A tribute to ASU paleoanthropologist William H. Kimbel

May 6, 2022

William H. Kimbel, ASU Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, former director of the Institute of Human Origins, and an eminent scholar and teacher in the field of human origins, died on April 17 at the age of 68 after a valiant three-year effort against cancer.

“Bill Kimbel was a tremendous leader in his field and in our university community,” Arizona State University President Michael Crow said. “During his 13 years as the director of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins, Bill’s talent and dedication shepherded vast growth and support that raised it to the next level, and his brilliant scholarship inspired peers and students alike to explore the mysteries of humankind. His energy and ideas will be deeply missed.” The late ASU Professor Bill Kimbel outdoors in a desert setting. William H. Kimbel in the field in Hadar, Ethiopia. Download Full Image

Kimbel had an international and noted career as a scientist, researcher, professor and mentor. During more than 40 years as a paleoanthropologist, his research on the origin, evolution and anatomy of Australopithecus afarensis, early Homo and other early hominins has profoundly influenced how we view the evolution of our ancestors. Through his research, public outreach and student training, Kimbel’s scientific rigor has been a benchmark against which all paleoanthropological work is measured.

“Professor William H. Kimbel’s directorship of (the Institute of Human Origins) was a labor of love. The institute prospered under his steady, thoughtful and forward-looking leadership. He also had an incredible impact on the students, faculty and staff that he worked with throughout The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College. “We will be forever grateful to have had such an accomplished researcher and educator in the field of paleoanthropology share his passion and expertise with the ASU community.”

Bill Kimbel

Bill Kimbel at work in the lab.

Kimbel earned his doctorate from Kent State University in 1986, but his impact on the field began a decade earlier. He joined the International Afar Research Expedition as an assistant in 1976 and served as associate curator and head of physical anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History from 1981 to 1985.

In 1985, he joined the Institute of Human Origins, initially based in Berkeley, California, and later at ASU. He continued to conduct paleoanthropological fieldwork as leader of institute projects in Olduvai Gorge, Laetoli, Tunisia and the Yuanmou Basin in China. In 1990, after a period of paleontological research hiatus in Ethiopia, he re-initiated the Afar Research Expedition as the Hadar Research Project and directed the scientific investigations of that critical A. afarensis site for 30 years.

“Working with Bill, whether scouring the field under the blazing hot African sun, or in the lab hunched over, cleaning and examining and measuring recovered fossils, or collaborating on professional articles, was always rewarding,” said Donald Johanson, founding director of the Institute of Human Origins. “With his quick, keen mind, his endless curiosity and his brilliant retention of anatomy, he was one of my most valued colleagues, and one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with. Also one of my dearest friends. There was no one like Bill Kimbel, and there never will be again. It was an honor to spend nearly half a century with him, but it was not enough.”

Critically, Kimbel’s influence on the field extends far beyond his own area of specialization through his service to Journal of Human Evolution, paleoanthropology’s flagship publication. Through his published work, including "The Skull of Australopithecus afarensis" (with Donald Johanson and Yoel Rak), Kimbel shaped how the field of paleoanthropology interprets the fossil record. For his contributions, Kimbel was elected a fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2005.

Last year, Kimbel stepped down as the director of the Institute of Human Origins. During his impressive career as an educator, he trained graduate and undergraduate students, led the Hadar Field School and was nominated for several teaching awards at ASU. His love of science and the active discovery of the fossil remains of our ancestors has influenced hundreds of students and careers, and his attention to detail and ability to tell the evidence-based story of our ancestors made the field better.

Bill Kimbel also believed that collaboration among paleoanthropologists and data sharing were critical to fully understand our evolutionary past, and he was a key player in the creation of the African Rift Valley Research Consortium. 

“Bill was one of few paleoanthropologists of my generation who have made a difference in our field,” said Yohannes Haile-Selassie, director of the Institute of Human Origins. “Through his numerous critical-thinking and evidence-based publications in the last 40 years, Bill has left behind a great depth of knowledge that will live forever and be utilized by present and future generations of human origins students.”

Kimbel is survived by his wife, Patricia Sannit, children Arren and Semera, siblings Kate Kimbel and Andy Kimbel, sister-in-law, Sue Duff, father-in-law, Daniel Sannit and mother, Bobby Ellen Kimbel.

Kimbel’s tireless exploration of human history in deep time, his famous wit, the depth of his love and his legacy as an ambassador of paleoanthropology will live on among family, many friends and hundreds of students that cherished his teaching and leadership. Kimbel leaves a Rift Valley-sized hole in his field, which will never be filled, though he will live on forever in the fossil record.

A celebration of life will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 28, in the auditorium of the Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health on the ASU Tempe campus. 

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins


ASU part of international team to study links between climate, geology, human evolution

Study possible thanks to $1.2M Keck Foundation grant

July 8, 2021

Arizona State University researchers will help lead a $1.2 million, multi-institution project that will use a new theoretical framework and state-of-the-art technology to tackle a long-standing question: How did ecological factors millions of years ago affect the evolution of our ancestors?

