Tim White Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

On the Trail of our Human Ancestors: Conversation with Tim White, Professor of Integrative Biology; September 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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Tim, welcome to Conversations.


Tell us a little bit about your background. Where were your born and raised?

Southern California. I grew up in the mountains of Southern California, the San Bernardino Mountains, near Lake Arrowhead.

Did that environment draw you to the kinds of studies you ultimately engaged in?

In a sense, yes, because it was natural history that I was of enveloped in there, in the mountains. We used to live in a house that was right out on what was called the Rim of the World. The national forest came right up to the edge of the house, and so my brother and I grew up in this wonderful setting about 5,000 feet above the Inland Empire. Behind the mountains, in the rain shadow of the mountains, is the Mojave Desert. So we spent a lot of time as kids all over the mountains.

Did your parents help shape your interest in the environment and the natural setting?

Yes, to the extent that our family outings were always into the backcountry or the desert or going out to the coast. They liked to do things outdoors. It was that exposure to the outdoors that was formative. I began to get really interested in history as I grew up. Of course, there's not a terribly deep history in Southern California. First, it was the Native Californians, and then followed by the missionaries from Spain, and followed by the Mormon settlers, and the loggers, and the pioneers, and so forth, and then we were there. So that wasn't much history to go through, a few hundred years of history.

So you pushed back into prehistory.

I became interested in the people who lived there before, and these were Native Californians, of course. They left an archeological record. Even as children, we would go out into the backcountry to these huge granite boulders that had bedrock mortars that had been formed as the Indians ground their acorns every fall. I was just fascinated by this, how one could learn more about those people who had vanished. So I had an interest in the deep past at quite an early age.

You were a collector, even at an early age, I gather?

No, I was more of a collector of snakes! I had almost every kind of wild animal at one point or another that we tried to domesticate.

Did the collection of snakes convince you that you wanted inanimate objects -- or that were once animate and no longer?

Not really. In those days, it was more about the interest in the snake itself, of the horned toad itself, of understanding those animal behaviors and their natural settings. We had beautiful snakes. There's a Mountain King Snake in Southern California that's red and white and black-banded, very rare, one of the most beautiful snakes in the world. I was just fascinated by these organisms. I had a much stronger interest in zoology/biology when I was growing up, and in high school. In fact, when I left the mountains, I went to the University of California at Riverside, and there was an excellent program there in biology, particularly field biology, with Wilbur Mayhew, who has done incredible things in the Natural Reserve System in California. That exposed me to a much broader natural history of Southern California, but I always retained that interest in the prehistoric. So in that sense, I was not an anthropologist at all, except in an amateur sense -- we had engaged on a survey of those mountains. I went with a high school a friend of mine, who is now the geologist in San Bernardino County, and surveyed the [archeological] sites, and recorded these things. The collections that we made as high schoolers are part of the San Bernardino Natural History Museum.

It sounds like growing up in this part of California exposed you to interdisciplinary studies even before you entered the university.

That's right. It was great. But nobody called it that in high school, it was just what we did for fun.

That's right. But somewhere you said that keeping those snakes "sharpened your eye," I believe was the expression you used. Snake recognition would become an exceptionally valuable career asset, you said. Explain what you meant by that.

Well, it's a reference to the field I eventually ended up in, which is paleoanthropology. This field is well known, and has been well known, historically, for a lot of controversy, a lot of interpersonal interaction in a negative way. Resources are very limited. In fact, in paleontology there were the "dinosaur wars" of the 1800s. Even today, in places like eastern Africa, there is a lot of skullduggery that goes on. So snake recognition is very good, you always want to be able to recognize a snake.

I got it. So it's more about colleagues, or some colleagues.

That's right.

So let's just finish your education. You got your Ph.D. at Michigan.

That's right.

Who were some of your early mentors? You mentioned an undergraduate mentor, but in anthropology and paleoanthropology, any really important mentors, in terms of your formative experience in the field?

Initially, as an undergraduate, the faculty at UC Riverside were just outstanding in this regard. Jim O'Connell had come from Berkeley, a graduate student here of Heizer's, who had worked a lot on California and Nevada archeology. He [O'Connell] came as a junior faculty member, and immediately I was able to go to the field with him. Mike Woodburne, a paleontologist working in the Barstow Formation in Southern California, would take us out into that desert environment. So I was able to lock onto the people, the faculty members, doing the research in those areas that I had been interested in as a kid. That opened up large and new horizons for me.

I was interested in things that were even older. The problem in the Americas is that you can't find human presence beyond 15,000 years ago, maybe 20,000 years ago. Geologically speaking, that's just yesterday. To track human ancestry, it's really an Old World phenomenon, and really early human ancestry is an African phenomenon. But when I was at Michigan, I was able to go into the field in Northern Kenya on a project that was being run by Richard Leakey at the time. I worked with him for several seasons, and then was able to work with his mother [Mary Leakey] in Tanzania. Working in those settings, I learned how to do the kind of research that I've continued to do until now.

Next page: Being a Paleoanthropologist

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