Here you will discover a few of the researchers at the Musée de l’Homme.
Évelyne Heyer © MNHN - Frédéric Dubos & Sébastien Pagani
Geneticist. Professor, Hommes, Natures, Sociétés, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.
Co-leader, Evolutionary anthropology team, Musée de l’Homme, CNRS-MNHN UMR (mixed research unit) 7206: Eco-anthropology and Ethnobiology
General commissioner, Permanent exhibition, Musée de l’Homme
What’s wonderful about research is that there’s no end to learning and creating, following new leads. Genetics, still a young science only 20 years ago, now has seemingly limitless potential. Evelyne Heyer’s taste for the maths and biology and her discovery of the theory of evolution prompted her to go into this new discipline, which teaches us so much more about the history of populations than mere demographic and genealogical data can.
A pioneer of genetics at the Musée de l’Homme, Evelyne Heyer has developed research programmes in Central Asia and Central Africa. “Since 2001 we’ve been working notably on a programme relative to the genetic, linguistic and ethnological diversity of the Turco-Mongol and Indo-Iranian populations of Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tadjiskistan. We’ve taken samples from 28 populations in the various ethnic groups in the region. Aside from DNA, through blood and saliva samples we’ve collected ethnological, linguistic and anthropometric data. Generally, in human genetics, the more distant the populations are geographically, the more different they are genetically. But Central Asia doesn’t follow the usual scheme of things. In this part of the world, some populations that are distant geographically, are quite close genetically, and vice-versa. Our work shows that the two groups of populations are essentially structured according to their linguistic group. The Turco-Mongol speaking populations, with their nomadic tradition, and the Indo-Iranians of agricultural tradition. Social organization has also impacted genetic diversity. Studying the ties between biology and cultural behaviour is one of the fascinating aspects about evolutionary anthropology.”
Serge Bahuchet © MNHN - Frédéric Dubos & Sébastien Pagani
Ethnobiologist. Professor, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
Head, Hommes, Natures, Sociétés and the CNRS-MNHN UMR (mixed research unit) 7206: Eco-Anthropology and Ethnobiology
A specialist in the ways of life of Central African pygmy populations, Serge Bahuchet has spent some three years over the course of his research among the dispersed groups that live in the forests of Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Gabon. His fieldwork began with a thesis on the pygmies’ relationship with their forest surroundings, followed by a study of the relations between hunters and gatherers and village farming groups, and continues today with the teams at the laboratory he runs.
“Genetics has enabled us to better understand the origin of these populations and the degrees of divergence between groups, and to gain insight into the reasons for their small size.”.
Whatever the methods used, from a simple notebook to saliva samples for the study of DNA, discovering fieldwork is always an intense experience, an adventure. It can determine the rest of a career. “Initial contact is delicate. It’s a matter of inviting yourself into a group! You have to find the right words to make contact and to be accepted for the duration of the mission, usually stays of about three months.” When the study focuses on groups that move a lot, like the pygmies, the challenge is not just being accepted, it’s also physically demanding.
“You have to adapt to very simple living conditions, and you have to walk, walk a lot…”.
Today, Serge Bahuchet devotes most of his time to supervising his students and managing research at the Eco-Anthropology and Ethnobiology laboratory, which notably studies the relationships between societies and their natural environment. For all that, Aka pygmies are still on his researcher’s mind: “Over the past few decades, the living conditions of these populations have changed. There’s no way to ignore the threats to their environment, namely the consequences of logging and, paradoxically, the creation of national parks. Faced with the impoverishment of their living conditions and the loss of naturalist knowledge that goes with it, we researchers are at a loss. It is really difficult to influence the course of events, which depend on international political and economic conditions and policies.”
Alain Froment © MNHN - Frédéric Dubos & Sébastien Pagani
Anthropologist, physician, and doctor of biological anthropology.
