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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.
Rick 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.

Articles by Rick: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/author/rick-potts/


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. https://goo.gl/6yQ5Mp

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