Leslie C. Aiello is an evolutionary anthropologist and paleoanthropologist born in California in 1946. Aiello completed her BA in Anthropology and then MA in Anthropology with an emphasis on Paleolithic archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her PhD in anatomy from the University of London. Apart from her pioneering research, she has been a part of many different important projects and organizations. As a professor of Anthropology at the University of London, she became the head of the anthropology department from 1996 until 2005, and then the head of graduate school from 2002-2005. In April of 2005 she became the President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Wenner-Gren is the largest private foundation that focuses support on international anthropological research. One of their most recent programs is their Institutional Development grant, awarded to doctoral anthropology programs across the globe that have limited academic resources for development.
Leslie Aiello has also spent a substantial portion of her life in field research, beginning in 1964 in Cedar City, Utah and San Miguel Island in California, continuing for the next decade in places such as Solvieux, Dordogne, France, and Mycenae, Greece. Her last field research location was a palaeontological excavation at the Miocene site of Pasalar, Turkey.
Among her many important contributions in the field of paleoanthropology, one of the most influential and noted was her Expensive Tissue Hypothesis. The general explanation of the hypothesis is that large brains co-evolved with the shrinkage of the gut. Examining the body, the human gut is the only metabolically expensive organ that is small in relation to our body size. This was potentially a metabolic requirement or trade-off for having a larger brain. Aiello states that the gastrointestinal tract is just as metabolically expensive as the brain. The trade-off that comes with having a smaller gut is changing diet. Diet is directly related to gut size. Having a smaller gut means that diet needs to shift to high quality, easier to digest food; this is why Aiello believes that we evolved to eat animal products.
Aiello has also done work involving Neanderthal thermoregulation and their glacial climate, energy consequences for reproduction as a Homo erectus female and the degree to which estimating age by fossilized bones is correct (Aiello & Wheeler, 2004; Aiello & Key, 2002). She has made contributions in many books, academic talks and has even filled in gaps in data and information found in previous research.
Aiello has won many awards and became a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2000. Her long list of honors proves how influential she has been in her field and how many important contributions she has made.
Written by Ann Meinholz, Mishell Smith, and Taryn Gordon for the course “Gender and Human Evolution”, taught by Caroline VanSickle and published as part of the Women in Paleoanthropology special collection.
Aiello, L., & Wheeler, P. (2004). Neanderthal Thermoregulation and the Glacial Climate. In T. Van Andel & W. Davies (Eds.), Neanderthals and modern humans in the European landscape during the last glaciation (pp. 147 – 166). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archeological Research.
Aiello, Leslie C. & Key, Cathy (2002). Energetic Consequences of being a Homo erectus Female. American Journal of Human Biology, 14, 551-565.
Image of Leslie Aiello by Chris Clunn and used with permission.