Human Origins Leiden

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MacDonald, Katharine

Personal Information:

Position: Postdoc researcher
Phone or fax: +31(0)715272931

Three interconnected themes run through my research: brains and cognition, ecological niche and adaptive flexibility (an ability to develop novel solutions to problems, through processes including innovation and social learning). These themes are important throughout the history of the human lineage as well as for understanding the origins of Homo sapiensIn order to understand how these characteristics changed and interacted throughout human evolution, I focus on relevant case studies from a range of different Palaeolithic periods and regions. This has varied from a study of the role of adaptive flexibility in the earliest hominin expansion out of Africa (in my doctoral research), to Neanderthal learning of subsistence skills (in a postdoctoral project at the University of Leiden). I also draw on relevant data from other disciplines, particularly primatology and ethnography, which can address questions that are difficult to answer based on the archaeological record alone. My methodology is often characterized by analysis of large datasets, using computer applications. A good example of my approach is an ongoing analysis of the relationship between relative brain size and environmental tolerance, using data from modern primate species worldwide and GIS techniques, carried out with researchers at University College London and Stonybrook University.  

A key part of my current research focuses on the earliest occupation of north-west Europe. At this north-western edge of their distribution the earliest occupants probably encountered new and challenging conditions. What biological and behavioural adaptations were necessary? Fire is often seen as one of the most valuable tools for coping with cold conditions. However, chronologies for the use of fire diverge dramatically. A recent review of the archaeological evidence for fire use carried out by Wil Roebroeks and Paola Villa (2011, PNAS) concluded that clear traces of habitual fire use date to 400-300,000 years ago - substantially younger than evidence for the arrival of the first hominins in Europe, including the north-west. Could the early occupants kept themselves warm in winter and processed their food without fire? I aim to answer these questions based on a review of the biology and behavioural strategies of present day humans and other mammals in similar conditions. This complements other research in the Human Origins Group aiming at narrowing down the chronology of fire use.


  • Aarts JMMJG, Alink GM, Scherjon F, MacDonald K, Smith AC, Nijveen H, Roebroeks W. 2016. Fire Usage and Ancient Hominin Detoxification Genes: Protective Ancestral Variants Dominate While Additional Derived Risk Variants Appear in Modern Humans. PLOS ONE. 11(9): 1-18. [More] 
  • MacDonald K, Smaers JB. 2015. Hominin geographical range dynamics and relative brain size: Do non-human primates provide a good analogy?. Journal of Human Evolution. 87: 66-77. [More] 
  • Heyes P, MacDonald K. 2015. Neandertal energetics: Uncertainty in body mass estimation limits comparisons with Homo sapiens. Journal of Human Evolution. 85: 193-197. [More] 
  • Scherjon F, Bakels C, MacDonald K, Roebroeks W. 2015. Burning the Land: An Ethnographic Study of Off-Site Fire Use by Current and Historically Documented Foragers and Implications for the Interpretation of Past Fire Practices in the Landscape. Current Anthropology. 56(3): 299-326. [More] 
  • MacDonald K, Roebroeks W. 2012. The environment and chronology of the earliest occupation of north-west Europe: Current knowledge, problems and new research directions. Guest editorial. Quaternary International. 271: 1-5. [More]