Adam Van Arsdale

Professor of Anthropology

Engaged in questions on the evolution of biological variation and its connections to culture through the fossil record.

As an anthropologist, I am interested in the various ways we try to construct knowledge about the human condition. As a biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology, I am particularly interested in how we can employ evolutionary theory to understand human biological variation by looking at patterns of variation in the human fossil record. I am currently involved in several projects that build out of this interest.

I love the fieldwork side of paleoanthropology. Going back to graduate school I have a long-standing research interest in the fossil evidence for the dispersal of fossil humans within and outside of Africa. For more than a decade, I worked at (and helped co-develop a field school) the Lower Paleolithic site of Dmanisi, Georgia, one of the earliest fossil hominin sites outside of Africa, dating to approximately 1.8 million years before present. In recent years, my work in this area has moved east to Kazakhstan, where I continue to explore questions around the dispersal, population structure, and eco-geographic constraints that operate on Paleolithic populations. I am currently conducting National Geographic-funded exploratory work in South-Central Kazakhstan, attempting to identify new fossil/archaeological localities that might help us better understand the complex demographic structure of hominin populations in the Middle and Late Pleistocene.

One of my passions within biological anthropology is making the ideas and material of human evolution more accessible to the public. For example, I recently completed the production of podcast series, “Running for Science: Science for Running,” that highlighted the work of researchers who specialize in the evolution of human running (anatomy, biomechanics, energetics, neurobiology), as well as chronicling my own process of training for my first-ever Boston marathon. I have also been working to develop more accessible teaching resources through the construction, in collaboration with colleagues on campus, of a virtual-reality (VR) evolutionary anatomy lab. This VR application allows my students to access, explore, and interact with human skeletal anatomy and the human fossil record in ways that are not possible in the “real” world.

One of my research interests that has developed directly out of my teaching at Wellesley is a focus on how increasingly available human genetic/genomic information informs our understanding of what it means to be human. Genetic data, derived from both living people and from fossils, have become important sources of information about our evolutionary past. These kinds of data are also increasingly available on a personal level in the form of clinical genetic tests or direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic services. How these kinds of data interact with understandings of concepts like race, ancestry, or even the individual are complex, and predicated on existing social, legal, and politic structures, in addition to the biology of the genome itself.

With my teaching, my goal is to always connect the material we are exploring to the lives of my students. My teaching includes the introductory course in biological anthropology, forensic anthropology, human evolution, race and human variation, (in)visible Native America, anthropological genetics, and personal genomics.

Outside of my life at the College, I spend most of my time, along with my wife, who is a member of Wellesley’s French Department, keeping up with our three kids and our family dog. I am always happy to be outside, watching sports, or preparing/consuming food!


  • B.A., Emory University
  • B.S., Emory University
  • M.A., University of Michigan
  • Ph.D., University of Michigan