Dithapelo Medupe wins HBES New Investigator Award

HRAF is pleased to announce that Dithapelo Medupe, a 2022 participant in the NSF-supported HRAF Summer Institute on Cross-Cultural Anthropological Research, was announced as the New Investigator winner at the Human Behavior & Evolution Society 2023 conference for her Royal Society publication on intensive agriculture co-authored with Seán G. Roberts, Mary K. Shenk, and Luke Glowacki.

The backstory below was submitted by Dithapelo.

HRAF Summer Institute 2022 Alum publishes paper and wins HBES New Investigator Award

By Dithapelo Medupe

I attended the second NSF-supported HRAF Summer Institute for Cross-Cultural Anthropological Research (July 18 to August 5, 2022) held at Yale University and the knowledge gained from the institute played a big role in the publication of the paper “Why did foraging, horticulture and pastoralism persist after the Neolithic Transition. The oasis hypothesis of agricultural intensification” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, for which I am the first author.

Why did intensive agriculture not spread everywhere after the adoption of agriculture around 11,500 years ago? Growing up in Botswana, Africa I spent many days in the family farm chasing away birds from the crop fields. We were in the farm every day except for one day reserved for our God where farm work was not allowed. It was a lot of work. I knew that in the northern part of Botswana, which has many more animals, they had to keep out baboons, monkeys and the very scary elephants in addition to birds. They also had to deal with farmers getting malaria during the farming season and tsetse flies causing sleeping sickness in the livestock. The southern part of the country often battled drought. Overall, there were many challenges to farming in my country. On a journey home to Botswana while I was an undergraduate at Stanford University it occurred to me that all these challenges may have affected the intensity of agriculture in African societies. I became interested in investigating how elephants, birds, malaria, drought and tsetse flies might have affected the success of agriculture across different societies.

My Ph.D. advisors at Penn State, Luke Glowacki and Mary Shenk, worked very hard to get me to the HRAF Summer Institute because they believed Carol Ember and her capable associates would give me the tools necessary to carry out this investigation. My advisors were very wise because the HRAF Summer Institute for Cross-Cultural Anthropological Research did not disappoint. Fiona Jordan and Carol Ember were involved in the creation of a database called D-PLACE, which has information on many societies. They increased my familiarity with D-PLACE so that I could get the most out of it during the institute. Many conversations with Carol Ember on the way to lunch and in the classroom helped sharpen my ideas. I was also privileged to meet Seán Roberts who helped me access the information on more than a thousand societies swiftly so that I could test my ideas. He also introduced me to advanced statistical methods to rigorously test the ideas. His work on the paper provided a lot of support for the theory that I put forward in the paper called the oasis hypothesis for agricultural intensification. It is the first scientific theory by a person from my country to win the Human Behavior and Evolution Society’s (HBES) New Investigator Award.

I am very thankful to the main instructors and the guest instructors for the contributions they made towards the publication of the paper and the HBES New Investigator award. Without the HRAF Summer Institute for Cross-Cultural Anthropological Research none of these things would have been possible.

The published paper can be found here.

Paper Summary

In the paper we use statistical methods to show that intensive agriculture was more likely in societies that had low to moderate rainfall and low biodiversity. We refer to such places as “oases,” hence the oasis theory of agriculture intensification. The societies were drawn from the Ethnographic Atlas found in D-PLACE. Low biodiversity means there were lower number of birds, elephants, and baboons, as well as fewer pathogens like malaria and tsetse borne pathogens to prey on domesticates or the farmers themselves. We must protect biodiversity like elephants but must recognize that in the past biodiversity and drought presented big challenges for agriculture intensification. This implies that people in societies without intensive agriculture were not “lazy” or “primitive;” rather, they had real challenges to achieve agriculture intensification.