Bioarchaeologist specializing in palaeopathology, evolutionary medicine, and skeletal variation
I am a biological anthropologist whose work intersects with several related fields, including bioarchaeology, palaeopathology, paleoanthropology, and evolutionary medicine. My research interests align under an overriding theme: investigating how evolutionary adaptations have shaped modern human skeletal variation and how this variation influences human health and disease. To answer these questions, I analyze the morphological variation of the skeleton of archaeological and modern humans, extant non-human primates, and extinct fossil hominins using cutting-edge approaches, such as photogrammetry and geometric morphometrics. The outcomes of my research are not only relevant for the field of biological anthropology, but also have the potential to impact the lives of people today. Check out ‘Evolving Health’ for details on my upcoming volume called Palaeopathology and Evolutionary Medicine: an integrated approach.
I have a number of projects on the go, but the one I am most passionate about is called the Evolutionary Shape Hypothesis. This project investigates the relationship between vertebral morphology, bipedalism (i.e., walking on two legs), and human spinal health by comparing the morphology of vertebrae of humans with and without spinal pathologies with those of non-human primates and fossil hominins. Rarely does one meet an adult who has not experienced back pain at least once in their lives. In fact, spinal problems afflict humans more commonly than any other animal. For decades scholars have suggested that this is due to our unique mode of locomotion, bipedalism, and the stresses it places on our spines. In 2009, my collaborators and I posited that vertebral shape may be a mediating factor in the relationship between bipedalism and spinal health and if so, that this relationship may be related to our evolutionary history.
Over the years, we have developed and tested this hypothesis using archaeological and comparative data and found evidence that human vertebral shape variation and its evolutionary origins are important factors in spinal health. This work is highlighted by two key papers – Plomp et al. 2015 and Plomp et al. 2020 – which together form the foundation of the Evolutionary Shape Hypothesis (ESH). This hypothesis proposes that human vertebral shape variation can be visualised as a spectrum, where the extremities have shape traits that are ancestral or are more pronounced adaptations to bipedalism, and where an individual’s vertebrae sit on this spectrum may critically influence their spinal health. This research has been covered in the media, with some helpful write-ups provided at IFLScience, The Naked Scientists, and The Toronto Telegraph.
I am also working on a large project that was funded by the H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. This project analyses cranial shape variation of archaeological European populations to trace medieval migrations and the movement of peoples throughout Northern Europe. Cranial shape can be used as a proxy for DNA and can show affinity between individuals and their genetic populations. My collaborators and I have used this method to answer two important questions that have been debated in archaeology and history for decades. First, we analysed the shape of the base of the cranium of archaeological remains of people from Iceland, Scandinavia, and the British Isles to determine who participated in the initial founding of the island. To date, there have been two main hypotheses about who founded Iceland. One proposed that the settlers were largely Vikings from Norway, while the other argued that the Vikings were joined by people from Scotland and Ireland. We found that more people from Southern Britain (i.e., modern England) played a more important role in founding Iceland than had previously been recognized. Specifically, we found that 30% of the settlers shared affinity with people from Scandinavia, 27% shared affinity with people from Scotland and Ireland, and 38% shared affinity with people from Southern Britain.
We also used the same methods to investigate the Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain in the early medieval period. It has been debated in archaeology whether this migration resulted in a replacement of the indigenous British population or if the local people adopted the Anglo-Saxon culture. We found that 66 - 75% of the Early Anglo-Saxon individuals were of mainland European ancestry, while 25 - 30% were of local ancestry. In contrast, we found that 50 – 70% of the Middle Anglo-Saxon Period individuals were of local ancestry, while 30 – 50% were of mainland European ancestry. It is unclear why there is a change between these two periods, but regardless of the cause of the change in composition, it is clear from our results that being an Anglo-Saxon was more a matter of language and culture than genetics. This study has also been reported in media and useful write-ups can be found at The Conversation, The Globe and Mail, and Archaeology Magazine.
We will be expanding this project to investigate the Greenland Norse colonies and Romano-Britain, which will be published in the coming year. Also, I am working on a number of smaller projects that I will include here once ready. Watch this space!
If you have any questions or would like to chat more about my research, please feel free to reach out!