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Anthropologist Sheela Athreya Uncovers India’s Voice in the Human Origin Story

Sheela Athreya
AAAS Member Sheela Athreya, Ph.D.

AAAS Member Sheela Athreya is an anthropologist, mother, wife and Indian American – all labels that make it tempting to associate her with others who share similar traits and life experiences.

While broad generalizations help us navigate a complex world, not everyone fits into a box. The same holds true for humans who died millennia ago, says Athreya, a Texas A&M University professor who often questions her field’s fixation with identifying a single entity called “the modern human.”

“It’s bad evolutionary biology,” she says, adding that a heavy focus on labeling in paleoanthropology forces scientists to ask the wrong questions, obsessing over species names in favor of nuanced, local evolutionary histories.

Athreya’s latest project, funded in part by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic, aims to reconstruct human evolutionary history in central India without asking whether fragmentary fossils fit the accepted definition of “modern human.”

The widely accepted “Out of Africa” model teaches that “modern humans” originated in Africa before migrating across the rest of the world. Signs of modernity include anatomical features such as high foreheads and low brow ridges.

“It’s a Eurocentric narrative. It’s a search for European-looking features in Africa, saying they showed up there first,” she says.

In her research, Athreya notes that the theory paints the history of humanity with a broad brush, most certainly ignoring pivotal moments of evolutionary movement contributed by other cultures, including ancient Asians.

Her research site, the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, offers a glimpse at early traces of human life in India with rock shelters, painted walls, burials and paleolithic tools. When the UNESCO World Heritage site was first excavated in the 1970s by Indian archaeologists, including the pre-eminent scholar V.S. Wakanakar, scientists initially declared the oldest artifacts to be around 17,000 years old. Athreya says that recent dating of similar stone tool types at other sites in India led by her collaborator Ravi Korisettar, Ph.D., suggests that the central Indian site could be closer to 40,000 years old – much more relevant to the evolutionary record of our species.

The skeletal and stone tool remains excavated in the ‘70s are now being analyzed by Athreya’s team in order to reconstruct local evolutionary history by understanding how human morphology, genetics and stone tools co-occurred in late Stone Age India.

“We’re not looking at what labels we should give it,” she explains. Geneticists will compare genomic signatures from this location to data from the more recent civilizations in the Indus Valley and living Indians for more insights into how populations have changed in this region over time.

“It’s giving Indians a voice in the story of human evolution, so their history isn’t written for them,” she adds.

Athreya won’t be alone in her efforts to decolonize the study of our evolutionary history. With the help of her Indian collaborators and students as well as members of tribal communities in India, she hopes historically underrepresented people will have a voice in the larger narrative of human evolution. In fact, evolutionary stories, she says, are deeply tied to India’s tribal populations who are vastly diverse biologically, linguistically and culturally.

“Identity is a very holistic, complex construct,” she says. “The last thing I want to do is go to India, get ancient DNA and tell Indians who they are without considering linguistics, culture and their own oral history and stories.”

Putting the pieces together comes naturally to Athreya, who grew up in a household of Hindu philosophy, characterized by the belief that everything is cyclical and interconnected. From a young age, she pondered big questions about her appearance versus others in her predominantly white New Jersey town.

“I was very interested in the intellectual concept of race and the origin of human variation,” she recalls.

Her love affair with anthropology, however, did not develop until graduate school. Athreya studied documentary film at Boston University before starting graduate school in archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. Athreya later transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, switching her studies to biological anthropology. It was at Washington University where she found a mentor in the late Robert Sussman, Ph.D., an anthropologist and primatologist. Athreya says she bonded with Sussman over activism, sharing an urge to right the wrongdoing of anthropology’s past.

“The agenda of early biological anthropologists was to codify race,” Athreya says. “The history of race is the history of racism, and they were all racists. We trace our intellectual history back to them.”

This year, Athreya was honored to receive the AAAS award named in her late mentor’s memory. Established in 2017, the Robert W. Sussman Award recognizes contributions of mid-career anthropologists. Sussman, who died in 2016, was named a AAAS Fellow in 2000 and, at the time, the retiring chair of the Anthropology Section. He explored the idea of race as a social construct rather than a biological reality.

“There are multiple dimensions on which humans vary. Understanding those differences is the value we bring to the world,” she adds. “It’s in service to this bigger thing: How can I make a world safe for us all to be different?"

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