Recent Gibbs Travelling Research Projects

2017-2023 Gibbs Fellows and their fieldwork projects are detailed below.


2022-2023 - Dr Shahina Ghazanfar - Medicinal plants of the Middle East from antiquity to the present

My research focuses on the most commonly used plants used for medicinal purposes in the Middle East from ancient times to the present. I am documenting their origins, vernacular names, distribution, and uses, with the aim of establishing how traditional plant-based medicinal potions and medical knowledge have evolved and changed over time in the Middle East.

My research starts with cuneiform sources since the history of herbal medicine is believed to have begun in classical antiquity. Cuneiform texts on clay tablets reveal that ancient Mesopotamians knew about health care and used plants to cure diseases and other health conditions more than 5,000 years ago. Several plant names in Akkadian and Sumerian (the languages of ancient Mesopotamia) are identified as medicinal plants that exist (and some are still used) in present-day Iraq.

I am particularly interested in researching plants used in diagnosis in the Greco-Arab medical system, or Unāni Ṭibb. Unāni Ṭibb, which was developed by Muslims in the Middle East and Iran, using the Hippocratic and Galenian principles of diagnosis is still practiced in several countries of the Middle East. I have adopted my research method by visiting herbal shops selling traditional plant-based medicines, and conducting interviews with sellers about where the plants come from, how popular these preparations are, and what section of society purchases them. I have also visited and interviewed individuals (mostly elderly mothers) at their homes to learn about their knowledge of medicinal plants. Countries that I have visited include the Sultanate of Oman, Jordan, and Cordoba. I have studied one of the earliest collections of medicinal herbs from Iraq, Syria, and Palestine made by Leonhard Rauwolff in 1574–75 and a collection from Iraq made by Aucher-Éloy in the early 19th century.

I have started writing my findings in book form to describe 200 plants as they are known to be used now and have been in ancient times.

2022-2023 - Dr Laura Van Holstein - Culture, competition and crabs: the evolutionary implications of crab-fishing in the Nimba Mountains, Guinea

The exploitation of aquatic resources is hypothesized to have played a major role in human evolution. The application of chimpanzee models to understand the evolution of hominin behaviour has produced important insights about selective pressures and evolutionary consequences of behaviours including bipedalism and tool use, but the same is not true for aquatic faunivory—simply because there is only one known case of this behaviour in chimpanzees.

In my project, I study this single case of chimpanzee aquatic faunivory, freshwater crab-fishing by a single community of Western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in the Nimba Mountains, Guinea, in order to shed new light on the evolutionary drivers of this behaviour. I am exploring two broad aspects of the behaviour:

1. Culture, cognition, and social learning
Only a single Nimba community, out of a total of four, is known to fish for crabs. Why only this community—are there no opportunities for crab-fishing in other home ranges? Or is it because the behaviour is socially learnt? And if it is socially learnt, how do novices learn from models? We also explore the cognitive demands of hunting moving and concealed prey.

2. Evolutionary dynamics
How does the inclusion of aquatic resources alter the diet of a species—does it initially broaden the feeding niche, or do aquatic resources replace other, nutritionally equivalent, prey? Why did the Nimba chimpanzees start fishing for crabs? Whilst palaeoanthropological perspectives focus on the long-term adaptive value of aquatic resource exploitation, the case of the Nimba chimpanzees allows us to disentangle what shorter-term drivers aquatic faunivory might have been, and whether these differed from the longer-term factors. Finally, we explore the dynamics of ecological competition between chimpanzees and sympatric taxa that prey on crabs, such as forest hogs and, potentially, sooty mangabeys.

2021-2022 - Not awarded

2020-2021 - Not awarded

2019-2020 Dr Loubab Zedane - Fog-harvesting adaptations in genus Eriospermum

The evolution of fog-harvesting adaptations in the genus Eriospermum

A fog desert is a type of desert where non-precipitating fog moisture supplies most of the water needed by the organisms that live there – that is, fog supplies the water, instead of rain. Well-known fog deserts include the Atacama Desert of coastal Chile, and the Namib Desert of southern Africa.

Animals and plants living in fog deserts have evolved extraordinary adaptations to enable them to survive in these extreme environments. These physiological and morphological adaptations allow organisms to efficiently harvest moisture from the fog via condensation, and then absorption.

