Talking about data access at the 2013 AAPAs

This week is the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), in Knoxville, Tennessee. My visit to this year’s meetings is going to be an abbreviated one, owing to the realities of leaving a 3-week old at home. Nevertheless, I am part of what promises to be a really interested panel Thursday afternoon, organized by Graciela Cabana and Benjamin Auerbach and sponsored by Wiley-Blackwell, on the future of biological anthropology.

When I was initially approached by Graciela and Ben my immediate inclination was to focus on the connection between fossil and genetic studies, something near and dear to my interests. But as I began putting together a talk, I realized that in thinking about the future of paleoanthropology, the current wave of new genetic research makes the question of whether or not traditional paleoanthropology has a future a legitimate one to ask. The exciting changes in the narrative of modern human origins that have come about the past several years have only been indirectly linked to new fossil discoveries or fossil analyses. Instead, they have been because of the application of genetic technologies and the production of evolutionary genetic data (yes – the Denisovan genome required the discovery of the Denisovan fossils, but the importance of these data for paleoanthropology come almost entirely from the genetic, not the fossil, data).

In my talk, I try to introduce the basic point that traditional fossil data and genetic data are actually wonderfully complementary and have the potential to dramatically improve our ability to thoroughly and substantively test evolutionary hypotheses. However, the ability to do this is undercut by the difficulty in accessing basic paleoanthropological data, unlike genetic data which is far more readily available.

In the end, the evolution of my talk led to it begin a talk about proposing a true paleoanthropological, open-access, database. If paleoanthropology wants to continue to play an important role in understanding human evolution, it needs to do a better job of making data accessible. So that is what the talk focuses on.

The organizers of the session wanted to try and make this group of talks different than the traditional AAPA podium presentations. What they settled on was urging presenters to use a pecha kucha format in their talks, 20 slides, 30 seconds per slide, automatic advancing, no exception. 30 seconds, it turns out, is not a lot of time. You can see that if you go through my script in the slide notes of my presentation. I will try to expand on some of the points I raise in the next few days here, hopefully incorporating some of the discussion generated by the talk tomorrow.

In the meantime, you can access the powerpoint slides, with attached talk, at this link. Also, follow the hashtag #AAPA2013 for more updates from the meetings.

About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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One Response to Talking about data access at the 2013 AAPAs

  1. I’m very interested in your proposal for a paleoanthropological open-access database and would like to get to know more. Unfortunately, I did not attend the meeting. I absolutely agree on the need of more open science ( , but it seems to me that evolutionary anthropology is going too slowly in the direction of an efficent robust and widespread data sharing. I hope there could be some interaction among researchers on this topic in the future to make a step ahead. Things are not simple, but the effort to is worthwhile.

    Giovanni Destro Bisol

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