Research head, IRD (Institute for Research and Development),
Hommes, Natures, Sociétés, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
CNRS-IRD UMR (mixed research unit) 208: Local heritage and governance
Alain Froment knows our Homo sapiens anatomy like the back of his own hand and the five fingers we share as a common feature with all tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). As he puts it, “Our body is like an onion that bears the trace of our evolution. We are made up of a succession of makeshift changes, the exploration of which puts the long chain of life into perspective.” A specialist in the diversity of modern humans, Alain Froment has spent twenty years in Africa (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon) studying human ecology and adaptability to the environment as part of the IRD (Institute for Research and Development), a French research organization that works in partnership with fifty emerging countries worldwide. His current research involves fieldwork among the Baka pygmies of Cameroon, who are sedentary hunters and gatherers with an estimated population of 30,000 individuals.
Pygmies are the world’s smallest humans, with an average height for men of 1.58 metres. Is their small size a form of adaptation to forest life? What can they teach us about the evolution of Homo sapiens, in other words, is there a model of growth that is common to all humankind or, as for many anatomical characteristics, simply diversity? These are the overriding questions of the research, now in its eighth year. “It’s a matter of longitudinal tracking of growth in 1000 pygmy children whose age is known precisely. Their development is described thanks to anthropometric measures and body maturity indicators, notably tooth eruption.”
To shed light on the mechanisms involved in their growth, several disciplines are at work: biometry, genetics and endocrinology. This anthropology of living subjects also takes into account all of the factors that could influence growth: weather conditions, behaviour, diet, epidemiology (emerging diseases and parasites). Long-term fieldwork of this kind can’t be undertaken without trust and exchange. It goes hand in hand with a health watch programme meant to predict, due to the population’s contact with wildlife, the possible emergence of new diseases.
Prehistorian, archaeozoologist. Head of research, CNRS, Prehistory, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
Team leader, CNRS-MNHN UMR (mixed research unit) 7194: Behaviour of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans in their palaeoecological context
Initially intrigued by the presence of fossil marine animals on dry land, Marylène Patou-Mathis trained as a geologist before doing a dissertation in prehistory on the animal materials unearthed at Neanderthal sites. The world of the Neanderthals is still her field today. “The study of subsistence behaviours in Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens is my priority. My team and I work on the animal bones discovered at sites, particularly in Eastern Europe, where nomadic hunters and gatherers once lived off wild natural resources. We investigate an animal’s status, both in terms of the domestic sphere as a means of subsistence, and in the symbolic sphere.”
At any given site, everything has its importance: “Prehistory is a multidisciplinary science that calls on palaeoanthropologists, lithologists (stone studies), palynologists (pollen studies), sedimentologists, dating specialists, art historians and archaeozoologists, of which I am one. In our field, it’s important to be a good naturalist, to be able to tell a reindeer femur from a row deer femur. In addition, taphonomic analysis is essential to understanding everything that has happened to a bone since it was buried.” Bones and microparticles found on teeth tell us a lot more than they did just twenty years ago thanks to the development of new techniques like biochemical analyses. “We now examine the slightest mark, traces of flint, combustion or breaks to determine how the animals were hunted, butchered, cooked and consumed. All of these acts enable us to deduce the cognitive capacities of these humans, to grasp the techniques they used, to determine their skill sets, and identify regional practices…”
Neanderthals were major hunters of the animals they ate; they buried their dead and collected non-utilitarian natural objects. They were neither superior nor inferior to modern humans. They were different.
"Establishing hierarchies is contrary to scientific method. Nothing is fixed or linear. Human evolution is a bushy matter, whether from a physical or a cultural point of view. What’s fascinating about our profession—where we’re constantly in doubt—is that any new discovery can give rise to new questions.”
Recent publications: Manuel de taphonomie (co-edited with Christiane Denys, Sept 2014), Éd. Actes Sud / Madame de Néandertal. Journal intime (with Pacale Leroy, April 2014), Éd. Nil/Préhistoire de la violence et de la guerre (Oct. 2013), Odile Jacob.