The possible answers so intrigued the W.M. Keck Foundation that it awarded the international team one of its largest grants to explore this question. Map of Hadar and Woranso-Mille research sites Map of the two research sites in Ethiopia — Hadar and Woranso-Mille — research sites where significant ancient hominin fossils have been discovered and are now under comparison for why there were different species living closely together, but not overlapping spatially. Google Earth image. Download Full Image

The funds will support a systematic, integrated investigation into why two adjacent, world-renowned fossil study areas in the Afar region of Ethiopia — Hadar and Woranso-Mille — have revealed strikingly different records of our human genus’s early predecessors.

ASU’s Institute of Human Origins has a more than 40-year history of exploration and discovery in Hadar, starting with the 1974 discovery of “Lucy,” the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil, by the institute's Founding Director Donald Johanson. Since then, scientists have found hundreds more fossils of Lucy’s species at Hadar, but no other hominin species that might have lived at the same time.

Only 30 miles north of Hadar, a research project at Woranso-Mille that began in 2005, led by the institute's new director, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, has yielded ample fossils from not only Lucy’s species, but at least two others — including one whose foot appears to be adapted to tree climbing. Some of these different species existed at the same time.

Haile-Selassie and Kaye Reed, a research associate with the Institute of Human Origins and President’s Professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change; Beverly Saylor of Case Western Reserve University; and Naomi Levin of the University of Michigan are co-principal investigators on the W. M. Keck Foundation awarded project. Case Western Reserve University is the lead institution for the award.

Other participating institutions include Addis Ababa University, Aix Marseille University, University of Barcelona, Berkeley Geochronology Center, Ohio University and the University of Southern California. 

Haile-Selassie and Reed will lead efforts to compare and analyze the fossil record from Hadar and Woranso-Mille to assess links between rift setting, landscape-scale heterogeneity and mammal diversity, including among hominins.

“This multidisciplinary integration of physical, chemical and biological evidence will enable us to assess differences in the ecology of closely related early human ancestors and provide insights into the origins of our own genus,” said Haile-Selassie, who is a professor with the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

The transformative aspect of this project is that it is attempting, for the first time, to directly compare Hadar and Woranso-Mille to examine the environmental selective pressures that might have driven human evolution.

Seizing this opportunity involves engaging some 30 scientists whose expertise ranges from geology and paleoanthropology to geochronology and paleoclimate, including Christopher Campisano, Institute of Human Origins research associate and associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change; David Feary, research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; and Denise Su, who will join the Institute of Human Origins and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change as a research associate and associate professor in August.

Over the next three years, the team will gather samples and data from both areas to gain a more detailed understanding of the two sites as they existed more than 3 million years ago.

Reed will refine the reconstructions of habitats using fauna, isotopes and depositional data for specific areas within the Hadar stratigraphy and work with Su to compare the differences in mammals and habitats between the two sites.

“This is the first time we have the opportunity to compare the paleoecology of unique fauna and hominins from adjacent areas in the same time period,” Reed said. “It will give us a level of detail that we haven’t had and enable us to explore why there were different species living close together but not overlapping spatially. It’s very exciting.”

Campisano will lead the geologic efforts at Hadar, guiding and working with a team of geoscientists that are new to Hadar to collect high-resolution samples and data at particular time intervals to compare to Woranso-Mille.

“Better integrating Hadar’s geology and paleoenvironments with adjacent project sites has been a goal of mine for more than a decade,” Campisano said. “The chance to do this, and with a suite of new-to-Hadar analytical techniques, is an intriguing opportunity.”

Su will primarily be responsible for the reconstruction of the paleoenvironment at Woranso-Mille using the faunal evidence and integrating the geologic, isotopic and paleobotanic data.

“Woranso-Mille is the only Pliocene site that documents at least two contemporaneous hominin species. Reconstructing its paleoenvironment will be crucial to understanding how the hominins shared the landscape,” Su said.

Rounding out the ASU team is Feary, who will be developing a high-resolution 3D model of the Hadar focus area using recently developed aerial photogrammetric techniques as a base for the geological and habitat reconstructions.

“The W.M. Keck Foundation award provides an amazing opportunity to use new research tools to address fundamental paleoenvironmental and human evolution questions,” Feary said.

If successful, this project will reveal the spatial context of hominin diversity records — one of the great challenges to understanding human evolution and a fundamental question of biodiversity. 

“This project builds on decades of field studies, laboratory analyses and museum work, that together with the differences in hominin species in neighboring but distinct geological landscapes provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand the ecological characteristics that influence human diversity and evolution,” said Saylor, who is the lead investigator on the project.

Haile-Selassie added, “This project takes human origins research to another level. Understanding how tectonics and rifting may have played a role in the diversity or lack of diversity in early human ancestors, and how these forces may have shaped the landscapes and associated climates in which our earlier ancestors diversified or went extinct would be a major breakthrough in paleoanthropology.” 

Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage and the Afar Regional Government will be facilitating local permits for this research.

The W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company. One of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations, the W. M. Keck Foundation supports outstanding science, engineering and medical research. The foundation also supports undergraduate education and maintains a program within southern California to support arts and culture, education, health and community service projects.

ASU has received a number of awards from the Keck Foundation; the most recent was a Science and Engineering grant in 2018 related to materials science.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins