My research focuses on the evolution of human social life and the cognitive capacities that underpin complex social interactions to ask how and why humans were able to scale up their social lives from the very small social groups we lived in for much of our prehistory to the global social networks which characterise people’s lives today. My work takes a multidisciplinary perspective which emphasises the interrelations between the physical and social environments in which human evolution has taken place, and I am particularly interested in the role played by material culture in human social life.
Within this broad area I work on two interlinked areas of research which focus on earlier and later periods of human social development. In the first I look at the relationship between physical and social environments during human evolution, and particularly the social changes that allowed our ancestors to expand out of African environments into Eurasia after around 1.7 million years ago. I use a variety of techniques including GIS and agent-based modelling to investigate how past environments affected hominin life history and social structure, and how this in turn impacted on the evolution of the human brain, life histories and cultural innovation and transmission. Much of my work in this area has developed from my work as a member of the British Academy Centenary Project ‘From Lucy to Language: the archaeology of the Social Brain’.
My second area of research focuses on the social and material culture developments which formed part of the shift from mobile hunting and gathering to settled village life from around 20,000BCE in the Near East. In this work I use techniques derived from social network analysis to investigate changes in material culture distribution as a proxy for social relations during the transition from mobile hunting and gathering to settled village life in the Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic of the Near East. As a founding member of ‘The Connected Past’ group (http://connectedpast.soton.ac.uk), I am working alongside colleagues from archaeology, history and network science to develop network science methods for use with archaeological and historical datasets.