Henry McHenry has a passion for paleoanthropology and teaching. His research has taken him around the world and he has seen the field evolve over the last 40 years.
McHenry, a professor with the evolutionary wing of the anthropology department and a 1967 UC Davis graduate, continues to study over 6 million years of the human fossil record with other UC Davis faculty.
How did you first get interested in anthropology?
While in high school I took a UCLA Extension course in ethnomusicology from an anthropologist and that inspired me to major in anthropology when I came to UCD as a freshman. I took part of my sophomore year off to travel across Africa (mostly by local buses) and around the world. When I got back to Davis, I went through a pre-med stage and took chemistry, math and biology, but a new faculty member, Warren Kinzey, had joined the [anthropology] department. He was a wonderful mentor and inspired me to go on to graduate school. I received my Ph.D. from Harvard in 1972 and returned to UC Davis, where I have been on the faculty ever since.
What sort of field work have you done?
At first I did California archaeology. While at Harvard I went on a bio-medical expedition to the South Pacific island of Bougainville. Most of my work is in Africa where I have been more than a dozen times.
A fairly large percentage (around 50 percent) of Americans still don’t buy into human evolution. Do you think your research is working towards changing that?
I wish it would! Undergraduates at UC Davis certainly get a healthy dose of evolutionary biology. When I teach Anthropology 1 (Human Evolutionary Biology), I stress the fact that one can have the rich experience of a religious life and also understand the natural world from the point of view of evolution. I have published numerous articles on human evolution including entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
What do you think is the single greatest find in the field of human evolution?
The discovery that buried in the crust of the earth are fossil humans that get progressively more modern from 6 million years ago to the present. Sediments dating between 6 and 3 million years old contain human species that have human-like bipedal bodies, intermediate teeth and ape-sized brains. Between 2 and 1 million years ago brains expand to be intermediate in size between apes and people. After 1 million years, brains expand through time until reaching Homo sapiens size by about 300,000 years ago.
What are projects are you working on right now?
The pattern of change through geological time of the human body as revealed by fossil discoveries.
Given the millions of years of hominid evolution and the many different species, which do you think is the most interesting to study?
Right now there is so much happening in the study of our closest extinct species, Homo neanderthalensis, including the sequencing of its DNA and the fine-tuning of the chronology of its extinction and replacement by H. sapiens. My young colleagues, Drs. Tim Weaver and Teresa Steele, have done some wonderful work on the nature and life-ways of that and related species including early H. sapiens.
You’ve published 130 publications and articles since 1968 – how has anthropology changed since then?
It has grown enormously. There used to be so few of us working in paleoanthropology and now it is hard to find a conference center large enough to hold a convention. Public interest has expanded even faster.
If you weren’t an evolutionary anthropologist what would you be?
I have always loved teaching and working with students. I am so pleased when one of my undergraduate advisees decides to go into education at any level. My grandfather, father and two daughters were/are educators.
What do you like to do when you’re not studying anthropology?
My wife and I grow Pinot Noir grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains and I have been the wine-maker at our small commercial winery since 1975 (McHenry Vineyard). I like to study and practice the wisdom and compassion presented in Tibetan Buddhism and its beautiful manifestation in the West as Shambhala.
KELLY KRAG-ARNOLD can be reached at email@example.com.