Digging Deeper to a Higher Ground: Meet DECRA 2024 Recipient Dr Sofia Samper Carro
I find it fascinating to be able to learn so much about human behaviour from just a bunch of bones and other remains you find in archaeological sites. – Dr Sofia Samper Carro, 2024 ARC DECRA Recipient
She makes no bones about her passion for the profession—Senior Research Fellow Dr Sofia Samper Carro really digs being an archaeologist! And it’s ‘humerus’ to think that her passion was apparently sparked by dinosaurs and Jurassic Park—although she later realised that neither had anything to do with archaeology!
Subsequently, her brush with Egyptian culture gave rise to an aspiration to be an Egyptologist. As she went on to higher studies, she discovered there was actually a way to combine these two penchants of animals and things of the past…by specialising in zooarchaeology. And the rest, as they say, is history; or more aptly, she’s only dug deeper from then on.
The DECRA Bucket List
Earlier this year, Sofia was awarded the distinguished Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) for the 2024 round. The ARC DECRA award supports and funds promising early career researchers for excellent and innovative research that addresses a significant knowledge gap to benefit the larger good, culturally commercially, socially, economically or environmentally.
“My special passion is Neanderthals, I think they were fascinating hominids that have suffered quite a bit of 'bad press' being compared with H. sapiens, just to make us more special and 'the top of the evolution ladder'. My current research is trying to refute some of these topics and to unveil how capable they were of doing incredible things and how similar to us they were in many aspects.”
Sofia’s ARC DECRA focuses on the Neanderthal diet as a way to evaluate the potential causes for their extinction. What is significant about this? According to Sofia, there are two very significant outcomes her research will unearth.
- First, it will generate more knowledge about Neanderthal lifestyle and behaviour which, in turn, will help us to understand our closest relatives and potentially, might have implications to understand how our own species survived in the past.
- Second, her research will bring advances in ancient protein analysis to ANU. This is a recently developed technique, in a way similar to ancient DNA but more effective for very old bones. This will make ANU the first institution in the Southern Hemisphere to have a working group dedicated to this technique.
Titled 'Neanderthal hunting ability and the extinction of archaic humans,' her project investigates a critical factor in the extinction of Neanderthals: their hunting skills. Sofia expects to generate new knowledge of archaic human behaviour by combining traditional archaeological analytical methods with ground-breaking bio-molecular techniques. This journey with ancient animal protein is going to be a fascinating one to watch as it unfolds—we are talking about some bones that are at least 80,000 years old in this project, and being able to get protein and data from these bones is going to be a great achievement.
Part of Sofia’s ARC DECRA project also entails creating a graphic novel and resources for school teachers in the ACT. So a lot of exciting things are expected from this project, and we will be sure to travel with Sofia on this pathway to discovery!
The Ground Work
There’s lots to do and the journey to digging deep has only just scratched the surface so far. Sofia is thankful for the support through her preparation and application process:
I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who has supported me through my application and made time to discuss it with me. And of course to my family, here and in Spain, who dealt with me being away many days of me working late, as well as to my supervisor and colleagues, who are always very supportive.
Before receiving this ARC DECRA award, Sofia worked on some sites that she will study further during the project over the next few years. In 2022, a Leakey Foundation grant made it possible for her to return to one of those sites to excavate and plan for her DECRA proposal. She recalls how fantastic it was to be able to excavate this site again after 11 years, and she now looks forward to continue excavating this site during the project; the site has a funny backstory too:
One of the sites I will excavate during my DECRA is Abric Pizarro, named after the person who found it (Ms. Jezabel Pizarro), but it has nothing to do with the conquistador! However, because of some of the horrible things that “that Pizarro” did, we almost had to change the name of the site to Abric (which means rock shelter in the local language, Catalan) Capsicum, as that was the only acceptable name the Heritage officer could think of... Luckily, we didn’t have to change the name!
Sofia: The Researcher and Beyond?
What makes Sofia the researcher she is? She’s inquisitive and questions everything, and she likes to find ways to answer these questions through her research. She is passionate about learning and discovering new techniques that can improve our interpretations of archaeological material—in her case, animal bones.
So, her best advice in life for those wanting to pursue an archaeology career overseas?
If you really want to pursue a career abroad in archaeology, be willing and able to make a lot of sacrifices, but it will be worth it once you see what you have achieved. There are hard and difficult moments, since it is not an easy career to achieve, but there are also many amazing and very fun moments in the adventure!
For Sofia, archaeology is so much more than the laboratory.
I would encourage archaeologists to leave their laboratories and interact with teachers and instructors to create themes and activities that foster a passion for learning about prehistory in young people. And in truth, there are already many people doing these activities in Spain and here in Australia!
Sofia, too, works with this approach. Whenever she can, she organises workshops for children and amateurs to spread awareness and knowledge about the things people can learn through archaeology. Something she uses very often are replicas of stone or bone tools.
I strongly believe in the idea that you learn more by touching and being involved in the process of guessing what an animal is or what a tool is for, than by being a mere spectator while someone gives a masterful talk.
Recently, at the 14th International Conference for the International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ), held in Cairns in August 2023, Sofia and her team won a prize for an educational poster on the preliminary analysis of small vertebrates from Abric Pizarro.
And when she’s not busy excavating history and managing her twin boys, Sofia is also a musician! She plays the Flamenco cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument, originally from Peru that you play with your hand and fingers while sitting on top of it. She has the backstory for this instrument too—naturally!
The story of how the Peruvian cajon became the Flamenco cajon is quite interesting. The late Paco de Lucia (one of the best Flamenco guitarist of all times) was touring around South America in the 1970s, and his percussionist decided to introduce the Peruvian cajon into Spanish flamenco. To do so, he modified the original Peruvian instrument by adding some guitar strings inside the box, which gives a quite characteristic snare drum sound to it. Nowadays, it is such a versatile instrument that has been introduced to so many music styles! I have played in three bands in Canberra—a reggae band, a pop-rock-jazz band, and a jazz fusion band, although I don’t have much time to continue playing at the moment!
Well, of course she doesn’t—because ARC DECRA Fellow Sofia Samper Carro has a lot to dig into; she’s hard at work but she’s also having a ‘hole’ new level of fun with the exciting innovation she aspires to achieve.
We cannot wait to see what you discover, Sofia!