Fall/Winter 2010  

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Washington University in
St. Louis

Department of Anthropology

Arts & Sciences

College of Arts & Sciences

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences



Professor Tab Rasmussen: Tracing the Story of Human Evolution
by Laura E. Miller

Paleontologists Tab Rasmussen, Benson Kyongo, Samuel Muteti, and Lokol Boniface work in the Turkana Basin, Kenya.

Picking up two small animal skulls in his hands, Tab Rasmussen wonders aloud: “Can students pick these up and tell me who they are, what the key features are, what makes them interesting, and how they evolved? That’s what I want them to know.”

Rasmussen, a professor at Washington University since 1991, can answer all those questions. With his appreciation for the big picture, he exemplifies curiosity in the classroom and the field, where he searches for the next step in the human evolution story through his study of primates.

Currently, Rasmussen is excavating pieces of early primate skeletons, fossils that represent the earliest time in ape evolutionary history, in northwestern Kenya. These fossils are believed to be from the late Oligocene period, a period rarely represented in the fossil record of Africa.

“What we’re trying to do is understand what made primates that were like lemurs or small monkeys become apelike,” Rasmussen says. “Obviously, that’s an important step in the human evolution story, which is why we’re in anthropology to begin with.”

Working with him are John Kappelmann of the University of Texas at Austin, and Bonnie Jacobs and Neil Tabor of Southern Methodist University.

“The team I’ve got — I love them all. We do a great job in terms of fieldwork and writing, and they’re some of the nicest people,” Rasmussen says. “I would say that our work in Kenya is a good example of how, once you get a productive research team together, you need to keep it going. I’m doing things with them I could never do by myself.”

Rasmussen sees all of science moving in a team-oriented direction. “It wasn’t too long ago that individual scientists were pretty much the ones who wrote papers, had ideas, did research. But it’s become pretty clear the work is fundamentally better if you have experts working together on the same problem.”

Participants in the fifth annual Stony Brook Human Evolution Workshop celebrated 40 years of research in the Turkana Basin. The workshop, held in Kenya in 2008, created time to evaluate and plan for future research in the Turkana Basin, emphasizing the future role of the Turkana Basin Institute. Among the people affiliated with Washington University’s anthropology department are Richard Leakey (last row, 7th from left), awarded an honorary doctorate in science in 1994; Professor Tab Rasmussen (3rd row, 4th from left); Ellen Miller (2nd row, 4th from left), PhD 1996 in physical anthropology; Mercedes Gutierrez (2nd row, 5th from left), current graduate student; and Lisa Hildebrand (2nd row, 8th from left), PhD 2003 in archaeology.

In addition to collaborating with the National Museum of Kenya, Rasmussen’s team works with the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI). This organization is dedicated to developing collaborative paleontological and archaeological research in the desert region around Lake Turkana, a true cradle of humankind. TBI supports international research and local Turkana communities, helps fund Kenyan graduate students (including Samuel Muteti, MA 2010), and hosts science workshops in Kenya led by Richard Leakey.

Emphasis on teamwork also pervades Rasmussen’s work with graduate students. He is able to extend his curiosity into areas he might not have time to explore while the students themselves are able to contribute to a larger project.

“Our philosophy is not to bring in graduate students who do the same thing as you, but to bring in students who do something different,” he says. “Part of my enthusiasm for graduate training is that these individuals are going out and learning how the world works in a new way. Each one is a little piece, but it’s so gratifying to see. Graduate students are really an axis to new knowledge about things we’ve always wanted to know.”

Pulling out the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “the bible of evolutionary anthropology,” Rasmussen enthusiastically points out the cover photograph of a loris, a small primate, taken by former graduate student Anna Nekaris, now of Oxford Brooks University.

“Very few pictures have been taken of lorises in the wild. As a graduate student, she worked long and hard on lorises in India. Now she’s in Sri Lanka, and she got this great cover picture. Isn’t that neat?”

“What we’re trying to do is understand what made primates that were like lemurs or small monkeys become apelike. Obviously, that’s an important step in the human evolution story, which is why we’re in anthropology to begin with.” Tab Rasmussen

On the undergraduate level, Rasmussen emphasizes the origin of knowledge. His favorite class to teach is Human Osteology, a small lab class limited to 14–15 students. The hook: Each student gets his or her own human skeleton.

“I want to get them out of books and out of theory,” Rasmussen says. “One thing I try to really focus on in my class is where knowledge comes from. Using my own research as an example, among others, is critical.”

When Rasmussen is not teaching, this self-proclaimed primate nerd tends to be out in the field. He has done fieldwork in nine African countries.

He combined fieldwork with teaching when he started a graduate program in Utah, a “minor leagues” before students work in more challenging environments. “It’s important knowing how students respond in the field — who can work hard, who adjusts, who can deal with living in a tent for weeks on end. You really learn who loves the business and who doesn’t if you’re in these different situations.”

Rasmussen’s enthusiasm for exploration continues. “Research is fascinating because people nowadays think primates are tucked away in corners of the world, like Madagascar,” he says. In the past, “We had a whole world of tropical rainforests, and there were primates in Missouri. We don’t have fossils here because we didn’t get rocks at the right period, but there were primates zooming around the rainforest right here. Isn’t that cool?”