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Adrienne Zihlman: The Role of Women in Evolution

Adrienne ZihlmanOver four decades, Adrienne Zihlman has fleshed out—literally and figuratively—the story of human evolution.

In the 1970s, Zihlman’s critique of the 1960s “Man the Hunter” paradigm challenged the assumption that male-dominated activities like hunting were responsible for important evolutionary adaptations, including the development of big brains.

Zihlman’s audacious suggestion that female gathering activities could just as easily account for our big brains, and her extensive writing on gender differences, is responsible for a major shift in evolutionary perspective to include women’s contributions, an approach that is now mainstream.

But that’s not all. Although best known for her groundbreaking work on the female role in human evolution, Zihlman has taken a radical whole-body approach to the study of anatomy and evolution, shaking up a field that heretofore relied solely on fossils to tell the tale of our hominid relatives.

Zihlman studies the muscles, ligaments, joints, tendons, and—yes—bones of modern apes to gain insight into how gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and gibbons move about and interact with their environments. Her detailed measurements and studies of musculature proportions and body-mass ratios have shifted anthropology’s focus from fossils and skulls to form and function, generating surprising insights about our ape relatives that would have been impossible to detect from only skeletal remains.

Last October, UCSC’s Division of Social Sciences awarded Zihlman the 2014 Emerita Award.