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Rick Potts

Portrait of paleoanthropologist Rick Potts.

Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts is the director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History. Since joining the Smithsonian in 1985, Rick has dedicated his research to piecing together the record of Earth’s environmental change and human adaptation.  His ideas on how human evolution responded to environmental instability have stimulated wide attention and new research in several scientific fields.  Rick has developed international collaborations among scientists interested in the ecological aspects of human evolution.  He leads excavations at early human sites in the East African Rift Valley, including the famous handaxe site of Olorgesailie, Kenya, and Kanam near Lake Victoria, Kenya.  He also co-directs ongoing projects in southern and northern China that compare evidence of early human behavior and environments from eastern Africa to eastern Asia. He received his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard University in 1982, after which he taught anthropology at Yale University and served as curator of physical anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum.  Rick is curator of The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, and has authored the companion book, What Does It Mean To Be Human? When he’s not time-traveling, Rick enjoys singing, Halloween, and the Phillies.


Potts, R., Sloan, C., 2010. What Does It Mean To Be Human? National Geographic, Washington, DC.

Petraglia, M., Potts, R., 2004. The Old World Paleolithic and the Development of a National Collection. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 48, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC (148 pages).

Potts, R., 1996. Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability. William Morrow & Co., New York, 325pp.

Behrensmeyer, A.K., J. Damuth, W. DiMichele, R. Potts, H. Sues, and S. Wing (Eds.), 1992. Terrestrial Ecosystems Through Time. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 568pp.

Potts, R., 1998. Early Hominid Activities at Olduvai. Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 396pp.

Selected articles:

Zhu, R.X., Potts, R., Pan, Y.X., Yao, H.T., Lü, L.Q., Zhao, X., Gao, X., Chen, L.W., Gao, F., Deng, C.L., 2008. Early evidence of the genus Homo in East Asia. Journal of Human Evolution 55, 1075-1085.

Potts, R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Deino, A., Ditchfield, P., Clark, J., 2004. Small mid-Pleistocene hominin associated with East African Acheulean technology. Science 305, 75-78.

Bonnefille, R., Potts, R., Chalié, F., Jolly, D., Peyron, O., 2004. High-resolution vegetation and climate change associated with Pliocene Australopithecus afarensis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (U.S.A.) 101, 12125-12129.

Zhu, R., Potts, R., Xie, F., Hoffman, K.A., Deng, C.L., Shi, C.D., Pan, Y.W., Wang, H.Q., Shi, R.P., Wang, Y.C., Xhi, G.H., Wu, N.Q., 2004. New evidence regarding the earliest human presence at high northern latitudes in northeast Asia. Nature 431: 559-562.

Hou Y., Potts, R., Yuan B., Guo Z., Deino, A., Wang W., Clark, J., Xie G., Huang, W., 2000. Mid- Pleistocene Acheulean-like stone technology of the Bose Basin, South China. Science 287: 1622-1626.

Potts R., 1998. Environmental hypotheses of hominin evolution. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 41: 93-136.

Potts, R., 1996. Evolution and climate variability. Science 273: 922-923.