged's research, publications, and current projects by visiting the research side of our website, home to the Academy's Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability. 

Anthropology at the Academy

The Academy's Department of Anthropology focuses on the study of human evolution and cultural diversity. Meet the researchers, explore projects and expeditions, and more.