Remembering Dr. Andrew Hill

September 25, 2015

Dr. Andrew Hill, preeminent paleoanthropologist and beloved professor, mentor, and friend, passed away from cancer on September 12, 2015, at the age of 69. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Sally McBrearty, his brother, Stewart Hill, and his mother, May Hill. A native of England, Andrew was trained in geology and paleontology at the University of Reading, and received his Ph.D. from Bedford College, the University of London, in 1975. Andrew then spent a number of years based in Nairobi, working at the National Museums of Kenya, directing The International Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory, and conducting fieldwork at Lake Baringo, Kenya and in the Siwaliks, Pakistan. During this time, Andrew discovered what was later revealed as the Laetoli footprint tuff, which along with Australopithecus afarensis fossils from Laetoli and the Afar, revolutionized the field by definitively proving that bipedal locomotion preceded the evolution of large brain size in hominin evolution.

Andrew moved to Harvard University for a postdoctoral position in 1981 and established the Baringo Paleontological Research Project, which he directed for 34 years. He expanded his fieldwork to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, starting in 1984 and more recently, served as co-director of the Baynunah Palaeontology Project. In 1985, he became a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at Yale University, ascending to the rank of Full Professor in 1992, and serving as department Chair from 2000-2006, overseeing the planning and initial construction of the department’s main building at 10 Sachem St. Andrew also held key leadership roles at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, serving as Curator for both the Anthropology and Vertebrate Paleontology Divisions, and Head of the Anthropology Division since 2005. He led the development of the museum’s permanent exhibit in the Hall of Human Origins and oversaw the relocation of the anthropology collections to much improved storage facilities on West Campus. In the classroom, he held his students and teaching assistants spellbound, and was awarded the Yale College Lex Hixon Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences in 1994. Andrew was appointed the J. Clayton Stephenson Professor of Anthropology in 2006, and was inducted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2009.

His career, which spanned six decades, was one of immediate and sustained impact. Four of his first seven publications were published in the journal Nature. He would author 11 Nature and Science papers in total, along with 82 additional peer-reviewed articles and three edited volumes. But these sterile objective measures fall utterly short of capturing his true impact. As his colleague, Professor David Watts, remarked: “It’s difficult to think of anyone else in the field with his breadth and depth of expertise, and impossible to think of anyone who combined such breadth with his knowledge of the ecological context of human (and ape) evolution.”

Andrew was a pioneering leader in the study of taphonomy, the area of paleontology that concerns itself with understanding the factors that cause a fossil assemblage to differ from the living community or communities from which it was derived. In particular, he was a driving force in the application of such methods in interpreting the hominid and hominoid fossil record. The collections he made during his studies of taphonomy continue to be a valuable resource for researchers decades later and his work remains influential due to his foresight and impeccable attention to detail.

As director of the Baringo Paleontological Research Project, Andrew conducted (in both senses of the word) a broad and inclusive research program in the Tugen Hills succession in central Kenya, which spans a period (~16 million to 200,000 years ago) during which many important events in primate evolution occurred. Many of these are documented in the Tugen Hills sequence, and were brought to light by Andrew’s work. Just a short list includes the earliest colobine monkey, the earliest specimen of the genus Homo, the earliest signs of terrestriality in a fossil ape, and the first described specimen of what is now known as Ardipithecus, one of the earliest hominids. In Abu Dhabi, Andrew and his colleagues were no less productive, working to document an extensive, previously unknown late Miocene fauna, including the oldest known fossil guenon.  

Andrew was a consummate mentor and colleague to both students and faculty. He was witty, erudite, and self-deprecating. His door was open to all and he was always available for consultation, leaving some of us to wonder how and when he got everything done. His habit of rising before dawn in the field (often to eat a Kit Kat) may have been more pervasive than we thought. More importantly, he did all of it with class, dignity, and good humor. Nobody expects paleontological fieldwork to be effortless, but the Tugen Hills are particularly challenging in both logistical and physical ways. Yet Andrew always managed to make it seem perfectly pleasant – even enjoyable. As a fieldwork mentor, his most enduring lessons were not so much about how to do things perfectly, but how to deal with the circumstances at hand in an optimal fashion. His excellence in the field was a reflection of his great imagination, resourcefulness, and intellect. He was incredibly knowledgeable, supportive, and generous, engaging numerous Ph.D. students in the interpretation and analysis of the fossils that were discovered on his expeditions.  

No words can communicate what we, his students, feel in this devastating, heart-breaking moment. Andrew is part of us, deeper than we can possibly communicate. Andrew was absolutely incomparable, a man unlike any other. A masterful harpsichord player, gourmet chef, and unrivaled storyteller, he inspired us to seize every moment and to live large. Other graduate students might admire their advisors. But we are Andrew ADORERS, lifelong Andrew advocates. We are team Andrew. He is the force behind our careers, our passion for paleoanthropology, research and teaching, the force behind our cynicism, sense of humor and our love of cocktails. He took us on our first field experiences, opened doors for us as we built our careers, and stayed with us for years and years to come as a beloved mentor and friend. He has shaped each one of his students so deeply, and through us, will continue to shape generations and generations to come.

 

Laura Bishop, Ph.D. (1994)

Rebecca Fisher, Ph.D. (2002)

Tom Plummer, Ph.D. (1991)

James Rossie, Ph.D. (2003)

Monique Scott, Ph.D. (2004)