Ellen Miller examines non-human primate skulls with recent graduate Kathryn Nesbit ('08) and Crystal Williams ('10) in her campus lab.
See where Miller fossil hunts when she's not in the classroom »
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Ellen Miller is a physical anthropologist specializing in paleoanthropology. She has received funding from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation for her research work on Old World monkeys. She has camps in Egypt and Kenya where she researches primate and human evolution. Miller joined the faculty in 2000 and teaches classes on human biological diversity, biological anthropology, human evolution and human osteology.
What do fossils tell us?
By examining the fossil record, anthropologists interpret the course of primate and human evolution. Fossils are the remains of extinct animals, and so the anatomy of these animals, along with information about their age and where they are found, form the basis of our data. Information from fossils is the only way to guarantee we are getting the story right.
How is your research helping the story of evolution unfold?
The problem I am currently working on, the origin of the Old World monkeys, is very cool because these fossil monkeys turn out to be perfect morphological intermediates between a more generalized primate ancestor and more modern forms. If paleoanthropology ever wanted a missing link these monkeys are it.
Can we know how the Old World monkeys developed?
We can know not only that, we can also document the actual order in which specific features evolved and others were lost. This is important because fossil monkeys, fossil apes and fossil humans all faced similar problems of being tropically adapted, at least semi-terrestrial, and highly social primates. Study of our non-human relatives informs our understanding of human evolution because it shows us the paths that our relatives took but which we did not.
Where do you conduct your field research?
I have mostly been working in Egypt. My site there has one of the world's oldest fossil monkeys. In terms of its morphology, it is the most primitive monkey known anywhere in the world, so it is a very early relative of ours. The monkeys and apes at the site in Kenya are not quite as primitive as the ones in Egypt, but the work is similar.
Can students accompany you in the field?
My sites are way out in remote desert areas and are very rough. So far I have only been able to take one student at a time because of limited room in vehicles. We also have to bring all of our own water, food and supplies, so space is always an issue. One student who did work with us in Egypt on a Wake Forest Research Fellowship was Courtney Nichols ('07). Her contribution to the project was so significant that she and I and our Egyptian colleagues were co-authors on a presentation at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings in Ottawa, Canada.
Might there someday be a way for more students to contribute to your research?
Absolutely. The work in Kenya is really now getting off the ground. The Leakey family has recently built a new research field station in northern Kenya with an airstrip, fresh water, a fossil preparation lab, storage, a car mechanic, and dormitories to accommodate researchers and students, and the place is wireless. I still have a number of logistical problems to solve because the field station is a half-day's drive from my dig site. But, I hope to develop this site and be able to take more students with me to Kenya than I can to Egypt.
How does anthropology address contemporary issues of concern to students?
I teach a seminar for first-year students that explores human biological diversity. We cover topics relevant to living with others in a modern global community, such as human adaptation to extreme conditions (e.g., high altitude, low sunlight), aspects of race, sex and gender, the perils of sociobiology, and the nature of human equality. Many people have the idea that the categories we recognize are somehow real, that is, real in the sense that they are rooted in our biology rather than our culture. In class, we look at these issues very carefully through readings and in class discussions, and we try to take a fresh look at some of our old ideas.
What is the importance of the service-learning component of the seminar?
Students are required to do their service learning with people unlike themselves, either by gender, age, socio-economic level or ethnicity. They are required to keep a journal that relates their experiences in the community to topics we discuss in class. A student might do service learning in a nursing home, a school for children with special needs or a homeless shelter. The key is to stretch their comfort level in order for them to understand that many of the lines between rich, poor, male, female, black and white are arbitrarily drawn.
Your human osteology class offers another modern application of anthropology.
The great thing about the human osteology class is it teaches a skill set. At the end of 16 weeks, from just a small fragment of bone, students can identify which bone it is, the age of the individual, whether the bone is from a male or female, and if there have been any injuries. Students also learn to draw conclusions about what life was like for the individual they are studying, including the quality of that person's nutrition, as well as inferences about their socio-economic status and sometimes their occupation. We dispel a lot of myths in this class. Although by the end of the course we have a lot of up-and-coming forensic scientists, they learn that, unlike on TV, there are no blue lights that reveal the answers. Instead, answers come from detailed work.
What do you most want students to take from your classes?
My courses tend to address questions about why we humans are the way we are, and how we came to be that way. If there is a single 'take home' message it is that understanding these things about ourselves is important because it affects our interpretations of our place in the world, and most importantly it impacts how we treat each other. Humans are a very recent species, and there is very little genetic difference among us. There are real biological differences among people, but they are mostly superficial. Any two fruit flies or any two penguins are more diverse than any two people.
— Kim McGrath
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