Erik Trinkhous
Erik Trinkaus at the excavations of the Donggutuo Early Pleistocene archeological site in the Nihewan Basin, northern China, in June 2013

Early Humans, Collaboration, and Cave Bears

by John C. Willman

Erik Trinkaus, the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor in Arts & Sciences, is perhaps best known for his scholarly contributions concerning, as he puts it, “the much-maligned Neandertals.” Trinkaus is reflecting on the 20th-century images of Neandertals as bent-kneed, hairy brutes that have long held sway in the popular and scientific portrayals of our extinct relatives. While far from alone in his endeavors, Trinkaus’ studies of Neandertal biology and behavior have nonetheless been instrumental in recasting the Neandertals as a more sophisticated and behaviorally flexible group of archaic humans. Given his penchant for Neandertal research, it may come as a surprise to many that Trinkaus has now spent more than a decade and a half dedicated to the description of some of the most important fossils of early modern humans from Europe to China and, even more surprising, contributed to the study of prehistoric cave bears. Yes, gargantuan cave bears.

Trinkaus joined the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in 1997 after previous appointments at Harvard University and the University of New Mexico. He splits his time between teaching and research. A sabbatical during the fall 2012 semester afforded a brief reprieve from teaching responsibilities. During this time Trinkaus traveled throughout Europe to collaborate with colleagues and give several lectures on recent research.

“I basically got to know some of the younger people working at the university, re-establish some contacts, and provide feedback on several projects going on there,” Trinkaus says about his visit to the University of Bordeaux. “Really it’s about getting the kind of interaction that you can only get face-to-face.”

Trinkaus delivered two lectures at the University of Barcelona to colleagues, young researchers, and undergraduates on “The Paleobiology of Modern Human Emergence” and “Burial, Bodies and Behavior in the Earlier Upper Paleolithic.” The lectures are the culmination of the barrage of articles and monographs that Trinkaus and his colleagues have published in recent years on numerous early modern human fossils from the Czech Republic, Romania, Russia, China, and elsewhere. The recent monograph edited by Trinkaus on the human fossils from Peștera cu Oase (“Cave of Bones” in Romanian) and the context of their discovery has contributions by more than 20 authors — many of whom are young and mid-career researchers

“I’ll be honest. Most of the people doing interesting things and getting things done are younger,” admits Trinkaus. “These people seem to be thinking actively about a lot of interesting questions.”

The researchers provide incredible detail on the early modern human fossils that share some archaic (Neandertal-like) traits as well as the site’s larger-than-life fauna, which included wapiti (elk), wolves, and cave bears. The soon-to-be-published work by Trinkaus and colleagues chronicles the lives and deaths of the early modern humans from Sunghir — a site of multiple, elaborate human burials in western Russia.

“It turns out that cave bears weren’t the strict vegetarians they were often thought to be. Instead they were flexible omnivores,” say Trinkaus.

“Basically I’m trying to sort out their biology and behavior,” Trinkaus says. “What I really like about Sunghir is when you take all the archaeology, the burials, the skeletal morphology, the geochemistry, and pathology — all of the pieces — and begin putting them together, they form a narrative that tells us so much more than any of the individual pieces on the biology or archaeology can.”

Trinkaus also delivered the keynote lecture at the18th International Cave Bear Symposium in Romania. This is a seemingly strange venue for a paleoanthropologist, but Trinkaus’ work at Oase has made him quite familiar with prehistoric cave bears. In fact, Trinkaus and a cast of international colleagues recently published a study of cave bear and contemporary grizzly bear stable isotopes to better characterize the diets of the extinct behemoths.

“It turns out that cave bears weren’t the strict vegetarians they were often thought to be. Instead they were flexible omnivores,” say Trinkaus.

Reassessing old ideas in the face of new data is commonplace for Trinkaus. He recently critiqued his own “rodeo rider” hypothesis that investigated injuries sustained by rodeo riders and Neandertals. He had found that the similarity of the injuries (mostly to the head and arms) may indicate a propensity for close-quarter, ambush-style hunting among Neandertals. After later finding found similar injury patterns in early modern humans, Trinkaus says, “We really cannot say that close-quarter hunting was the only cause for these injury patterns. We need to consider alternative hypotheses such as the need to be highly mobile — something leg injuries (which we rarely see in the Late Pleistocene) would surely impede — but injuries from the waist up might not.”

Trinkaus often sees his work as a means of starting new conversations. “Take the Oase or Sunghir monograph as a case in point. I’m sure that some people will not agree with all of it and will interpret our data in other ways. What comes out of it is that someone can now go reassess other aspects of the behavior of the Late Pleistocene people,” he explains. “You put out ideas that seem reasonable, seem sound, seem appropriate, but you have to be willing to change if later you find they don’t work. That’s how science works.”

At the end of a busy and productive sabbatical, Trinkaus found himself back in front of students teaching Human Variation. His final lecture is always a crowd pleaser as he weaves a narrative of fossil discoveries, Neandertal and modern human interbreeding, and popular science media coverage together to explain to students the role of Late Pleistocene human evolution in the making of human biological variation as we observe it today. What really shows through is Trinkaus’ knack for distilling the essence of his scholarly contributions to students and lay audiences.

Photo of Erik Trinkaus

Erik Trinkaus with students at the excavations of the Donggutuo Early Pleistocene archeological site in the Nihewan Basin, northern China, in June 2013

With teaching also comes mentoring — both of undergraduate and graduate students. In acknowledgment of his many contributions to his students, Trinkaus received an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in 2013. It was his second time to receive this recognition. Students he has trained hold tenure track jobs in a variety of fields, including biological anthropology, anatomy, and human physiology. He has served as the Department of Anthropology’s director of graduate study for more than seven years.

Trinkaus is difficult to slow down. In June 2013 he found himself back at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology in Beijing, China, working with his Chinese colleagues on archaic human fossils from north China. The fossils have already shown evidence of minor head trauma and an even stranger cranial abnormality that may be evidence of inbreeding in the Pleistocene. Trinkaus assures us that “there are several more interesting discoveries coming out of our work on the Xujiayao fossils, but I can’t discuss it just yet.” We’ll have to wait for a future Washington University news brief to find out more.