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Reading Minds: Archaeologist Ralph Holloway Studies Brain Endocasts

Professor Holloway is one of the world's leading experts on the molding and interpretation of endocasts.

Drinking tea in his laboratory inside Schermerhorn Hall, amid long tables holding dozens of human skulls, Ralph Holloway, professor of anthropology, is awaiting a special package. The delivery involves the recently discovered Indonesian fossil Homo floresiensis, popularly known as "the Hobbit." Holloway is waiting for a cast of its brain to study. "I was hoping it would arrive today," he says.

In a department whose fields also include sociocultural anthropology and archaeology, Holloway's discipline is biological anthropology -- the study of evolution, genetics, morphology (the study of the forms of organisms) and behavioral ecology of human and nonhuman primates. Holloway's specialty is making and studying brain endocasts, a mold of the inside of the skull, from human and nonhuman primates whose fossilized remains have been unearthed after many thousands, even millions, of years. He describes the study of endocasts as "a unified holistic approach to the study of the human brain."

Since the brain creates a mirror image of its surface inside the skull, Holloway explains, an endocast "gives us some understanding of the brain's surface" and can thus convey significant information about how the human brain evolved. "You can tell a lot from an endocast," Holloway continues, "from whether someone was right-handed or left-handed to the size of the brain, it can even give a clue as to cognitive abilities."

Deciphering such clues is central to Holloway's work. For instance, the endocast of the 18,000-year-old Hobbit fossil -- so named because it belonged to a "dwarfed individual with a brain the size of an ape's" -- has created a huge stir in the scientific community. Certain features of the brain indicate higher cognitive processes that appear inconsistent with the brain's small size, according to conventional wisdom. Adding to the intrigue, archaeological findings at the site where the Hobbit was uncovered indicate that the creature was associated with tools. "So," says Holloway, "it will be interesting to see what we find."

Holloway "fell in love with fossil stuff" as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. After getting his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, he moved east and joined Columbia's faculty as an assistant professor in 1964. During a 1971 sabbatical to Africa, where he joined renowned anthropologists Louis, Mary and Richard Leakey as well as Phillip V. Tobias, he got involved in taking brain endocasts and "decided to make that my specialty."

Along with the more than 75 human skulls in his laboratory, Holloway's research collections include around 60 endocasts of hominids (human-like primates) that he has worked on over the past 40 years.

Numerous Awards and a Television Special

In a career rich in accolades, Holloway's most recent is a book award given by the professional/scholarly division of the Association of American Publishers. The award, the Best New PSP Book in Sociology and Anthropology for 2004, went to The Human Fossil Record, Volume 3, Brain Endocasts, which Holloway coauthored with four colleagues. The culmination of decades of fossil research, the book took about three years of constant work.

Last year, he received the Wilton Krogman Award for distinguished achievement in biological anthropology, and in 2002 he received the CRAFT Award (Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology). Previous CRAFT Award recipients include Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall and Kanzi, "the Bonobo chimp who learned to 'speak' by manipulating symbols," Holloway says with a grin.

He also appeared in a BBC television special, Neanderthals, which will eventually be aired in the United States. Holloway was filmed in his laboratory showing endocasts and, briefly, playing the trumpet, another one of his passions.

Looking Toward the Future

At 70, Holloway says he is "winding down." After a full-year sabbatical scheduled for 2006, he is planning to teach one course per semester the following year and then retire from teaching. He will continue to study the brain and "hopefully any new endocasts from new fossil discoveries."

Holloway will remain in New York City. He and his wife live across the street from Barnard, in a building where he has resided since he came to the University more than 40 years ago. He credits the University with allowing him the "considerable freedom" he has had to pursue his research over the course of his decades-long tenure.

"When people pick up The New York Times and read about this Hobbit creature, they want to know what it's all about," says Holloway. He finds satisfaction in knowing that his research can help provide some answers.

Published: Apr 28, 2005
Last modified: Apr 27, 2005

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