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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.

  • Dr Jo Setchell studies reproductive strategies, life history, sexual selection, signalling, and reintroductions in primates, focussing on mandrills in Gabon. 
  • Dr 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.
  • Dr 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 Alex Mesoudi conducts experimental and theoretical studies of the cultural evolution of technology and cognition, including projects looking at cross-cultural influences on social learning and cultural variation in cognition.
  • 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.
  • Dr Thom Scott-Phillips studies the evolutionary origins of culture and the human mind, particularly communication and language.
  • Dr Malcolm Smith uses evolutionary methods to study the interaction of surnames and migration patterns.

The Centre for the Coevolution of Biology and Culture (CCBC) serves as a 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 Thom Scott-Phillips uses theoretical models and lab experiments to uncover the evolutionary roots of human language. 
  • Dr Jamie Lawson examines evolutionary influences on behaviour, specifically sexual behaviour and mating strategies. 
  • Dr Ian Rickard looks at the evolution of human life history using historical records to test hypotheses concerning survival and reproduction.

Human Evolution

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. 
  • Dr 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. 
  • Dr Malcolm Smith explores current patterns of human evolution as inferred from genetic data, in particular from the contemporary British population. 
  • 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.
  • Dr Sarah Elton is interested the implications of evolution for human health and nutrition