Research spotlight: Sally Reynolds


Could you please introduce yourself?

Sally Reynolds, senior lecturer in Hominin Palaeoecology and Deputy Head of the Institute for Studies of Landscape and Human Evolution (ISLHE) at BU.

What are your main research interests?

I am interested in the environments that our ancestors lived in, during the period of 4 million years ago to 1 million years ago in Africa. We know that our ancestors, which we call hominins, did not have access to sophisticated technology that we have access to today. They were very vulnerable in their landscape from threats like lions, hyenas, leopards and the now-extinct sabre-toothed cats. Their lives were very dangerous, we know that they didn’t have sharp teeth; we know they were not very fast runners. I am studying how landscapes, like in the southern rift of Kenya and Botswana, can help us understand the ways in which our ancestors used their landscapes to survive.

What are you working on at the moment?

We have just submitted a paper about the Okavango Delta in Botswana. We used remote sensing, which involves satellite imagery, to look at vegetation and how the vegetation vigour in the Okavango basin itself has been very stable over the years 2000 and until 2013. We are very excited about that because it shows certain parts of the landscapes; specifically tectonically controlled basins have a sediment fill that is acting like a sponge, which is absorbing water. Then even if it becomes dryer climatically for a few years afterwards this sponge will still be acting like a reservoir. This is lying in the middle of the Kalahari Desert and is acting as an oasis and a buffer against drying climate trends. If we look more broadly about where our ancestors evolved in East Africa, you can see that this localised tectonic basin effect may have provided refuge as to where our ancestors could have survived.

How is your research making a difference?

We are an extremely intelligent species and we are interested as a species in our origins. So I think for science, we are interested in questions about where did we come from, what made us what we are and ultimately, something that people are finding very concerning, what impact are we having on our landscapes and environments today and what is the future of our species. I address part of this much longer narrative about the story of our species and our future; we went from being very small and insignificant in our landscapes to a worldwide landscape transforming species. We have never had another species which has been quite so successful.

What are the biggest challenges to carrying out research in your field?

The biggest challenge has been overcoming people’s perception, specifically in the scientific community, that the only way that we can learn about the past is by digging a hole in the ground and analysing what we find. I am trained as an archaeologist, but over the course of my studies and research experience, I have become interested in stepping back from the site itself and looking at the wider landscape perspective. This is the nature of the landscape use work that we are looking at for the Olorgesailie site in southern Kenya. So we peeled back the layers and as scientists we always start with the known and work towards the unknown. So in this case the known was the underlying bedrock geology which gives rise to the characteristics of the soil which support a particular kind of plant, which is either rich or deficient in macronutrients like calcium, phospherous, copper these are all things we need to survive. So you start with what we know, what animals need to survive and where the good areas of grazing are and then we peel back the layers and work back into the past. By doing this we were able to reconstruct areas of good and bad grazing, we were able to create a Digital elevation model of ancient landscape to see what the volcanic caldera would have looked like. So by using these combinations we had a lake, a volcano, a river, as well as areas of good and bad grazing around the ancient site of Olorgesailie. So you imagine that you have set the scene, you can imagine that the animals are moving through their landscape and they need their water, and good grazing. They cannot climb the banks of the volcano because these are large grazing animals like wildebeest and zebra; these are not animals that like to climb up mountains. So using the known we can work to the unknown, we can see that where the site is placed is perfectly placed, to intercept the animals as they are traveling towards the lake and conduct ambush hunting almost a million years ago. This means that our ancestors were able to observe, think and plan an ambush hunt on these prey animals. This is the earliest such site known at present.

What advice would you give to a researcher starting out in your field?

Make sure it’s your passion, you have got to feel it in your gut and it has to be visceral. There are going to be many challenges, being smart isn’t going to be the only essential part of you research career, if it’s something that you love and you feel it in your heart, you have to give it 110%. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from academics, you need to say “This is what I want from my future, can you help me achieve my goals?” Not every academic is nurturing of younger talent, you have to find an academic that believes in your potential, somebody that is willing to foster you, to teach you and take the time to help you. I am here because other academics took the time to mentor me and nurture me.