The Paleoenvironment, Lineage, and Evolution Studies (PLES) Lab

The Paleoenvironment, Lineage, and Evolution Studies (PLES) Lab investigates a wide range of questions involving human evolution in the Plio-Pleistocene. 

PLES Lab Director: Juliet Brophy, PhD (

Current research:

Use morphometric analyses to examine taxonomic differences among fossils and to evaluate phylogenetic hypotheses regarding their evolution. In support of these objectives, the teeth of Homo naledi and Australopithecus sediba from South Africa are investigated which helps more firmly establish the phylogenetic position and behavior of these human ancestors (hominins). Currently, the non-adult cranial and postcranial specimens recovered from the Rising Star Cave system are being analyzed.    

Advance our understanding of the relationship between environmental change and hominin evolution by reconstructing past environments associated with our ancestors in southern Africa. To achieve this, we rely on animals in the Family Bovidae (e.g. antelopes and buffalo). Bovids reflect distinct ecological adaptations in terms of diet, habitat, water dependence, and seasonal migrations that vary according to their respective ecological niches. In addition, bovids, in particular teeth, are often the most common fossil found at a site. Thus, a database of bovid tooth images ( was created to help identify the bovids from hominin sites in the past. Currently, the site of Gladysvale, South Africa, is being databased and identified.  

Current graduate students:

Margaret Furtner

  • Uses paleoanthropology and GIS to build a machine learning model for fossil site prediction suited to the unique environmental and preservational context of Plio-Pleistocene fossil sites in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa

Alex Belanger

  • Explores the geographic movements of early human populations by focusing on climate-induced migration and estimating species' home ranges

Ben Moss

  • Examines changes in modern human cranial morphology over time from groups that have migrated to different geographic areas to assess the response of cranial morphology to the environment.

Anthony Lanfranchi

  • Formulating hypotheses

Jeremy Carruth 

  • Investigates the amount of expected variation within and between hominid taxa.

Hannah Johnson

  • Formulating hypotheses

Jeanne Wood 

  • Compares the consistency between age scoring estimations across various 3-D model creation methods in an attempt to find a practical proxy for physical remains

Current undergraduate students:

Kinsey Van Dyke

Sarah Saxon