Graduate Student Spotlight: Giulia Gallo

Giulia Gallo is a Ph.D. candidate in the Evolutionary Anthropology program.
Graduate Student Spotlight: Giulia Gallo

Giulia Gallo at the Pech de l'Aze IV 2022 field lab in Carsac, France.


What is your area of research?


I am a zooarchaeologist and I use the remains of animals impacted by humans (for example, animals hunted, eaten, or their bones used for tools) to better understand ancient human behavior.


Within zooarchaeology, I focus on the specialized use of bone. I find this part of the discipline fascinating because bone is a very dynamic biomaterial and aspects of bone biology can provide details on human decision making – which is, ultimately, what I’m interested in.


The focal point of my current research is on burned bone, and what heated bones can tell us about anthropogenic fire control, use, and maintenance. This includes what the properties of combustion features were, such as what temperature was reached, what fuel was used, and how long it lasted. Bone is an excellent proxy for ancient fires, and I use traditional methods and spectroscopic methods to do my analyses.


I apply this methodology to the study of Neanderthal fire features. It is really exciting to have opportunities to look at Neanderthal fires, as it is currently unclear to researchers what the nature of Neanderthal fire use was (i.e., did they have control over fire, or only use fire opportunistically when it was in their environment?). By documenting Neanderthal fire practices and testing variability within their fire technology I hope to address questions of their fire competency and learn more about their social and economic lifeways.


Why is this research important?


Studying the fire technology of Neanderthals provides an additional lens to how we understand their lives in addition to the study of stone tools and the remains of animals they hunted and transported. The use of fire and how it is used to modify their environment and resources (such as tools and food) is relevant to key aspects of how these hominins organized themselves. And, if they didn’t have or use fire, this information prompts researchers to think outside the box and question our assumptions for how they survived and adapted to cold climates!


Ultimately, the study of Neanderthal fire is important because it touches upon one of the greatest questions we currently have about our closest genetic cousins: how similar were we? I love that even after ~170 years of research after the recognition of Neanderthals this remains a driving force in our field, and I am excited that I get to contribute to our knowledge of their behaviors and choices.


As my methodology can be used to contextualize and interpret the remains of any fire in which has modified bone, I do hope to also continue my research on more Neanderthal fires from a range of dates, and even consider the contemporaneous Homo sapiens who lived in similar time periods as Neanderthals, as well as humans who lived through the Last Glacial Maximum in Europe.


If a student asks you why anthropology matters, what would you say?


I have been asked this question! We usually focus on it at the beginning and end of my courses. Anthropology is so many different things and touches upon so many aspects of being human, and the lives of past humans, that it is difficult to capture in a single answer. But, overall, anthropology provides us with a framework to better understand our experience as humans, and allows us to investigate the experience of humans before us.


I think that matters because it is a pretty exclusive thing to be able to contextualize your life against the backdrop of the thousands of generations of other humans – and close human relatives. Anthropology provides a powerful chance for us to tell our shared story and better understand the circumstances and challenges which have shaped what it is to be human: our family structures, our diets, our locomotion, our culture, our sociality, etc.


I also think that many people believe that anthropology matters, as so many are interested in origin stories of all types. I think it is possible that they may not know that the field of anthropology is an additional place to look to find this type of knowledge. Further, this is where we can contribute to these questions to learn more!


If you could teach any course, what course would it be and why?


I have already been lucky enough to have a chance to teach my favorite course – Prehistoric Art! I do hope to have the opportunity to teach more courses on the subject, such as human representation in prehistoric art, or the earliest prehistoric art.


For me this class is special because it is a great introduction to paleoanthropology, a chance to learn about the past through the images and representations made by the people who lived in these time periods. We can discuss many important, but potentially more intimidating, parts of the past within this framework, as well, such as dating and study methods, ethnoarchaeology, and the history of anthropology as a discipline itself.


For those who already are familiar with these time periods and general archaeology, spending time on artistic objects allows an opportunity for us to better understand those we are studying by having a chance to see their world through their eyes. Certain cave environments are like literal time capsules, and using technology, such as virtual reality, lets us be within these spaces in the classroom. In a very tactile way, placing things you study onto physical landscapes, such as where caves are situated and where art is within these caves, also adds dimension to decision-making that is difficult to capture through static images taken out of their environment.


For me, paleolithic art humanizes our study populations. It is, for me, the way I’ve felt the closest to them, as so many aspects of their world and life are completely alien to someone who has grown up in 19th-20th century America. 

Your proudest accomplishment so far?


I am proud, in fact, that I have so many things to be proud of! But truly I am proud to have received funding from institutions that I respect, such as the Leakey Foundation, and I am proud of my teaching accomplishments (thank you, UC Davis Teaching Assistant Consultants!).


I think what I am most proud of is to be a part of a young researcher cohort that I respect deeply. My teammates and collaborators inspire me, and I am excited for the projects we build together.


What is next for you?


After my graduation this December I will be starting a postdoctoral position through the Fyssen Foundation at the University of Toulouse in France. This opportunity is to extend my research to an additional Neanderthal site, which will both allow me to describe anthropogenic fire in several layers but also compare this site to my prior work at other locations for a broader understanding of Neanderthal fire use. I also plan on publishing the remaining chapters of my dissertation, as well, and am planning and executing several more experiments!