Quaternary geologist. Professor, Prehistory, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
CNRS - MNHN UMR (mixed research unit) 7194 Natural history of prehistoric humans / Prehistoric landscapes, humans, sedimentary archives and materials team.
Dating the remains from archaeological sites is a key process when it comes to understanding our evolution and it constitutes the core of Jean-Jacques Bahain’s work. Most of his research consists of establishing the geochronological context of human evolution over the past two million years, in particular that of the earliest humans to populate Eurasia. The samples he analyses (teeth, human and animal bones, sediments, etc.) are subjected to more or less complex physiochemical processes to bring out data that make it possible to situate them in terms of time. The analysis techniques vary: counting natural background radioactivity, use of mass spectrometers, analysis of the magnetic properties of materials, etc. They require a solid background in physics and chemistry, as well as geology and prehistory, and even the maths.
The current methods of analysis are less and less invasive and more and more performant. They enable increasingly precise dating for age periods that vary depending on the technique or technology used. Thus, carbon dating, the reference in dating methods, can only be used for samples that are less than 50,000 years old. Any older and other techniques must be applied, depending on the materials available at the site requiring dating. Dating is a long process, but between the manipulations entailed, the time spent in the laboratory, data analysis and teaching, there is still time for fieldwork, which is often indispensable for the interpretation of results.
For instance, when called on to date the skeleton of a mammoth discovered in Changis-sur-Marne in 2012, Jean-Jacques Bahain went on-site to sample—in addition to mammoth remains—a bovid tooth, deer bones, carbonates, etc. Enough to draw up a panel of clues that one year later would yield reliable, corroborating results: this woolly mammoth, which died 100,000 years ago, was a contemporary of the Neanderthals. “Seeing the dig is a must when it comes to putting data in context. The satisfaction, of course, comes from being able to date these historically significant sites from the remains housed in the museum collections, as was notably the case for the Mauer site in Germany, where in 1907 the discovery of a human mandible made it possible to describe Homo heidelbergensis, the ancestor of the Neanderthals.”
Primatologist. Lecturer, Humans, Natures, Societies, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle CNRS-MNHN UMR (mixed research unit) 7206 Eco-anthropology and Ethnobiology
For the past fifteen years, Shelly Masi has studied the western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) that live notably in the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo. Her research requires long stays in the field in both countries, more than four years total so far, in contact with the rare groups of western gorillas that have been habituated to the presence of human observers. They are elusive subjects. Though more numerous than the mountain gorillas, western gorillas are just as threatened, but less studied. They live in lowland forest where visibility is low and direct contact is dangerous due to the dense vegetation and aggressive behaviour of the silverback males who defend the family group. “I always go out with two trackers, Aka pygmies. They have a deep understanding of the tropical forest. They’re the only ones who can say a gorilla has passed by from a folded leaf on the ground.” Shelly Masi has learned the Central African language, Sango, a blend of dialects: “The spoken word is essential for establishing contact with pygmy peoples in an environment where the danger is constant.”
Because of how closely related great apes are to humans, we have much to learn from them. Shelly Masi explores their ecological adaptations and their cognitive capacities, notably through their feeding behaviours and the variability of their choices, depending on environmental changes, their nutritional requirements and state of health, and the availability of food in time and space for a given territory. Her patient observation and long hikes through the forest taking notes, photos and videos pays off in the form of urine, faeces and soil samples, as well as plants for property analysis and the constitution of a herbarium. Western gorillas are seasonal frugivores; they are herbivores in the dry season. Their complex feeding habits appear to differ from one group to the next, which cannot be explained through genetics or environment due to their proximity, and may be culturally transmitted through social learning. Great apes are living models that help us understand the processes at work in our own evolution. Beyond her scientific interest, Shelly Masi feels empathy for the individuals in the groups she follows. They know her too, and she looks forward to seeing them with every research trip. “All great apes are seriously threatened. Once we have habituated a group to human presence, we have a moral duty to protect them, forever.”
