Adrienne Zihlman is a key figure in paleoanthropology, important because of both her scientific pursuits and feminist voice. She has had a strong influence on the critique of the “Man the Hunter” theory and was one of the first feminist anthropologists in the subfield of biological anthropology. She has published numerous studies on primate anatomy and books and articles for public consumption about human evolution.
Adrienne L. Zihlman was born on December 29th, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois (Nemeh, 2005). She earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Colorado in 1962, and her Ph.D. several years later from the University of California Berkeley in 1967. Once she obtained her degree, Zihlman started teaching at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) as an assistant professor from 1967-1969. During her time as a professor, Zihlman served as the Anthropology Department Chair between 1975-1978 and 1984-1987. While working at UCSC Zihlman has won numerous awards for her astounding work, such as the 2002 Excellence in Teaching Award from UCSC, 2004 Squeaky Wheel Award from the American Anthropological Association, and the 2009 Chemers Award for her Outstanding research in social services.
Zihlman learned much of the information that set her up for academic success from her mentor, Sherwood Washburn (Barr et al., 2016). Two of Zihlman’s graduate students include Debora Bolter and Carol Underwood. While mentoring Bolter, Zihlman focused her efforts on both dentition and growth and development of wild chimpanzees (Bolter, 2016). Similarly, when working with Underwood, the two centered their studies on the comparison of anatomy between two different primates (Bolter, 2016). Zihlman currently retains professor emerita status. This status was given to her because of the hard work and notable discoveries in the anthropological field.
Her work masterfully combines the sciences of primatology and paleoanthropology amidst a pool of scientists who often fall in one end of the spectrum or the other. Her effective intersectionality makes her a compelling and continuously relevant scientist. Zihlman has always been interested in primate gross anatomy and its implications for hominin locomotion and evolution. While her publishing record ranges from feminist anthropology to primate behavior, primate and hominin anatomy has been a central theme. Perhaps most impressive is her access to ape cadavers and the knowledge she provides from this rare commodity in science. In 2015, she published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzing the body composition of 13 bonobos–this sample size is virtually unheard of in a paper studying gross anatomy of apes. She compiled this data over a 35-year period, which indeed is an impressive feat and shows her commitment and diligence (Zihlman and Bolter, 2015). In 2016, she presented a poster at the annual American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings on the comparative anatomy of ape hands and feet and found that the differences reflect differing locomotor behavior between apes (Zihlman and Underwood, 2016). Consistent participation at conferences and frequent publications since obtaining her PhD in 1967 proves that she continues to be a prolific scientist and important figure in biological anthropology.
One of her most prominent and notable achievements, in collaboration with Nancy Tanner in 1970s, but also in her own publications in the 80s and 90s, is the critique of the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis proposed in 1966 (Lee and DeVore, 1966; Tanner and Zihlman, 1976; Zihlman and Tanner, 1978; Zihlman, 1985; Zihlman, 1997). “Man the Hunter” stated that men’s ability to hunt and obtain meat were essential to the progression of human evolution, implying that men were the drivers of the evolution of our species while women were passive bodies and consumers of their bounty. Women were relegated to being gatherers and child bearers. Under this hypothesis, there is a division of labor that existed naturally since the beginning of humankind. Zihlman and Tanner challenged these widely held beliefs, using sociobiological concepts of sexual selection and parental investment as well as new data on human/chimpanzee DNA and archaeological bone assemblages. The authors examined living foraging peoples and primates. In their model, women were innovators, tool makers, and socially central to the well-being of the group. In this role, women would have needed to invent solutions to carrying and sharing the volume of food needed to be collected. The authors also state that in looking at living foraging peoples, there is no sexual division of labor; instead, flexibility and interdependence are key to survival.
Zihlman has been featured in many public forums regarding her feminist critique of “Man the Hunter” as well as her other research. Zihlman appeared in Discover magazine in 1991, openly shedding light on the fact that human evolution was largely written by male scientists. She has been featured in Lear’s magazine titled “Science Discovers Women” in 1994 and the March 1997 LA Times article titled “’Man the Hunter’ May Have Met His Match”. In December of 1978, she appeared in a Time magazine science article titled “The Case for a Living Link”, which was about the common ancestor of African apes. Her devotion to spreading knowledge through the educational setting is clear. She has published various works, including a human evolution coloring book. This approach allows students to learn about and visualize science in an unconventional, creative manner. Furthermore, Zihlman has been an educator at UCSC for forty-nine years, teaching Introduction to Human Evolution, Primate Behavior and Ecology, Comparative Functional Anatomy, and many more. Zihlman has also hosted multiple seminars at UCSC. Notably, one seminar topic was titled “Women and Science through an Anthropological Lens.”
Adrienne Zihlman has been a prominent woman in anthropology, with her voice reaching folks in both the educational and public forums. No doubt she has shaped the field in invaluable ways and improved the academic climate in paleoanthropology for future women anthropologists.
Written by: Jeanelle Uy, Arielle Bearheart, Cecilia Gehred, and Suri Pourmodheji as part of Gender and Human Evolution, taught by Caroline VanSickle and submitted as part of the Women in Paleoanthropology special collection.
Image provided by Adrienne Zilhman and used with permission.