Miriam Belmaker - The University of Tulsa

Miriam Belmaker

Anthropology professor awarded major research grant

Woman smiling in front of desktop displaying 3D scans
Miriam Belmaker

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a $246,665 grant to Associate Professor of Anthropology Miriam Belmaker. The NSF award will further enhance the Department of Anthropology’s Surface Metrology and Imaging Lab by funding the purchase of a 3D micro laser scanner and software for digital analysis.

This lab already contains several instruments that are found in only a few other U.S. universities. The addition of the 3D micro laser scanner will help to make The University of Tulsa a national center for material sciences research, including investigations of climate change and human evolution.

What can ancient rodents’ teeth reveal about today’s changing climate?

For Belmaker, the NSF-funded technology will allow her to fashion a new approach to studying past environments based on the shape of rodents’ teeth. Because animals eat food that changes with the environment (hay-like foods during dry periods and leafier vegetation during wet ones), those foods modify the tooth surface, meaning that different shapes are created on a micro level.

3D micro laser with hippo tooth
3D micro laser and hippo tooth

Using the 3D micro laser scanner, Belmaker will be able to look at the tooth shape of modern rodents by creating digital 3D scans. “I can then correlate the tooth shape with the current climate where they live and I can see if there is a relationship between the two,” said Belmaker. “With that information in hand, I will then be able to examine fossil rodents using the same methods and, thereby, infer past climates.”

Belmaker plans to focus on three time periods in human evolution, including when early humans dispersed from Africa into Eurasia 2 million years ago, the extinction of Neanderthals and the survival of modern humans during the last glacial period (ca. 20,000 years ago). “Knowing how climate change has affected these key events in human evolution is not only important for understanding our past but also has direct implications for the current global climate crisis,” Belmaker commented. “Current climate change is having immeasurable effects on human populations worldwide. To understand how the current climate may affect us and nature around us, looking at the past is critical. This research is a step in that direction.”

Are you interested in knowing more about TU’s Surface Metrology and Imaging Lab and the new 3D micro laser scanner and software? Contact Miriam Belmaker at miriam-belmaker@utulsa.edu for all the details.

TU paleoanthropologist uncovers ancient humans in Israel

A prehistoric human-child vertebra discovered in the Jordan Valley tells the story of long-ago migrations from Africa. Approximately 1.5 million years old, the vertebra is the earliest evidence of an ancient human discovered in Israel.

four people standing outdoors
Left to right: Omri Barzilai, Izzy Marimski (who discovered the site in 1959), Miriam Belmaker and Alon Barash

A new study, led by researchers from Bar-Ilan University, The University of Tulsa, Ono Academic College and the Israel Antiquities Authority, presents a 1.5 million-year-old human vertebra discovered in Israel’s Jordan Valley. According to the research published Wednesday, Feb. 2, in the journal Scientific Reports, ancient human migration from Africa to Eurasia was not a one-time event but occurred in waves. The first wave reached the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus approximately 1.8 million years ago. The second is documented in ‘Ubeidiya, in the Jordan Valley south of the Sea of Galilee, about 1.5 million years ago.

The research was led by Alon Barash of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University, Chapman Associate Professor of Anthropology Miriam Belmaker of The University of Tulsa, Professor Ella Been of Ono Academic College and Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Recently, excavations in ‘Ubeidiya were resumed by Belmaker and Barzilai under a grant that Belmaker received in 2019 from the National Science Foundation. Belmaker’s research program involves scientists from around the world trying to uncover the secrets of the sediments. The grant has provided financial support for two TU undergraduate and two TU graduate students, as well as funded the first excavation at the site in over 20 years with Barzilai.

The prehistoric site of ‘Ubeidiya is significant for archaeological and evolutionary studies because it is one of the few places that contain preserved remnants of the early human exodus from Africa. The site is the second oldest archaeological site outside Africa and was excavated by several expeditions between 1960 and 1999. The finds from the site include a rich and rare collection of extinct animal bones and stone artifacts. Fossil species include sabertoothed tiger, mammoths and a giant buffalo, alongside animals not found today in Israel, such as baboons, warthogs, hippopotamuses, giraffes and jaguars. Stone and flint items made and used by ancient humans show resemblance to those discovered at sites in East Africa.

aerial view of brown and green landscapeThe new project led by Belmaker uses new absolute dating methods to refine the site’s dating and to study the paleoecology and paleoclimate of the region. While looking at the fossils from the site, now housed at the Hebrew University’s National Natural History Collections, Belmaker, a paleoanthropologist from TU’s Department of Anthropology, encountered a human vertebra. “This did not look like anything I had seen before,” she said. “It looked human, but I was not sure.” Initially unearthed in 1966, the bone was studied by Barash and Professor Been. They identified it as a human lumbar vertebra, the earliest fossil evidence of ancient human remains discovered in Israel, approximately 1.5 million years old.

According to fossil evidence and DNA research, human evolution began in Africa about 6 million years ago. Approximately 2 million years ago, ancient humans — nearly, but not yet in modern form — began to migrate from Africa and spread throughout Eurasia, a process known as the “Out of Africa.” ‘Ubeidiya, located in the Jordan Valley near Kibbutz Beit Zera, is one of the places where there is archaeological evidence for this dispersal.

There is an ongoing debate in the literature about whether the migration was a one-time event or occurred in several waves, explained Barash. The new find from ‘Ubeidiya sheds light on this question. “Due to the difference in size and shape of the vertebra from ‘Ubeidiya and those found at Dmanisi, we now have unambiguous evidence of the presence of two distinct dispersal waves,” he said.

“This vertebra holds secrets about the biology of the ‘Ubeidiya inhabitants,” commented Belmaker. “The person was maybe six years old, but even as a child this individual was very large – in fact, much larger than modern children of the same estimated age.”

four brown stone tools with a red and white measuring device in the middle“The stone and flint artifacts from ‘Ubeidiya, hand axes made from Basalt, chopping tools and flakes made from flint, are associated with the Early Acheulean culture. Previously, it was accepted that the stone tools from ‘Ubeidiya and Dmanisi were associated with different cultures – Early Acheulean in ‘Ubeidiya and Oldowan in Dmanisi. After this new study, we conclude that different human species produced the two industries,” said Barzilai.

According to Belmaker, “one of the main questions regarding the human dispersal from Africa were the ecological conditions that may have facilitated the dispersal. Previous theories debated whether early humans preferred an African savanna or new, more humid woodland habitat. Our new finding of different human species in Dmanisi and ‘Ubeidiya is consistent with our finding that climates also differed between the two sites. ‘Ubeidiya is more humid and compatible with a Mediterranean climate, while Dmanisi is drier with savannah habitat. This study showing two species, each producing a different stone tool culture, is supported by the fact that each population preferred a different environment.”

Been added, “the analysis we conducted shows that the vertebra from ‘Ubeidiya belonged to a young individual 6-12 years old, who was tall for his age. Had this child reached adulthood, he would have reached a height of over 180 cm. This ancient human is similar in size to other large hominins found in East Africa and is different from the short-statured hominins that lived in Georgia.”

“It seems, then, that in the period known as the Early Pleistocene, we can identify at least two species of early humans outside of Africa. Each wave of migration was that of different kind of humans –– in appearance and form; technique and tradition of manufacturing stone tools; and ecological niche in which they lived,” concluded Barash.

For Belmaker, researching human evolution is “extremely exciting.” Because excavations at ‘Ubeidiya concluded in 1999, some people thought there was nothing more to discover. “But you never quite know what you’re going to find,” she noted. “My research and that of my colleagues has shown that there are secrets to be found not only in new excavations that ‘break ground’ but also in old collections and museum drawers.”

As a paleoanthropologist, Belmaker relies on collaboration with natural scientists in fields such as anatomy, geology and biology. “I am proud that TU has allowed me to reach beyond the silos of my discipline and to create meaningful collaborations across our colleges.”

In summer 2022, Belmaker intends to return to Israel to examine more of these artifacts. Her main goal is to understand the environment more fully: “We know that ‘Ubeidiya is a lakeshore, but we are not sure of the climate. Was it like today – hot and dry? Or was it more humid? What was the rain pattern? What does this information say about humans’ ability to live in such an area and how did our ancestors cope with challenging climates? With climate change being such an urgent problem today, peering into the past allows us to learn from our ancestors and derive conclusions that are science-based and that help us cope with our current issues.” She is planning to take graduate and undergraduate students with her.

Immersion in the deep past of humanity’s story is just one of the many fascinating explorations the study of anthropology at TU makes possible. Learn more today!

Professors awarded NOVA FuTUre Fund innovation prizes

Associate Professor of English Grant Jenkins and Chapman Associate Professor of Anthropology Miriam Belmaker are the latest recipients of University of Tulsa NOVA Fellowship innovation prizes from the FuTUre Fund in support of their development of innovative new courses.

“The NOVA innovation prizes are a simple way to encourage those who want to create and implement innovative projects at TU,” said Professor of Marketing Charles Wood, the director of the NOVA Fellowship at TU. “Recognizing Jenkins and Belmaker as NOVA Faculty Fellows celebrates interdisciplinary innovation, something TU is known for and which is a key part of our new strategic plan.”

Black Women’s Poetry

Man with a silver beard and grey hair wearing an open-collar blue shirt and a grey blazerPoet, novelist and literature scholar Jenkins plans to use his NOVA funding to develop a course on Black women’s poetry. Jenkins has been publishing on African American poetry for the past decade and has a manuscript nearly completed on Black poetry since the end of the Civil Rights era. In fact, his essay “’re: Source’: African Contexts of Nathaniel Mackey’s Ethics” won the Joe Weixlmann Prize for best essay on a twentieth- or twenty-first century topic in the African American Review in 2017.

“My new course will examine the work and cultural/historical context of contemporary Anglophone writers from North America, including the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, who share common cultural history as well as innovative approaches to their poetics, both in terms of style, artistic process and content,” Jenkins explained. “To my knowledge, having taught at TU now for 18 years, no course on this topic has been taught before.”

Humans as Environmental Engineers: Agriculture to Energy

Woman posing for a selfie-photo in a forest while wearing a green topA specialist in the areas of climate change and human-environment interactions, Belmaker received funding to develop a new 4000- and 6000-level course entitled Humans as Environmental Engineers: Agriculture to Energy.” This course will empower students to explore the complex ways human culture, economy and demographics affect ecology, climate change and global sustainability challenges.

“I want to challenge students to integrate studies from a wide range of disciplines, social, historical and geographical sciences,” said Belmaker. “Doing so will enable them to gain an overview of the ecological dimension of global economic processes, with a long-term, historical perspective.” In order to promote innovation, Belmaker’s new course will present a highly interdisciplinary topic emphasizing debate, discussion and critical thinking of a controversial topic through extensive audio-visual materials and digital resources. Belmaker anticipates that her course will have a wide appeal to various university programs within TU’s strategic plan. She also foresees an associated public symposium to present the topic to a wider audience on campus and beyond.

Do you have an idea for a project within your field of study? Visit the NOVA Fellowship’s page to learn more about the NOVA Innovation Fund program and fill out your application!