Monday, February 4, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I'm so excited to introduce you to our February scientist of the month Dr. Rebecca Wragg Sykes. Becky is a palaeolithic archaeologist (I'll let her explain what that means). Like I did with our other scientists, Penny, Philipp, Anne-Marike, and Pete I asked  Becky some questions to find out more about what she does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her and her research. Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Researchers on a field survery in South
Africa in 2004 (photo by Dr. Sykes)
Becky: I’m a Palaeolithic archaeologist, which means that I study how people lived during the Stone Age by looking at the things they left behind. “Palaeolithic” actually means ‘old stone age’, and I specialise in the Neanderthals, who were an ancient type of human living in Europe and parts of West Asia between about 300 thousand and 30 thousand years ago. There were four ices ages in the enormous length of time they were around, as well as periods when it was warm like it is now. You will have up to 4% Neanderthal DNA inside you, depending on where your own ancestors come from in the world.

I try to work out how these very successful humans lived, by looking at how they used different types of stone technology to survive (for example they made the first glue, from birch bark pitch), how much they moved around the landscape and what kinds of social networks they had: how often did they meet up with each other.

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?

Becky: I loved learning a lot of different things, including literature, history and science. I also enjoyed art. But when I chose my A-levels (final high school subjects) I took Ancient History (Roman and Ancient Greek), French and English Literature. My school (Graveney School, London) was a comprehensive (not fee-paying) school with a great mix of students from many cultures and backgrounds. I did my first archaeology degree at University of Bristol because they had a rock art course, then I decided I enjoyed human origins and did a Masters in this at University of Southampton. My PhD on the British Late Neanderthals was at University of Sheffield.

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Becky: Right now I work part-time to support my family while I am writing a book and articles on my PhD research. This June I will be starting my first proper science job at the Université Bordeaux in France, thanks to a European fellowship (the Marie Curie program). I will be working with many other specialists from around the world who all study human origins too.

My project is looking at the Neanderthals who lived in the mountains and valleys in South-West France, trying to match the stone tools that come from open-air sites with those we have already studied from caves with lots of deep layers of artefacts and animal bones. By looking at the kinds of rock the tools are made from at each site, and where those rocks come from, you can start to map out the territory of Neanderthals in the landscape. From this you can begin to work out how far they travelled, whether they exchanged tools with each other, and how complex their relationships with each other must have been. These are the Big Questions in human origins research!

As a stone tool researcher, my day could be spent measuring and recording features on lots and lots of artefacts; later on I use computer programs to look for patterns, like which kinds of stone were preferred for which types of tools. After this, I spend time writing about my findings so everyone can understand about our amazing ancestors.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Becky: I’m a scientist for the same reason that you are all interested in the things you like: everyone has something they’re fascinated by, that they want to know more about. Asking “How?” and “Why?” are things we should never stop doing, and being a scientist means you get to find these things out about the stuff that interests you most. Since I was very young I loved history and imagining what living in the past would have been like, so when I found out that being an archaeologist meant I could do that, I decided that this was the job for me!  If I hadn’t become an archaeologist, my other dream job would be an astronomer or a wildlife researcher.

Becky working with colleague Geoff Smith, a
mammoth specialist, on a museum collection.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Becky: I think two things are my favourite. One is that as an archaeologist I get to be outside excavating sites which is a lot of fun, especially if the weather is nice! I also get to become really great friends with people who I dig with for weeks, and finding something incredible never gets old!
The other thing is that working in science means I get to meet amazing people from all over the world who are interested in the same thing as me, and we can share our passion and find new ways to work together.
Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Becky: Even though it’s true that archaeologists spend time digging, we also spend many hours back at our office or lab, for example I’ve spent months and months studying thousands of stone tools. Even though collecting my data like this can get a bit boring, sometimes it hits you that a real Neanderthal who lived and laughed and enjoyed the sun also held this tool when there were still woolly mammoths and glaciers (ice sheets) a mile thick. That’s pretty awesome to touch the past like that.

Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?

Becky: I love getting out into nature especially watching birds (I’m writing a book about birds in prehistory). I enjoy writing about science on my blog, and taking photographs. I really like to play games on the Xbox with my husband, and I have a weakness for science fiction novels.
What do you think first graders? I think Becky's work is pretty cool, do you have any questions for her? Be sure to leave them in the comments. For any adult readers you can catch Becky on twitter @LeMoustier


  1. Hi Dr. Becky, Thank you for being our Scientist of the Month. How do you know what caves to look in for Neanderthal tools? What kind of tools did they use? We think hammers and spoons. It's cool that you like to play Xbox. From 1P

  2. Hi there 1P! Thanks for your excellent questions, I'll try to answer them.

    1) Knowing which caves to look for can be quite tricky. Some of the first Neanderthal caves were found because people were doing quarrying or mining for the rocks where caves are naturally found. Actually, the site that this ancient human species is named after, the "Neander Thal" (or Neander Valley) in Germany was being quarried in 1856 when the first bones were found by workmen, who thought they were cave bears.

    Now when we are looking for new sites, we might do research into old documents to see if people recorded finding bones of extinct animals, which means the cave could be the right age. Some projects even try to work out the kind of place Neanderthals would have preferred to live: somewhere with water nearby, stone for tools, and good views for hunting animals. Then the researchers go out and survey the landscape to see if they can find signs of new caves, like depressions in the ground.

    Many of the caves found in the early 20th century with Neanderthal archaeology are still being excavated: we have realised since the first days of research that you have to be very careful when you dig, because the more information you record and the more finds you keep, the more detailed things we can find out. This means that cave excavations today happen very slowly compared to 150 years ago when they used dynamite!

    2) Neanderthals used quite a few different kinds of tools. You are pretty close in your guesses too: they did use what we call "hammerstones": round cobbles of rock that they used to hit pieces very carefully off a larger stone block, which they then made tools from. This is called 'knapping'. The bits that came off are called 'flakes', and the Neanderthals could use them straight away for tasks like cutting meat (freshly knapped stone can be very sharp). Or they might take a flake they made and take more little pieces off it to give it a blunter edge, for a job like scraping a skin for them to wear - we are pretty sure they had to wear some clothes during the times it got very cold. And we know they worked skins because we can see unique polishing marks on the tools we’ve found.


  3. >>>

    They had one type of tool that we call 'handaxes': big, carefully shaped pieces with sharp edges all around, that they held in their hands. They used these for a lot of different tasks, and carried them long distances like a personal tool kit. If they ran out of stone, they could even take more flakes off the handaxe to use as tools.

    We haven't found anything that looks like a spoon we would recognise, but this might be because they were not eating anything as wet as soup or stew. We used to think based on their bone chemistry that they mostly ate meat, probably roasted on fires, but recently we found some tiny remains of cooked grains on some Neanderthal teeth. This shows that they didn't only eat meat, but they probably mostly ate food with their hands, like many people in lots of cultures do today.

    We know that Neanderthals made tools out of materials other than stone too: we have found bone tools in some sites, but it seems like they didn't do this very often. But we can see from the polishes on many stone tools that they spent a lot of time carving wood, including to make things like knife handles which they stuck together with birch bark pitch, cooked in fires. At one amazing site in Spain there is very unusual preservation which created impressions where softer materials in the cave filling had rotted away. There is the impression of most of a tree the Neanderthals brought in probably for fire wood, but also the shape of something that might have been a plate, and what looks like a wooden knife: you can see a photo of a cast made from the impression on this website

    I hope you enjoyed my answers! If you have any more questions just let me know. Now I'm going to play some Xbox after my dinner!

  4. I've got to say Rebecca, you sound like you're working so hard to make it work and fund your PHD, surely an inspiration to us all!