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Department of Anthropology


Evolutionary anthropologists at Durham conduct world-class research in a number of core areas of evolutionary/biological anthropology, including primatology and conservation; cultural evolution; evolution of brain, cognition, behaviour and language; human evolution and palaeoecology; and evolutionary medicine/health.

Primatology and Conservation

We have a thriving group of anthropologists studying non-human primates, with a focus on both the scientific understanding of primates in their natural habitats as well as the practical implications of this work for conservation.

  • Prof Jo Setchell studies reproductive strategies, life history, sexual selection, signalling, and reintroductions in primates, focussing on mandrills in Gabon.
  • Prof Russell Hill runs a field site in South Africa and studies interactions between non-human primates and their predators as well as adopting interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and mitigating conflict between humans and wildlife.
  • Prof Sarah Elton studies morphology and locomotion in a range of Old World monkey species
  • Dr Rachel Kendal explores social learning and culture in several non-human primates, as well as human children.

The Behaviour, Evolution and Ecology Research (BEER) Centre provides a focal point for primatological research through links with other departments such as psychology and biology.

Cultural Evolution

The Department of Anthropology boasts one of the largest and most active research groups investigating cultural evolution and social learning in the world.

  • Dr Sally Street uses phylogenetic comparative statistical methods to examine large-scale patters and processes in the evolution of behaviour, cognition and culture, including musical ability, tool use and construction
  • Dr Jeremy Kendal uses mathematical models to explore the evolution of culture and social learning, including applications to topics such as the spread of ineffective medical treatments.
  • Dr Jamie Tehrani studies the cultural evolution of material artifacts such as textiles and knowledge such as folk tales using phylogenetic analyses.
  • Dr Rachel Kendal investigates the evolutionary origin of culture and social learning by comparing the learning abilities human children and non-human primates.
  • Prof Bob Layton combines social and evolutionary anthropological perspectives to examine the evolution of social systems and the evolution of art.

The Centre for the Coevolution of Biology and Culture (CCBC) serves as the focal point for cultural evolution research in the department, through links to other departments such as psychology, education and archaeology.

Evolution of Brain, Behaviour, Language and Cognition

Several researchers have interests in the evolution of brain, cognition and language from a variety of perspectives and using a range of methods.

  • Prof Rob Barton compares brain structure and function across primate species to test hypotheses regarding the evolutionary basis of human cognition and behaviour.
  • Dr Ian Rickard looks at the evolution of human life history using historical records to test hypotheses concerning survival and reproduction.
  • Dr Sally Street investigates the evolution of brains, cognition, life histories and ecological niches at large scales in primates and other vertebrates, using phylogenetic comparative approaches.

Palaeoanthropology and Palaeoecology

The evolution, origin and dispersal of human species is explored by a number of researchers using a range of methods.

  • Dr Fire Kovarovic is a palaeoanthropologist studying hominin and other mammalian fossil data from the East African Pliocene and Pleistocene, and is particularly interested in how past environments shaped skeletal morphology. She conducts palaeoecological research, particularly in the areas of mammal community analysis and ecomorphology and co-directs a neo-taphonomic field project in Kenya.
  • Prof Sarah Elton looks at hominin evolution in the Plio-Pleistocene, such as how early hominins compare with other large mammals of those periods.
  • Dr Trudi Buck examines how cranial shape can be used to infer past patterns of human evolution and dispersal.
  • Prof Alan Bilsborough looks at the functional basis of cranial diversity in early hominins.

Evolutionary Medicine/Health

There is a particularly strong interaction with the Anthropology of Health research group, focusing on evolutionary approaches to medicine and human health.

  • Prof Gillian Bentley studies the effects of childhood development on later reproductive function and health, particularly amongst migrant Bangladeshi women.
  • Prof Helen Ball conducts research into the biological and evolutionary basis of infant-mother sleep interactions.
  • Dr Tessa Pollard examines the evolutionary basis of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • Dr Ian Rickard studies developmental influences on health and reproduction, particularly using historical records of human populations.
  • Prof Sarah Elton is interested the implications of evolution for human health and nutrition