Shelly Masi was one of the scientific commissioners for the exhibition On the trail of great apes. In the field, she works with the NGOs (WWF and WCS).
Prehistorian. Lecturer, Prehistory, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
CNRS-MNHN UMR (mixed research unit) 7194: Team II, Behaviour of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans in their paleoecological context
The murals painted and engraved in cavernous darkness, with their impressive compositions combining bison, mammoths, horses and deer, fascinate, move and impassion. The art of our distant ancestors is the field studied by Patrick Paillet. He approaches prehistorical societies from the standpoint of their symbolic behaviour. This involves a wide range of means of expression and surfaces: cave art, open air rock art, and portable art (decorated tools and objects, adornments for the body). “Cave art, the most spectacular, arose with the arrival of the first modern humans in Western Europe some 40,000 years ago. Though more discreet, portable art nevertheless provides of wealth of information. The materials used tell us about their social dynamics, trade patterns and characteristics of their territories.” A young science looking back at old times, the study of symbolic behaviours endeavours to analyse both figurative and abstract techniques of expression, formal vocabularies and styles as markers of the diversity of prehistorical techno-cultures.
Patrick Paillet discusses the artistic specificities of isolated groups of Homo sapiens who left their mark at sites and caves much as he would the differences between fauvism and impressionism: the Aurignacian bestiary, the Gravettian feminine figures, the Solutrean’s early monumental sculptures and the apogee of cave art during the Magdalenian, from 17,000 to 12,000 years ago. Nearly 70% of the 350 decorated caves discovered so far are from this last period, the most prolific, and Patrick Paillet’s field of predilection. In the northern part of the Périgord region of France, between the high valleys of Dronne and Tardoire, is the cave-rich area that is one of his research stomping grounds. Ten sites (decorated shelters or caves) reveal complete sequences, stone and bone industries, portable and cave art, and fauna that demand closer examination. “Today we no longer work alone. Understanding a cave or shelter in its totality, in both its cultural and natural context, requires the skills and know-how of many: prehistorians, geologists, pigment specialists, archaeologists and geomorphologists.”
Patrick Paillet : L’art des objets de la Préhistoire, Laugerie-Basse et la collection du marquis Paul de Vibraye, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Éditions ERRANCE, 2014.
Biological anthropologist, expert in virtual anthropology.
Lecturer, Humans, Natures, Societies, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
Manager, 2D and 3D Imagery technology platform
CNRS-MNHN UMR (mixed research unit) 7206 Eco-anthropology and Ethnobiology
A fossil skull revolves slowly on a pedestal draped in black velvet facing a surface scanner; the resulting images appear on a screen. This technique is not the only one used by Martin Friess to study morphological variations in the crania of Homo sapiens and our ancestors. Photogrammetry (several cameras taking pictures from different angles) is another one, and for small specimens, microscopy. Using various applications, the images obtained allow for the 3D reconstruction of the object and its examination from every point of view.
These techniques, which have developed since the 1980s, are a big improvement over the caliper, the tool that had been used by anthropologists since the field began. Capturing an image is only the tip of iceberg. The revelation of convergences and divergences in morphology, between specimens of populations that are distant either geographically or genetically, relies on statistical methods that take into account a whole series of extremely precise measurements: the general shape of the skull, of the sutures, the jaws, the nostrils, the brow ridge, etc. Our head is not composed of independent elements, what we observe in the face is directly related to the shape of the cranium, as seen in the skulls that are intentionally deformed from birth for reasons of ethnic identity or social status. The exception reveals the rule.
All human remains bear witness to the visible, objective variations found in human morphology. The end goal of their study is to document our past, to reconstruct the processes of evolution and to understand modern-day diversity in relation to environmental factors, climate and diet as well as genetics.
