Jeanne Sept

Jeanne Sept

Professor Emeritus


  • Ph.D., Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1984
  • M.A., Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1980
  • A.B., Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1977

About Jeanne Sept

Investigating proto-human subsistence ecology is fundamental to understanding human origins. The earliest archaeological record in East Africa suggests that omnivorous diet and wide-ranging land-use patterns were distinctive proto-human adaptations. My research on this topic has led me out of the archaeological trenches and into the African savannas. Curious to understand how ancient environmental conditions would have influenced the dietary adaptations and ranging patterns of our early hominid ancestors, I have studied modern savanna environments analogous to early hominid habitats where sites have been preserved.

Because plant food remains are not preserved in early archaeological sites, the potential importance of plant foods in early hominid diet can only be evaluated using indirect evidence from the archaeological record. Knowing how modern plant food resources are patterned ecologically and geographically can provide clues for interpreting the distribution of archaeological materials across ancient landscapes. In Kenya and in eastern Zaire (Congo) I have surveyed vegetation in National Parks, to measure the seasonal abundance and distribution of different types of wild plant foods probably eaten by early hominids. Harvesting these foods, and measuring their nutritional value, provided key data that I am using to develop alternative models of early hominid foraging strategies.

I have been working with students to explore the potential of Agent Based Modeling to help evaluate hypotheses about proto-human diet and subsistence. We have created an ABM called HOMINIDS: Hungry Omnivores Moving, Interacting and Nesting in Independent Decision-making Simulations. Agent-Based Modeling is a powerful tool for the analysis of the types of dynamic ecological and social processes central to many questions about the subsistence adaptations of Plio-Pleistocene hominins. Through simulations of multiple autonomous agents interacting dynamically with each other and their environment, ABM provides a way to experimentally evaluate hypotheses about the adaptive consequences of behavioral traits of early hominid species, inferred from fossil and archaeological evidence. We analyze our results using the GIS facilities at ACT, and run our simulations on the IU Big Red super-computing cluster.

Early archaeological evidence has often been compared to the behavior of living chimpanzees because of chimps’ close evolutionary relationships to humans, their omnivorous diets, large ranges in savanna habitats, and their intelligence and technological skills. I use field data on chimpanzee ranging and subsistence ecology in their driest habitats to help interpret the early hominid archaeological record. In eastern Zaire I was able to study the diet and nesting distribution patterns of wild savanna chimpanzees along the Ishasha River, and show that these animals frequently nested in the same locations along a riverine galley forest. The results from this “etho-archaeology” study provide archaeologists with a possible behavioral explanation for how artifacts and feeding remains could have become concentrated along stream margins and formed archaeological sites before hominids had evolved the patterns of camping together and sharing food that are so typical of humans today. Other savanna chimp sites I have visited include Jim Moore’s (UC San Diego) study of savanna chimpanzees in the Ugalla region of western Tanzania, and an area west of Comoe park in the Ivory Coast, with Frédéric Joulian (CNRS, France).

Selected Publications

In Press “Plants and Proto-People: paleobotanical reconstruction and modeling early hominin ecology” in Early Hominin Paleoecology edited by Matt Sponheimer and Kaye E. Reed, University of Colorado Press, publication expected April 2012

2011 “A worm’s eye view of primate behavior” prepared as a chapter for the volume Casting the Net Wide. Papers in Honor of Glynn Isaac and His Approach to Human Origins Research (J. Sept & D. Pilbeam, editors). American School of Prehistoric Research monograph. Cambridge, MA pp 169-192.

2011 Co-Editor (with David Pilbeam) Casting the Net Wide. Papers in Honor of Glynn Isaac and His Approach to Human Origins Research. American School of Prehistoric Research monograph. Cambridge, MA. Oxbow Books.

2010 (with Griffith, C.S. & Long, B.) HOMINIDS: An agent-based spatial simulation model to evaluate behavioral patterns of early Pleistocene hominids. Ecological Modeling 221: 738-760

2007 “Modeling the significance of paleoenvironmental context for early hominin diets”. pp 289-307 in Evolution of the Human Diet. The Known, the Unknown and the Unknowable (Human Evolution Series). Edited by Peter S. Ungar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

2004 “The Stone Age in the Information Age: Helping undergraduates think like archaeologists.” Pp 47-80 in The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Post-Secondary Education: the Contribution of Research Universities, edited by Moya L. Andrews and William E. Becker Indiana University Press

2002 “Chimpanzees on the edge: the implications of chimpanzee ecology in ‘savanna’ landscapes for hominid evolution” Pp 51-67 in Primates: Evolucion, Cultura Y Diversidad. Homenaje a Jordi Sabater Pi” Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo, Valencia, Edited by Jorge Martinez Contreras and Joaquim J. Veà, Lombardo Vicente Toledano

2001 “Modeling the edible landscape.” Invited paper for Meat Eating and Human Evolution edited by C.B. Stanford and H.T. Bunn, pp 73-98, Oxford U.P.

1999 (with Schoeninger, M.J.& J. Moore) Subsistence strategies of two “savanna” chimpanzee populations: the stable isotope evidence. American Journal of Primatology 49: 274-314.

1998 Shadows on a changing landscape: comparing refuging patterns of hominids and chimpanzees since the last common ancestor” American Journal of Primatology 46(1): 85-101.

1997 Investigating Olduvai. Archaeology of Human Origins CD-ROM (Director 2) MacIntosh and Windows: Indiana University Press

1994 Beyond bones: archaeological sites, early hominid subsistence, and the costs and benefits of exploiting wild plant foods in east African riverine landscapes. Journal of Human Evolution 27: 295-320.

1994 Bone distribution in a semi-arid chimpanzee habitat in eastern Zaire: implications for the interpretation of east African faunal assemblages. Journal of Archaeological Science 21:217-235.

1994 (with G. Brooks) Reports of chimpanzee natural history, including tool-use, in 16th and 17th century Sierra Leone. International Journal of Primatology. 15(6):867-878.

1992 Was there no place like home? A new perspective on early hominid archaeological sites from the mapping of chimpanzee nests. Current Anthropology 33(2):187-207.

1992 Archaeological evidence and ecological perspectives for reconstructing early hominid subsistence strategies. In Archaeological Method and Theory Volume 4: 1-56 M.B. Schiffer (ed) U. Arizona Press.