Anthropology professor discovers small fossils

By Nyssa Bulkes

Anthropology professor Daniel Gebo has been featured in Time magazine, The New York Times and BBC Radio for the discovery of small fossils called Eosimias.

This advancement in primate evolution has made Gebo a highly respected member of the primatology community. Gebo has conducted field work in locations such as the Badlands, the Sahara Desert and more recently China and inner-Mongolia.

“Eosimias is a transitional form from the lower primates to the higher primates, such as monkeys, apes or humans,” Gebo said. “Everybody thought these anthropoid origins would be in Africa and that they would be large. We found them in Asia and they’re tiny. They’re very primitive, and that surprised a lot of people. They’re unusual because you could actually fit these monkeys on your thumb.”

Gebo’s work has significantly impacted ape evolution. Apes have flattened thoraxes and extremely long arms, with great mobility in their shoulders enabling them to arm-swing. Gebo’s recent ape discovery was in Uganda.

“I found something about 20 million years old, concerning the first of the apes,” Gebo said. “In the beginning, apes were more like monkeys, where they can’t do all these things with their upper arms as they do now. We found the very first fossils that start to show the straight upper back and the shoulder mobility. That was exciting to go and find something showing these locomotor transitions through the ages.”

Gebo said he’s interested in how bodies change over time. He travels to rainforests to watch living primates and observe how they move. He looks at the fossils to see what can be inferred from extinct species.

“I don’t have a time machine to go back and watch them, so I have to predict how they would move,” Gebo said.

In 1998, Gebo was named a President Research Professor. Each year two or three members of NIU’s faculty are recognized as outstanding nationally- or internationally-renowned scholars. The research funds, among other financial benefits, were useful for his students.

“You get $5,000 for four years,” Gebo said. “I used a lot of that money to send students to Egypt and other places to collect fossils.”

During his time at NIU, Gebo has aided students in becoming equally prominent figures in their fields. Joanna Lambert, a past student of Gebo’s, is now an associate professor of anthropology and zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Perhaps the most profound gift that Dan gave me was to take me to a remarkable rain forest in Uganda, East Africa, as his research assistant,” Lambert said. “Only now can I appreciate how risky this was. As such, I have numerous students seeking to go to Africa, and I have in fact brought some with me; doing so has proven very challenging. It is a huge responsibility.”

Lambert still conducts research in the forest she and Gebo worked in 15 years ago. She said she thinks of Gebo during each annual visit.

Eric Sargis, an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University, collaborated on a paper and poster presentation with Gebo as an NIU undergraduate student. Sargis credits much of his master’s and doctorate success to Gebo. Such collaboration between faculty and undergraduate students is rare.

“I owe Dan a great deal for helping me get to that position,” Sargis said.

In the acknowledgements section of his doctoral dissertation, Sargis cited Gebo for sparking his initial interest in his current specialization.

As an NIU professor, Gebo tells his students of his latest discoveries before they are ever published.

“A lot of the work we’ve been doing in China and Africa is pretty cutting-edge,” Gebo said. “We have a couple new things coming up soon, so they”ll get to hear about those as well.”