Isabelle Winder
Postdoctoral Research Associate in Palaeoanthropology



I have been interested in the interactions between humans and the natural world for as long as I can remember, and carried out numerous childhood "research projects" on botany, zoology, mineralogy and similar topics. When I was old enough, I went to the University of Sheffield and studied for a BSc in geography, with an emphasis on physical geography, the environment and palaeontology topped up with modules on palaeoecology, evolutionary biology and ecology. For my dissertation, I wrote about fractionation in coastal aerosols (a topic which enabled me to do three weeks independent research on a beach!).

I followed my BSc with an MSc in palaeoanthropology in the Archaeology department at the same university, where I developed my particular interest in the primates (including humans). My course involved studying anatomy - from bones and soft tissues - and evolutionary ecology, in addition to biological anthropology, hominin palaeoecology and Palaeolithic archaeology, and culminated in a dissertation which investigated the structure and distribution of faunal communities (with and without hominins) in Plio-Pleistocene Africa.

My doctoral research developed from a synthesis of these two areas of study, and focused on exploring the links between African landscapes and the anatomy, ecology and evolution of the primates (particularly the Papio baboons, Homo sapiens and the hominins), as part of the ERC DISPERSE project. I submitted my dissertation in September 2012, and took up my current role as a postdoctoral research associate in palaeoanthropology on the same project six days later.



My research focuses on the ways humans, and other primates, interact with their environments. In particular, I am interested in how these species evolve through complex, reciprocal interactions with the landscapes they occupy. This demands a flexible, interdisciplinary, problem-led approach that integrates data from a range of sources of evidence, including mapping exercises, osteological studies of hard-tissue anatomy, dissection, quantitative analyses of faunal assemblage data and palaeoenvironmental evidence and theory-development that rests on the integration of conceptual frameworks from various disciplines. A key product of my work to date has been the ‘complex topography hypothesis,’ of human evolution, published in Antiquity.

My research centres on four main themes, specifically:

Complex topography and human evolution

Traditional theories of human origins, whether savannah, gallery forest, woodland or rainforest hypotheses, are similar in that they focus on climate and vegetation and treat the transition from living in the trees to living on the ground as especially significant. Even a species that had already adapted to upright posture, however, would be subject to increased mortality on the ground, and none of these hypotheses have provided a convincing explanation of this transition. My work on DISPERSE has developed an alternative - the ‘scrambler man’ or complex topography hypothesis.

This hypothesis (detailed in our Antiquity paper; Winder et al. 2013) identifies a ‘missing link’ in our history – a period of adaptation to topographically complex, dynamic and spatially heterogeneous landscapes like those of east and south Africa today. These landscapes might provide some protection from predators (as they do for gelada baboons living on the Ethiopian highland plains and sleeping on cliffs), can explain the development of the ‘mosaic’ anatomies of australopiths that combine traits for climbing and terrestrial walking as well as many other ‘human’ characteristics, and would have been inherently attractive to early humans as they offer water sources, stone outcrops and a wide range of resources within a relatively small geographic area.

Landscape and the non-human primates

My work on human evolutionary landscapes uses a comparative perspective, including analyses of the links between ecology, anatomy, behaviour and environment in baboons and modern humans. In addition to informing us about our past, these analyses also produce interesting insights into the ecology and evolution of the other primates themselves. Another strand of my research therefore focuses on exploring non-human primates’ relationships with their contexts. This research uses the same theoretical perspective as the hominin work, in that it emphasizes the primates’ use of spatially and temporally heterogeneous ‘landscapes’ with which they co-evolve.

My baboon work, for example, has shown that (a) baboon-environment relationships are more variable within species/subspecies than between them; and (b) differences in the landscapes used by neighbouring populations are identifiable, and may be bound up in complex systems of interaction that affect their anatomy, ecology and behaviour. It also suggests that further attempts to understand these co-evolutionary processes would benefit from more explicit exploration of the role of hybridization and of ideas of landscape, complexity and the process of emergence, in which the whole of a system is greater than, and not logically deducible from, the sum of the parts.

