Kirsten Jenkins

Kirsten Jenkins

With her research on the ape and human fossil record of Kenya's Rusinga Island, Kirsten Jenkins has made intriguing discoveries that help us understand how ancient humans lived and the selection pressures that drove their evolution. The anthropology Ph.D. candidate describes her work as "CSI for the ancient past."

Her recovery of hundreds of new fossil specimens helps expand our understanding of many extinct species, and the rare hominin butchery site she discovered provides insight into how ancient humans lived off a seasonal landscape. She has also found evidence of predation through examining bone surfaces of fossils for tooth and claw marks, discovering that some of our earliest ape ancestors were hunted by extinct mammalian carnivores and large birds of prey.Jenkins' research demonstrates how factors such as environment and animal community structure have changed over time, affecting evolutionary trends. She leads excavations that reveal how fossil deposits became preserved in specific locations and how animals died or were hunted.

The decision to study anthropology was an easy one for Jenkins, who has always been fascinated with archaeology and learning about ancient civilizations and animals. Growing up in the Seattle area, she would spend family vacations agate hunting on the Oregon Coast, which further fueled her academic interests.

Jenkins earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Western Washington University. During her undergraduate career, she also ran track and field and minored in geology and Russian language. Thanks to her Russian language studies, Holt was able to attend a paleolithic dig in Russia with her undergraduate adviser.

"After that, I knew I had to spend the rest of my life studying human evolution with archaeology and paleontology," she said.

Jenkins applied to a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota because of the anthropology faculty's interests and their strong record of fieldwork, as well as the excellent funding package offered through TA-ships. Within the Department of Anthropology, Jenkins has opportunities to develop and implement her own research design, which she considers "thrilling and satisfying."

She also appreciates the department's community, advisors and mentorships, noting that she has received "an apprenticeship in methods, research, collaboration, and professionalization" at the University. 

Jenkins' work, which she hopes will inspire others to take on similar types of research, has potential implications for the conservation of modern primate communities. "If we can better understand the variables that influenced long term evolution or extinctions in fossil species, we may be able to better predict conservation outcomes," she said.

-- Lyra Fontaine