Anthropologist Peter Ungar Named AAAS Fellow

Released: 29-Nov-2012 2:50 PM EST
Source Newsroom: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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Ungar Named Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science:
U of A anthropologist honored for ‘transformative contributions’

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Newswise — FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Peter S. Ungar has been elected by his national peers to be a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ungar, a Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, was chosen for “extensive and transformative contributions to understanding human evolution, particularly the evolution of diet and paleoecology, and for education and service to his university and discipline.”

“Peter Ungar’s work is respected internationally for his innovative use of technologies to reveal the life and evolution of the earliest humans,” said Robin Roberts, dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. “Whether he is working with scholars from other universities or students in his lab, he brings curiosity, collegiality and good humor to their research. We are proud of his achievements and pleased that AAAS has recognized his contributions.”

In his 17 years at the university, Ungar’s research has focused on how the distant ancestors of humans and their relatives used their environments, the science known as paleoecology. In his work, he integrates three fields related to diet and feeding. First, dental anthropology, or the study of the relationship between diet and the sizes, shapes and wear of teeth in living primates. Second, primate feeding ecology, which is the study of the diets and feeding adaptations of living primates. And third, paleoanthropology, which is the study of the fossils of human ancestors and their close relatives.

His most recent book, Mammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity, won the 2010 American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence for best book in the biological sciences. He has published two edited volumes on the evolution of human diet and has written or coauthored more than 100 research papers.

Ungar’s work has led to findings that have challenged assumptions and advanced understanding of the evolution of human diet.

For example, his work on the sizes, shapes and wear on teeth involves using new technologies, developed by Ungar and his colleagues, to better understand relationships between teeth and diet in living primates The researchers used geographic information systems and laser scanning to examine the “dental landscapes” of teeth. This new technique, dental topographic analysis, focuses on worn teeth and allows the reconstruction of the diets of more fossil species than ever before. Archeological evidence had suggested that early human ancestors consumed meat, but Ungar’s work, published in 2005, provided the first anatomical evidence to support that hypothesis.

Through dental microwear texture analysis, Ungar studied the microscopic use-wear in teeth and the ways different patterns relate to different diets. The pits and scratches that food leaves behind on teeth indicate whether our ancestors ate hard, brittle foods, such as seeds, nuts, roots or tubers, or tough foods, such as grasses and meat.

He and his colleagues found direct evidence of a broadening, diversifying diet through human evolution, from Homo habilis to Homo erectus about a million and a half years ago. The researchers used a technique they developed that combines engineering software, scale-sensitive fractal analysis, and a scanning confocal microscope to create a reproducible texture analysis for teeth.

Ungar’s research has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the LSB Leakey Foundation, the Sigma Xi Society, the Boise Fund, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Ungar joins seven other society fellows in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas: J. Michael Plavcan in anthropology, Kimberly Smith and Douglas A. James in biological sciences, as well as four faculty in chemistry, Robert Gawley, Francis Millett, Peter Pulay and C.L. Wilkins. Karen Moldenhauer in the Rice Research and Extension Center of the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences is also a fellow.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science. AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes 261 affiliated societies and academies of science serving 10 million individuals. The non-profit organization is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and more.


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