Name: Nathaniel Dominy
Affiliation: University of California, Santa Cruz
Nate Dominy found his calling on a college research trip to Costa Rica with his anatomy professors. A football player for Johns Hopkins University, Dominy was assigned the physically demanding task of catching small, drugged monkeys as they fell out of trees. “You have this moving target, completely unconscious, and you have a net in your hand,” he explains. When he went back again the next summer, he found himself thinking about more than just how the monkeys fell, and began helping to decipher the monkeys’ eating habits by studying their teeth. “I got this quick introduction to the importance of food and diet in thinking about the adaptation and behaviors of primates and humans,” he says. “I just loved every minute.”
Ten years after his transformative experience studying food and teeth, Dominy is now a trailblazer. As an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he works to answer one of anthropology’s biggest questions: How did modern humans evolve from our ape-like ancestors?
Dominy argues that food played a crucial role, and he recently helped solve a decade-long mystery about its role in evolution. In 1999, scientists analyzed the tooth fossils of our three-million-year-old primate ancestors, Australopithecus africanus, for chemical patterns that reveal dietary habits. Their findings suggested that grass, and the animals that ate grass, were a staple meal. But the size and shape of the fossils indicated something quite different—that our ancestors spent more time munching hard, brittle foods, such as highly starchy grass bulbs.
Dominy believes that these caloric veggies may have been the fuel of evolution, delivering enough energy to let us outwit carnivores, invent smarter ways to endure the elements and, eventually, populate the planet. In 2007 he uncovered additional evidence in support of this theory, showing that the teeth of ancient and modern African mole rats that survive entirely on bulbs have identical chemical profiles to our ancestors.
This year, Dominy hopes to crack another mystery: Why are some human populations taller than others? In October he traveled to Uganda to collect DNA from two pygmy tribes, the Twa and the Sua, who are on average less than five feet tall. He believes that short stature could help people navigate dense jungle and stay cooler. No one has ever tested this idea, and when he talks of it, Dominy sounds both excited and slightly incredulous that no one’s jumped on it before. “Body size is central to survival. It affects the kinds of things we eat, how we reproduce, our metabolism,” he says. “Here we are in 2009, and we still don’t know why it varies so much." —Melinda Wennersingle page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.