Dr. Rachel Caspari currently serves as the Chairperson for the department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Central Michigan University. She also currently serves as the president for the Biological Anthropology Section of the American Anthropological Association. As a paleoanthropologist, Dr. Caspari’s research has developed into three major parts, including functional morphology, race and human evolution, and life history and demographic changes in human evolution. All of these topics address key facets of modernity, including its evolution, the role of culture, demography and life history changes in its development, its place in the history of science, and its impact on social understandings of diversity.
Dr. Caspari has had an interest in anthropology since she was a child growing up in Philadelphia. Her family would often go to the University Museum of The University of Pennsylvania, which displayed the work of University of Pennsylvania anthropologists. The university has one of the oldest anthropology departments in the U.S., and the museum contains ethnographic and archaeological work from anthropologists in the 19th century to the present day. Dr. Caspari became fascinated with cultural variation and using material culture to study the past as a result of spending time there. Museums would play a defining role in Dr. Caspari’s interests, as she also spent time at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where her interests in paleontology and animal behavior were fostered.
As an undergraduate at The University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Caspari greatly enjoyed anthropology and biology, and was drawn into the field by the paleoanthropologist Dr. Alan Mann. As an undergraduate, she became interested in research through independent studies with Dr. Mann, in which she studied the dwarfs from Tepe Hissar in Iran along with non-metric traits in the Morton collection. During this time, Dr. Caspari started thinking a lot about gene flow and the fossil record, a topic she would come back to later in her career. Due to Dr. Mann’s influence, Dr. Caspari focused on fossils, and was drawn to the Upper Pleistocene partially because of the material culture. However, Dr. Caspari was also very interested in “race”, gene flow, and applying understandings of human diversity to the past.
This would lead Dr. Caspari to pursue graduate studies at The University of Michigan, where her first advisor was Dr. Frank Livingstone, who researched and wrote extensively on the non-existence of human races. For her eventual dissertation work, Dr. Caspari studied Neandertals and early modern humans in central Europe. Her dissertation committee was chaired by John Speth and Henry Wright.
This has led Dr. Caspari to a research career focused on the origins of modern humans, and what it means to be a modern human. Particularly, Dr. Caspari is interested in the transition between Neandertals and modern humans in Europe and Western Asia and its relationship to technological and cultural change evidenced at roughly the same time: the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition. Throughout her career, Dr. Caspari has highlighted evidence rejecting a phylogenetic explanation for what makes a modern human. This has inevitably led Dr. Caspari to address two important questions: What is a modern human (behaviorally, anatomically, genetically) and how do we account for its evolution? Dr. Caspari’s work has helped show that these aspects of “modernity” (behavior, anatomy, genes) did not evolve in a “package”, though there is a relationship between them. Dr. Caspari thinks this relationship is demographic, in which increased survivorship and increased population sizes have resulted in behavioral and genetic changes that are associated with modern humans. Therefore, her most recent work has focused on demography as well as the problems associated with assessing age groups in the past. As a result of these problems, Dr. Caspari has been working on non-destructive methods to assess dental age at death.
Dr. Caspari’s interests in variation and the origins of modern humans have also led to her research and writing on the race concept as well as the multiregional theory of modern human origins. Throughout her career, Dr. Caspari has been an advocate and developer of the multiregional theory, along with her husband Dr. Milford Wolpoff. Together, they have written a book on the race concept and human evolution. Dr. Caspari’s work contributed to the renewed focus on gene flow in human evolution in the 1990’s as well as the recognition that essentialism and racial thinking have influenced misconceptions about multiregionalism and theories of human evolution more generally. Through this, Dr. Caspari has written extensively on the race concept, particularly (though not exclusively) on the role it has played in the history of physical anthropology.
To view some of Dr. Caspari’s publications, click here.