2011 Honorary Membership Award Recipient
I was born in Alsace in 1944. I studied my first year University at Strasbourg and subsequently was admitted at the “Ecole Normale Supérieure” in Paris in 1963. After 4 years of studies at “Normale sup” and Paris VI University, I get Master Degrees in Biology and in Geology and also the “Agrégation de Sciences Naturelles”. During that period, I also excavated Eocene Bouxwiller locality in Eastern France and studied some new fossil mammal remains under the supervision of J. Hürzeler from Basel and L. Thaler from Montpellier. In 1967, I get a fellowship to spend one year in Columbia University but the opening of a new position of assistant lecturer at Montpellier University led me to cancel this opportunity and to accept the Montpellier position. I started my Thesis under the supervision of L. Thaler on rodent evolution in North Africa, from Middle Miocene on to Pleistocene. I defended my Doctorate in 1975. I made many field trips in North Africa. The aim of my research was to understand the micro- and macro-evolutionary pattern of North African rodents and also to build up a biochronological scale for the continental deposits of that area. During field work near Rabat, I discovered the Salé skull, a derived Homo erectus dated of about 450.000 years.
In 1970, I was invited by Y. Coppens to join the French team in Eastern Africa as a rodent expert. These rodents appeared rapidly to be excellent paleoenvironmental markers and for that purpose I was invited to join several other teams working in East Africa, especially in Olduvai and Laetolil with Mary Leakey, but also in Melka Kunture and Hadar. After my Thesis defense in 1975, I thought that I should use my backgrounds and my knowledge of the geological community working in North Africa to address the Paleogene in search of mammals. After 3 field trip made with my Montpellier colleagues, we could successfully describe the first Late Paleocene mammal locality of Africa, in Morocco, including one of the oldest known primate, Altiatlasius. But, on search of Afrotheres ancestors, we found rather cosmopolite taxa as Paleoryctids and rather few evidence of high endemism. In 1979, I was elected on the chair of vertebrate paleontology of Paris VI University, that was previously occupied by J. Piveteau and R. Hoffstetter. I started a ten year period of research in Paris with two main orientations, the Paleogene of North West Africa and that of South Asia. We discovered few microvertebrate remains in the Paleocene and Eocene of India, but enough to demonstrate with A. Sahni that there was no high endemism, which strongly supported an early collision age of the Indian plate.
In 1984, I started to search for tertiary mammals in Thailand in collaboration with Y. Chaimanee. We rapidly discovered numerous new fossil mammals in the late Eocene of Krabi and in the Miocene of other coal mines including some new paleogene and neogene anthropoid primates. This work in Thailand is continuing until now and every year new fossil mammals are discovered and described. During the same period, working with M. Mahboubi in Algeria, we discovered Brezina locality with a rich collection of the primitive proboscidean Numidotherium. We also discovered and described with L. de Bonis the oldest parapithecid primate from Bir-El-Ater locality, a late middle Eocene locality from Eastern Algeria. In 1989, I returned to Montpellier University as Professor, to become successively deputy-director then director of the “Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution” that had been created by L. Thaler. I continued my previous projects in Africa and South Asia but received an invitation from the Myanmar government to extend our primate work in their country, together with American and Japanese teams. This was really the beginning of my focus in paleoprimatology. At that time, the anthropoid nature of the amphipithecid was hardly recognized. After 13 years of research in Myanmar, we have shown that stem anthropoids were present there during the late middle Eocene represented by the Eosimiid Bahinia, and accumulated more and more data in support of the anthropoid nature of Amphipithecids. At least, Siamopithecus can hardly anymore be refuted as a crown anthropoid and as its amphipithecid nature is widely recognized, the same has to be true for Pondaungia and Amphipithecus. We therefore extended our work to Libya in order to test our hypothesis. The first results indicate that Afrotarsius is closely related to Eosimiids, confirming the close phylogenetic relationships between some Asian and African anthropoids. Therefore, in about 13 years, the paradigm of anthropoid origins and evolution has been deeply modified. However, since 2005 I have joined M. Brunet in Poitiers University, with the objective of creating a French research group focused on paleoprimatology and human evolution in order to resist to the strong international competition. I hope that this team will become more and more successful and will continue to discover new fossil primates and modify more of the old paradigms of primates and human evolution. But all these results could not have been obtained without the collaboration of many colleagues and field workers that I wish to associate to this award.
Read about Robert R. Reisz, who was also a recipient of a 2011 SVP Honorary Membership Award.
Photo courtesy of Jean-Jacques Jaeger.