For example, nano-scale surface structures on the back of the Stenocara gracilipes beetle allow droplets of water to stick to its surface and accumulate there. The droplets accumulate until they roll down the beetle’s back to its mouth for it to drink.

Other adaptations such as mist-net leaves, spiraled leaves, and hairy leaves in plants (e.g. in the desert moss Syntrichia caninervis), allow for water condensation and fog-drip by increasing the edge-to-surface area of the organism. Foliar Water Uptake (FWU) is a common water acquisition mechanism for plants in ecosystems affected by fog, having as a consequence a net increase in leaf water mass. Recent studies have shown that the diffusion of fog water intercepted by the leaves in a number of species could be mediated by fungal hyphae, absorbent trichomes (leaf hairs), and the properties of the cuticle and leaf. Individual plant species may potentially use several pathways for water acquisition.

However, little is known about the water use proportions from various sources and potential water uptake pathways in Eriospermum (Asparagaceae), a plant genus native to sub-Saharan Africa with more than two thirds of the estimated 125 species occurring uniquely in semi-arid deserts in Southern Africa. This plant genus demonstrates a remarkable range of unusual leaf morphologies, including reduction of the leaf lamina and the production of unusual leaf enations on the adaxial surface of the leaf (Perry, 1994). These enations have been suggested to be associated with the harvesting of non-precipitating moisture in the form of fog, mist, and dew, but this hypothesis has yet to be rigorously tested.

2019-2020 Dr Janet Gruber - Human papillomavirus vaccination

Proposal for research into the outcomes and impacts of the human papillomavirus vaccination demonstration programme in Malawi

The research will examine the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination demonstration programme implementation in Malawi from a social anthropological perspective.
The core research hypothesis is that there is a need to examine health system delivery, community responses and socio-cultural underpinnings of these in the context of the HPV demonstration programme in Malawi. The research will consider ethical and health rights’ issues, linked to preventive services for cervical and other cancers where HPV is a risk factor.
No such research has yet been conducted in Malawi. One such rights issue is how to provide information and services to girls and young women unreached by the HPV demonstration programme, which was predominantly conducted with girls in school.
Most work so far on HPV vaccination in Malawi and elsewhere has focused on clinical and epidemiological aspects. In addition, a large proportion of the HPV vaccination literature addresses pre-implementation planning and research.
I will consider socio-cultural barriers, including social and gender norms, in the context of HPV programme implementation, an area of study which has received relatively little attention (most such studies and reviews that exist depend on quantitative data and present aggregate information). Detailed review has found no published research based on social
and medical anthropology approaches. Most of the hitherto limited number of postimplementation studies prioritise epidemiological outcomes, biomedical challenges, health systems’ issues, and cost implications iii. Therefore, this research will break new ground.

2018-2019 Dr Lucy Goodison - Archaelogy

2018-2019 Dr Sertaç Sehlikoglu - Social Anthropology

2017-2018 Dr Maanasa Raghavan - DNA

29 January 2019: Link to Report 

Reconstructing the population history of India using ancient DNA

With rapid technological advances in DNA sequencing, we are seeing a steady increase in the DNA sequence output and a concurrent reduction in cost, making next-generation sequencing a cost-effective way to perform population-level genomic analyses. The last few years have witnessed an associated increase in the number of studies focusing on reconstructing human population histories. Many of these studies have highlighted the power of co-analysing ancient and modern DNA datasets in order to trace past migrations and admixture events that have shaped the present-day human gene pool. Ultimately, this knowledge is key to resolving controversies surrounding population origins as well as aspects of medical genetics research.

My research aims to harness the power of modern and ancient human genomics and lay the foundation for long-term research into reconstructing the complex human population history of India. For a region that is home to genetically and culturally diverse demography, the lack of data to reconstruct the early peopling of India and the subsequent population genetics trajectory is especially striking. India’s genetic past remains a subject of great debate due to numerous hypotheses surrounding population origins and migrations within and from outside India. The proposed fieldwork, involving the sub-sampling of 50-100 ancient human remains and 100 individuals from five present-day indigenous populations representing a range in cultural, phenotypic and genetic diversity, constitutes an integral part of a multi-disciplinary project that brings together archaeology, anthropology, and population and medical genetics. The whole-genome data generated from these ancient and modern samples will provide the opportunity to directly test several of the hypotheses surrounding population origins for the first time, as well as contributing a valuable reference panel for future genomics studies.