She is among a group of anthropologists who pioneered the use of magnetic resonance imaging to study the skulls of ancient humans.
Hale G. Smith Professor and Chair
Dr. Dean Falk, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, specializes in the evolution of the brain and cognition in higher primates. She holds a doctorate in physical anthropology from the University of Michigan.
"How did that happen? How and why did we learn to speak? I've spent most of my career trying to answer those questions," said Dean Falk, professor and chair of FSU's department of anthropology.
An undergraduate anthropology course more than 30 years ago triggered a curiosity in Falk that has made her one of the world's leading experts on brain evolution. She is among a group of anthropologists who pioneered the use of magnetic resonance imaging to study the skulls of ancient humans. Last January, Falk's work applying medical imaging technology to the study of fossil skulls with European scientists (known for their research on a 5,000-year-old, so-called "Ice Man of the Alps" found in a melting glacier in 1991) resulted in the Austrian government awarding her the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, 1st Class (the country's highest honor for scientists).
Falk tries to correlate brain size with major developments in human evolution, such as the capability of walking on two legs. How large was the brain when our ancestors became completely bipedal? Or when man-made tools first appeared in the fossil record?
Scientists who have closely studied ancient tools say they show that the makers had a marked preference for using their right hands, a trait that showed up about two million years ago.
"Our brains are about twice the size of what it was back then," said Falk. "And this handiness really separates us from other hominids. Take the chimpanzee, our closest relative. It uses whichever hand is convenient. A chimp has no preference."
This past winter, Falk spent two weeks searching an Ethiopian desert for the remains of human ancestors. Fossils in the area date back 4 million years and the international team of which Falk is a member has recovered the teeth of five individuals.
"It's really an exciting project," said Falk. "I know there's an intact specimen out there waiting to tell us a story of how we became human."