Alison S. Brooks

The George Washington University

Primary Section: 51, Anthropology
Membership Type: Member (elected 2020)


Alison Brooks is an anthropologist/archaeologist, known for her work on the origins and spread of Homo sapiens, including the early development in Africa of our capacities for technological innovation, extensive social networks and symbolic representation. She also helped develop new techniques for dating and interpreting fossils:  protein diagenesis, optically stimulated luminescence,  and recovery of plant starches from dental calculus, reflecting actual Paleo diets.  Brooks was born in Needham and grew up in Cambridge MA. She entered Radcliffe College in 1961 with a background in European History and languages, and graduated from Harvard in 1965 in Anthropology, having also interned in astronomy  for Harvard Professor Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. She earned a Harvard MA in Anthropology in 1967 and a PhD in 1979, based on research on the Aurignacian culture of France, associated with the earliest European cave paintings and musical instruments. She joined the faculty of George Washington University in 1972, and began archaeological and ethnographic research with husband John Yellen among  Zun/wasi hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, followed by archaeological research in Eastern DR Congo (1985-1990), in the Middle Awash Valley, Ethiopia (1992-2001) and in the Olorgesailie basin of southern Kenya  (2001-present). She is a Smithsonian research associate in Human Origins, and has held visiting positions at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Harvard University, the University of Bordeaux, the National Museums of Kenya and Botswana, the IVPP in Beijing, and the Nara Research Institute, Japan.  She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996.  

Research Interests

I am an anthropologist interested in the origins of our species Homo sapiens. I have conducted archaeological research in France, the Near East, China and eight African countries to document the emergence of our characteristic behaviors, including symbolic behavior, long distance social contacts, technological innovation, complex economic strategies, and “living in our heads” with reference to an ‘imagined community’, tribe or nation. I argue that our behavioral capabilities appeared first in Africa and that these capabilities emerged gradually, not in a sudden “mutation event”. I also lived with Zun/wasi hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, to document how their patterns of mobility and debris disposal matched the archaeological patterning of ancient sites in the same region. Recently, I have focused on the development of larger scale social networks in the earliest days of our species using chemical sourcing of the raw materials used for stone tools,  I also helped develop new chronometric methods for dating the Pleistocene past (amino acid racemization in ostrich eggshell and optically stimulated luminescence), and co-conducted (with NAS member Piperno)  the first research on preservation of starch grains  in the dental calculus of Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens as clues to their ancient diets. Currently research on ancient diets with Smithsonian colleagues focusses on the factors affecting stable isotopes of nitrogen as a proxy for dietary composition.

Powered by Blackbaud
nonprofit software