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Rick Potts

Portrait of paleoanthropologist Rick Potts.

Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts heads the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and holds the Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins 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.  Rick also leads the team that recovered the first long sediment core drilled from an early human site in East Africa; the core preserves a high-resolution archive of environmental dynamics over the past 1 million years. He has also co-directed projects in southern and northern China that compare evidence of early human behavior and environments from East Africa to East 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 Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and of the traveling exhibition “Exploring Human Origins”, leading a Smithsonian team touring the U.S. with the exhibition. Rick authored the exhibition companion book, What Does It Mean To Be Human? When he’s not time-traveling in the East African Rift Valley and elsewhere, Rick enjoys singing, Halloween, and the Phillies.


Read more about the latest discoveries published in the journal Science on our Evolution of Human Innovation page



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. Republished in 2010 by Transaction Publishers.


Selected articles:

Potts, R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Faith, J.T., Tryon, C.A., Brooks, A.S., Yellen, J.E., Deino, A.L., Kinyanjui, R., Clark, J.B., Haradon, C., Levin, N.E., Meijer, H.J.M., Veatch, E.G., Owen, R.B., Renaut, R.W., 2018. Environmental dynamics during the onset of the Middle Stone Age in eastern Africa, Science is external) 

Brooks, A.S., Yellen, J.E., Potts, R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Deino, A.L., Leslie, D.E., Ambrose, S.H., Ferguson, J., d’Errico, F. Zipkin, A.M., Whittaker, S., Post, J., Veatch, E.G., Foecke, K., Clark, J.B., 2018. Long-distance stone transport and pigment use in the earliest Middle Stone Age, Science is external)

Deino, A.L., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Brooks, A.S., Yellen, J.E., Sharp, W.D., Potts, R., 2018. Chronology of the Acheulean to Middle Stone Age Transition in Eastern Africa, Science

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Richard Potts, Alan Deino; The Oltulelei Formation of the southern Kenyan Rift Valley: A chronicle of rapid landscape transformation over the last 500 k.y.. GSA Bulletin doi:

Potts, R., 2017. What will it mean to be human? In: Living in the Anthropocene: Humanity in the Age of Humans, W. John Kress and Jeffrey K. Stine, Eds., Smithsonian Press, Washington, DC.

Potts, R., and Faith, J.T., 2015. Alternating high and low climate variability: the context of natural selection and speciation in Plio-Pleistocene hominin evolution. Journal of Human Evolution 87: 5-20.

Antón, S.C., Potts, R., and Aiello, L.C., 2014. Evolution of early Homo: An integrated biological perspective. Science 345(6192): 1-13.  doi:10.1126/science.1236828

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.