The Quest

Carol Ward has built a career searching for the key to understanding humankind. The director of anatomical sciences at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, is among the world’s eminent paleoanthropologists whose research is helping to piece together a better understanding of our human origins.

Earlier this year, Ward hosted a symposium with the MU African Interdisciplinary Studies Hub that brought leading scholars such as Meave Leakey to the University of Missouri to share the latest research on humanoid fossil discoveries in Africa. As she prepares for a fifth summer of fieldwork in Africa, Ward shares insights into the links between her third-floor Medical Sciences Building anatomy lab and the Turkana Basin area in a remote corner of northwest Kenya.

Tell us about your research.

I study fossil apes — the earliest members of our branch of the family tree, and also some of the earliest members of our genus, homo. I love the puzzle of why we’re human and how we got to be the way we are. We need to know what our ancestors looked like to understand what the changes were that led to us. Once we know those changes, then we can ask the interesting questions of why and how — the hard ones.
The new research data suggest that maybe we’re not asking the right question — maybe it’s not: Why did we stand up from all fours? Maybe it’s: Why did we never drop down on all fours to begin with?

What is a paleoanthropologist doing in a medical school?

Since we do anatomy all the time in our research, it’s easy and natural for us to teach anatomy to all medical school and allied health profession students. In my work, I need to understand not only what the bone [fossil] is, but what were the muscles that attached to the bone, how did they work, how were the bones designed to be loaded in what posture, how did the animal move. I’m always trying to understand the soft tissue anatomy so I can understand its biology.

What other work goes on in your lab area?

We use a lot of 3-D imaging to look at shape and size of bodies: How does the bone [fossil] relate to whole animal? Then, you can make some inferences. One of the people in our group is modeling how hard T. Rex could bite because they can now put all the muscles on and move it. We have all these little bits and pieces of fossils.
We also have people doing research into various facial abnormalities in children. And I have collaborated with orthopedic surgeons and engineers.

Tell us about your fieldwork with the West Turkana Paleo Project.

We have a grant to start at a site called Lomekwi that’s between 3.5 and 3.3 million years old. Along with team leader and field expert Fredrick Kyalo Manthi of the National Museums of Kenya and J. Michael Plavcan of the University of Arkansas, we’ll take a team of about 30 people and spend about five to six weeks there. We will walk the site and prospect for fossils. We have iPads to document and take photos and record data. If we find something, then we’ll crawl shoulder-to-shoulder in a line to see if we can find other fragments in an area that requires actual excavation.

What’s special about this area?

Meave Leakey’s team found a whole new genus of humans at this site. [Leakey is part of the “first family” of paleontologists, discovering and documenting the early human fossil record in Africa.] A French researcher has found stone tools at Lomekwi; it looks like 600,000 years earlier than was previously thought, so we know somebody was making stone tools here. Who made the tools? That’s what we’ll be trying to learn more about!

How did you get into this field?

After my freshman year in college, I had a job at Cedar Pointe Amusement Park in Ohio. I was at the ride that has lawn chairs on chains and spins around. Let’s just say I got really tired of cleaning up.

So I decided this is for the birds; I’ll take a class for the rest of the summer. I wanted to take something weird, and someone said, “Take biological anthropology; it’s cavemen and stuff,” and I thought, “You can take a class in cavemen?!” I walked into that class, and I fell in love with it. And here I am.

Is there a community component to your work?

We’re walking around where people live, so it’s part of our mission to involve and help the local community. I’m helping sponsor some Turkana girls to go to school. At Kanapoi [another fieldwork site], they wanted road improvements, more police and a school. We coordinated bringing [Kenyan] government officials in for the first time and put up a school. I have naming rights on one of the buildings, an outhouse.

What’s your favorite food in the field?

We eat goat soup every lunch and dinner but my favorite is sukuma wiki, basically a kind of sautéed green like kale. It’s really good.