Dr. Fiona Coward


My research focuses on the evolution of human social life and the cognitive capacities that underpin complex social interactions. How and why were humans 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. I use a variety of techniques including GIS and agent-based modelling to investigate how interactions between humans, other animals, plants, landscapes and material culture 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, which occurred 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.


Both areas of research are combined in the AHRC/Xuan Truong Enterprise-funded SUNDASIA Project, of which I am a co-investigator. This project explores how prehistoric tropical communities adapted to palaeoenvironmental change, especially cycles of coastal inundation, over the last 60,000 years in the Tràng An landscape complex World Heritage Site, Ninh Binh, Vietnam. How does environmental change relate to social interaction and material culture production, use and exchange among and between groups at the time, and how do these developments compare to those occurring in the Near East in regard to the adoption of sedentism and agriculture? Most crucially, how might these data help models of and the development of responses to modern climate-induced seas-level rise in the region?


Contact me 

Follow me on Twitter: @BU_BAArchAnth

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