Studying the morphological characteristics of populations opens the door to exploration on a global scale, especially among the peoples of the Americas. Where were the first occupants from? Did they come from Asia? If so, in one or several waves? When did they arrive? Facing his screens, Martin Friess covers thousands of miles down the trail of our ancestors.
Paleoanthropologist. Researcher, CNRS and Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.
UMR (mixed research unit) 7194 Natural history of prehistoric humans
Scientific co-manager, AST-RX (Scientific access to X-ray tomography) platform, MNHN.
The skull is his subject, imaging his tool. Antoine Balzeau works on the evolution of morphology in prehistoric humans (Homo erectus, Homo sapiens, Neanderthals) and more specifically on the precise characteristics of cranial bone thickness, brain asymmetry, Broca’s area (the language area). His research relies on the imaging methods (scanners) that have been developed over the past twenty years. These tools help us learn much more about the specimens in the museum’s collections. They enable us to see what the eye cannot as they penetrate into the very structure of bones, and to observe growth issues related to stress or poor diet. “The MNHN is equipped with the most high-performance microtomograph in the world of the natural sciences, as part of the AST-RX (Scientific Access to X-ray Tomography) platform. This tool digitalizes fossils using a resolution below a micron. With the radiographic data obtained, the object can be virtually reconstructed in 3 dimensions.” In addition to their scientific value, imaging helps preserve fossils by reducing handling and contributes to their dissemination in the form of a data bank that facilitates exchange with researchers. It takes several weeks to process data and create a virtual image. Mastering the tools and developing new applications helps to make this promising avenue even more performant. “While imagery has given anthropology a big boost, it doesn’t exclude more classic methods of measurement, observation and of course comparison, which helps to determine shared characteristics and to better characterize groups of fossil humans. The brains of our distant ancestors have yet to reveal all their secrets.” Currently, Antoine Balzeau is working on the skull of Flores Man, a small hominin discovered in 2003 from a single skull specimen in Java, for which he is delighted to have obtained the digital data.
Doctor in ethnology. Engineer, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
UMR (mixed research unit) 208: Local heritage, Humans, Natures, Societies
In charge of conservation for ethnology collections
Her field is that of everyday objects. Their value as evidence of the relationship between humans and nature, of local skills and ways of life is on par with their aesthetic value. Tatiana Fougal is an expert in Berber jewellery and the basketry of the Saharan oases. She has explored the oases of the North African Sahara every year for over twenty years. From this fieldwork, she has contributed 4000 photos and hundreds of baskets to MNHN collections. It’s not only local traditions that interest this ethnologist, but how they transform and their place in the current socio-economic context, as well as how they integrate new materials (plastic). She is currently working on a book that summarizes her long stretch of research, the results of which she has published in the form of numerous articles (pen name: Benfoughal).
With the recent political constraints surrounding fieldwork in the Saharan region, Tatiana Fougal has turned her focus to her other field of study: Eastern Europe. Renewing with her Russian-Ukranian roots, she has travelled the villages of Ukraine in search of ritual textiles made of linen and hemp. The embroidery and use of these textiles during major life events have significance in terms of identity. To track them down, she must find access to intimacy: “In Ukranian villages, I go notably to the churches to meet elderly women who might possess such textiles. Meeting people is the first step of an ethnologist’s work. You have to earn people’s trust. A little recorder and a camera are my faithful tools.”
In addition to research, teaching and the diffusion of knowledge take up 60% of her time. Tatiana Fougal is in charge of the ethnology collections. This new group, constituted since 2008, brings together items that illustrate the ties between societies and their environment. The conservation work consists not only of inventorying, assessing the pertinence of donations, and registering items as national heritage, but also of soliciting colleagues to contribute to this recent collection, bolstered by the renovation of the Musée de l’Homme. In this respect, Tatiana is particularly delighted to see, in the museum’s permanent gallery, the prominent display of mobile phone cases from around the world, which testify to the way in which humans domesticate and tame, in keeping with their own culture, standard objects and symbols of globalization.