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From Biological to Cultural Diversity

Page last published: 18 Apr 2013

"Fighting" for a PhD, for most candidates, is a metaphor. For Paul Mason in the Department of Anthropology, it was an everyday experience of fieldwork in Indonesia and Brazil.

Paul's research into rituals of combat-dancing took him from thePaul Mason highlands of West Sumatra to the shanty towns of Brazil. He took anthropology to the max by actually participating in the combat-dancing rituals that he studied. In addition to extensive fieldwork, Paul also undertook archival research at the Royal Archives in Holland with a travel fellowship from the Australia-Netherlands Research Collaboration. His cross-cultural research extended into contemporary models of cultural evolution and made innovative contributions to our understanding of non-verbal human expression.

Paul shares his interest in anthropology of sport with Macquarie's expert and his former PhD supervisor, Associate Professor Greg Downey. They are working together to pioneer a new field of research called neuroanthropology.

Neuroanthropology is the merging together of the sciences of the Greg Downey and Paul Mason brain with the study of culture, especially field research on human diversity outside the lab. Greg regularly writes for a neuroanthropology website hosted by the Public Library of Science and has just released a book, called The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology, published by MIT Press. Greg was also co-editor with Associate Professor Daniel Lende of a recent volume on Neuroanthropology published in the Annals of Anthropological Practice.

Recently ranked in the top 80 in the 2012 UniJobs Lecturer of the Year Award, Greg and Paul bring their research to the classroom in their Human Evolution and Diversity unit—a subject Greg commenced at Macquarie University in 2008. Enrolment for the subject surged from ninety in the first year to over five hundred in 2012. "Students come in expecting just to learn about human origins," says Greg, "In fact evolution helps to understand the way we are today, including our diversity."

Paul was awarded his PhD in April last year, and he continues to work for Macquarie University in casual teaching and research positions. Through his involvement in teaching human evolution, Paul combined some of the latest findings in genetics to propose and publish a groundbreaking hypothesis about the patterns of interbreeding that occurred between Neanderthals and humans some 80,000 to 50,000 years ago. When the Australian science magazine Cosmos learnt about the research hypothesis, they quickly published his article called "My Great-great-great Grandfather was a Neanderthal".
From biological evolution to cultural diversity, Greg and Paul's research and teaching brings together approaches from the humanities and sciences. Thanks to a Macquarie University Research Excellence Scholarship, Paul has had the opportunity to develop skills across a variety of disciplines. "Modern problems are best approached on an inter-disciplinary basis," says Paul, "By navigating through multiple fields of human inquiry we can better understand the world and the people in it."Learn more about Macquarie University's PhD program

Read Paul's paper on Neanderthal-human Hybrids

To contact Dr Greg Downey email greg.downey@mq.edu.au To contact Paul Mason email paul.mason@mq.edu.au