According to a recent analysis of
Essential Science IndicatorsSMdata,
the work of Professor Tim White has entered the top 1%
in the field of Social Sciences. His current record in
this field includes 4 papers cited a total of 185
times. He also has 5 papers in the Multidisciplinary
field, cited a total of 135 times to date. Professor
White is affiliated with the University of California,
Berkeley. In the interview below, he talks about his
highly cited anthropological research.
Please tell us a little about
your research and educational background.
I am interested in revealing as much as possible about the patterns and
processes of human evolution. I went to high school in southern California,
and took B.S. degrees in Anthropology and Biology in the 1960s at the
University of California, Riverside. I did a Ph.D. in Biological
Anthropology at the University of Michigan, and returned to California
where I have been on the faculty at Berkeley since the 1970s. Much of my
education, however, has come at museums and field sites around the world.
What do you consider the main focus of your research,
and what drew your interest to this particular area?
"Right now we are working on a
partial skeleton recovered from 4.4 million years ago,
which is throwing new light on the earlier part of our
The main foci are temporal (the last six million years) and spatial
(Africa). I co-direct a long-term investigation of the Middle Awash
paleoanthropological study area in the Horn of Africa, deep the Afar rift
of Ethiopia, where we have been researching a thick (>1 km) succession
of ancient sediments containing the biological and technological remains of
One of your most-cited papers in our database is the
1999 Science article, "Australopithecus garhi: A new
species of early hominid from Ethiopia." Would you walk our readers
through this discovery and its significance?
About halfway through the sedimentary stack in the study area, there is a
volcanic ash horizon dated to 2.5 million years ago. This is about the time
that the first stone tools appear in the world archaeological record. But
their makers have been elusive—not many hominid fossils of this age
have been found, and none had been found from this part of Africa.
Just above the dated horizon we found the remains of several hominid
individuals, along with some cutmarked and fractured animal bones. These
represent the earliest evidence of large mammal butchery in the human
evolutionary record and they were published as a companion to the paper on
the associated hominid fossils.
We described the fossils as a new species, which is possibly the toolmaker
and tool user. The name "garhi" is from the language of the local
Afar people, and it means "surprise" because we were surprised to find a
hominid of this age with such large front and back teeth, with such a
primitive face and braincase.
What would you say has been your most significant
finding to date?
I've been fortunate to have been involved with many discoveries. The most
evocative was the excavation of the earliest hominid footprints in Tanzania
during the 1970s. The most significant has been the compilation of this
unique six-million-year record of human evolution in a single valley in
Africa. Right now we are working on a partial skeleton recovered from 4.4
million years ago, which is throwing new light on the earlier part of our
Where do you see this research going in five to ten
More teams are working in more places, so the pace of discovery over the
last decade has been boosted. However, these paleobiological and
archaeological resources are fragile and limited, and they are only found
in a few places on earth.
It is difficult to predict what will happen next, but the integration of
new digital technologies into the pursuit of the ancient past is also
playing a role in accelerating the pace at which our knowledge is
This is happening both in the laboratory and in the field, but it is from
the field sites that the major new finds will be made by indigenous African
scholars now making their marks in this international discipline.
What should the "take-away lesson" about your work be
for the general public?
Our ancestors and close (but extinct) relatives are already well
represented in the fossil record. Combined with independent evidence from
the genetic realm, it is already clear that humans got here by evolution.
And Darwin was right: all humans trace their evolutionary roots to
Tim D. White, Ph.D.
Department of Integrative Biology
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA, USA
White's most-cited paper with 93 cites
White TD, et al., “Pleistocene Homo
sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethopia,”
Nature 423(6941): 742-7, 12 June 2003. 93 cites.