María Martinón-Torres on "Speaking" to the Dead

Scientist Interview: December 2011

María Martinón Torres

PHOTO: M. J. Sier.

A recent analysis of Essential Science IndicatorsSM data from Thomson Reuters showed that the work of Dr. María Martinón-Torres has entered the top 1% in the field of Social Sciences. In addition, one of the papers she co-authored earlier this year, "Hominin variability, climatic instability and population demography in Middle Pleistocene Europe" (Quaternary Sci. Rev. 30[11-12]: 1511-24, Sp. Iss. June 2011), has been named a Hot Paper in Geosciences.

Martinón-Torres is a Research Leader in the Dental Anthropology Group of the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain.


SW: Please tell us about your educational background and research experiences.

I always wanted to become an anthropologist. At the time of deciding what studies to pursue, there was no Anthropology degree as such in Spain. So I decided to study Medicine, as I think it is the most complete discipline to deal with the nature of human beings, and wide enough to provide different approaches to human biology of current and extinct human species. Having grown in a family of many vocational doctors has undoubtedly infected me with the love for this science, which has remained extremely useful for my professional life, but also from a personal point of view, as it explains many realities, news, and findings we're exposed to in daily life.

After my medical degree, I did an M.Phil. in Human Origins, to specifically move to the field of human evolution and fossils, and an M.Sc. in Forensic Anthropology, to learn the actual techniques employed for the investigation of deceased individuals and then apply them to the past, to the remains of humans that lived hundreds to millions of years ago. Finally, I got my Ph.D. in Paleoanthropology, by studying the human dental fossils recovered at the Atapuerca site, in northern Spain, a UNESCO World Heritage site that has provided an unparalleled record of at least three different human species in the last million and half years.

SW: What first drew you to anthropology? Is there a specific area within this field on which you focus, or do you maintain a wide variety of interests?

The scope and interests of anthropology are wide and exciting. So far, I have concentrated mostly on dental remains and paleopathology, but I am open to loads of other interesting avenues. Anthropology is an intriguing discipline which allows us to "make the dead speak." We become detectives of the past by interrogating the corpses directly. By applying modern techniques we may be able of reconstruct the external aspect, customs, culture, diseases, and cause of death of our most remote ancestors. Only by unveiling the mysteries of our past will we be able to understand which directions we are taking for the future.

María Martinón Torres
Photo: A.Canet.

For example, there was a time when more than one human species were coexisting in the world. Anthropology can give us the clues to understand which are they key features of our biology that turned our species, Homo sapiens, into such a successful one—indeed the only human species left on Earth.

SW: One of your most-cited original papers from our databases is the 2008 Nature paper you coauthored, "The first hominin of Europe," (Carbonell E, et al., 452[7186]: 465-9, 27 March 2008). Would you tell us a bit about this paper—your expectations going in, how the work was done, your findings, where this work has gone since this publication?

This paper explains the discovery of the earliest human remains ever found in Europe, a 1.2-million-year-old human mandible from the Sima del Elefante site in Atapuerca. This fossil contributes valuable information to the understanding of the first human settlement of Western Eurasia, triggering substantial changes in the hypotheses currently tested by the scientific community on this topic.

Thanks to this mandible and the human remains found in the nearby site of Gran Dolina-TD6, also in Atapuerca, assigned to the species Homo antecessor, we now know that Europe was inhabited much earlier than previously thought, and that the origin of the first Europeans was probably Asian, and not African.

SW: Several of your papers deal specifically with dental evidence. What can teeth tell us?

Despite their small size, teeth comprise an extraordinary amount of information. Teeth can provide data about diet, habits, age, stress, and development. For example, the times of formation and eruption of the teeth in a given species are processes under very strict genetic control and intimately related with other biological parameters, such as the brain size of that species.

Compared to other animals, modern humans are characterized by a lengthy and slow general growth, and this is also reflected in the time and pace of dentition development. Studying the patterns of dental formation of extinct humans we can trace back the moment of our evolution when childhood appeared, a developmental stage that is unique to humans and that was of key importance as it allowed a longer period for the growth of larger brain in our species.

SW: Does dental evidence from one part of the world significantly differ from that found in another part of the world, or do you find more similarities than differences?

Teeth have some minor features such as the number, size, or relative position of their cusps and furrows that are highly heritable, and can be used to characterize different hominin populations. By comparing the expression of these traits among different groups we can also explore their phylogenetic relationships, in the same way we would compare the genetic sequences of some populations to understand their kinship.

Some traits are useful to differentiate among populations from different parts of the world. Notwithstanding these small and very interesting differences, actual populations are very similar. Some other traits are useful at a higher level, helping us to distinguish among extinct human species.

"Despite their small size, teeth comprise an extraordinary amount of information."

SW: What would you say is the ultimate goal or benefit of this work?

Humans are a unique species in their wondering about their own origins. To our knowledge, there is no other animal in the planet that raises questions about where they come from. Anthropology deploys the best methods of science to answer this purely human question and it gives us an important perspective of which is our place in nature.

SW: Are there any projects you have forthcoming that you are free to discuss?

We are currently working in a detailed and comprehensive study of the diseases suffered by our ancestors. Paleopathological studies provide very valuable information about their life style, health status, the stress they were subject to, or their level of adaptation to the social and natural environment they lived in. Diseases that are not considered severe in our times may have been a serious threat for survival in the past, requiring compassion or co-operation among individuals, for example.

SW: In what directions do you see your field (or key aspects thereof) going in the next decade?

Sciences in general and paleoanthropology in particular are benefiting from the advance of technologies. Fossils are unique and unrepeatable pieces than can only be studied by non-destructive means. Sophisticated imaging techniques such as microcomputed tomography or synchrotron-based techniques are allowing us to visualize internal structures without breaking the fossils, extracting the maximum amount of information we can from a specimen. Without a doubt, the next decade will be the decade of virtual anthropology.End

Dr. María Martinón-Torres
Dental Anthropology Group
Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH)
Burgos, Spain



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