Agency, cognition and behaviour

A second spin-off from my work on human evolution focuses on the role of agency and choice in primate history. Most palaeoanthropological theory today assumes our ancestors were restricted to certain habitats or areas by ecological constraints that could not be overcome. The scrambling hypothesis, in contrast, suggests that rather than being driven out of the trees onto the ground, hominins would have been attracted to areas with complex landscapes. It thus opens up the possibility that hominin preference and choice might have had a significant impact on our evolutionary history. In addition, my baboon work has suggested that even for these species, ‘culture’ and socioecology co-evolve with local landscapes in just the same way as biological traits. I have therefore developed an interest in the role of behaviours and choices in shaping co-evolutionary systems, which I intend to begin exploring using modeling approaches.

The anthropology of the natural and human sciences

I am also interested in the anthropology of science (broadly defined) and have been working on this theme for some time with specialists in integrative socio-natural science from other institutions. My paper on Plio-Pleistocene hominin communities (Winder 2012, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology) describes an approach to problem-framing that began this trajectory, and a second, written with Nick Winder (University of Newcastle), was published by the Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History in 2013.We have also written a book, The Behavioural Ecology of Project-Based Science (Winder and Winder, 2013). In future, I hope to further develop the idea of landscape thinking – akin to the ‘population thinking’ at the core of modern evolutionary biology – and work more on the ways in which conceptual frameworks form, develop and interact with social systems in the human sciences and palaeoanthropology.


Full publications list


Winder, N.P. and Winder, I.C. 2013. The behavioural ecology of project-based science. Sigtuna: the Sigtuna Foundation Press. The full text of this book can be downloaded free from the HumaNatE web pages, here.


Winder, I.C. In Press. The biogeography of the Papio baboons: a GIS-based analysis of range characteristics and variability. Folia Primatologica special issue on 'Primate Biogeography'.

Winder, I.C. and Winder, N.P. 2014. Reticulate evolution and the human past: an anthropological perspective. Annals of Human Biology 41(4): 300-311 (invited paper for a special issue on 'The Human Biology of the Past'). Available here.

Winder, I.C. and Winder, N.P. 2013. An agnostic approach to ancient landscapes: conversations about the cultural anthropology of archaeological research. Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History. Available here.

Winder, I.C., King, G.C.P., Deves, M. and Bailey, G.N. 2013. Complex topography and human evolution: the missing link. Antiquity 87(336): 333-349. Available here.

Winder, I.C. 2012. Looking for problems: a systems approach to hominin palaeocommunities from Plio-Pleistocene Africa. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 22(4): 460-493. Available here.

Winder, I.C. 2011. A new single-filter method for analyzing coastal aerosol production and links to meteorology. Estuaries and Coasts 34(2): 326-335. Available here.

Book Reviews

Winder, I.C. 2014. Review of Sponheimer, M., Lee-Thorp, J.A., Reed, K.E. and Ungar, P.S. 2013, 'Early hominin paleoecology'. Environmental Archaeology 19(2): 179-180.

Winder, I.C. 2012. Review of D'Aout, K. and Vereecke, E.E. 2011, 'Primate locomotion: linking field and laboratory research'. Primate Eye.

Winder, I.C. 2011. Review of Rebay-Salisbury, K., Sorensen, M.L.S. and Hughes, J. 2010, 'Body parts and bodies whole'. PaleoAnthropology 2011: 287-288. Available here

Winder, I.C. 2011. Review of Rees, A. 2009, 'The infanticide controversy: primatology and the art of field science'. Primate Eye.

Winder, I.C. 2010. Review of Hetherington, R. and Reid, R.G.B. 2010, 'The climate connection: climate change and modern human evolution'. PaleoAnthropology 2010: 223-225. Available here.

Winder, I.C. 2010. Review of Cartmill, M. and Smith, F. 2009, 'The human lineage'. PaleoAnthropology 2010: 160-161. Available here

Winder, I.C. 2010. Review of Holmes, K. 2007, 'GIS simulation of the earliest hominid colonisation of Eurasia'. PaleoAnthropology 2010: 76-78. Available here.

Other Articles

Winder, I.C., King, G.C.P., Deves, M.H. and Bailey, G.N. 2014. Human bipedalism and the importance of terrestriality. Antiquity 88: 915-916. Available here.

Winder, I.C., Heyerdahl-King, I.S. and Winder, N. 2014. The environmental archaeology of hominin palaeoecology. Invited contribution to The Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Available here.

Bailey, G.N., King, G.C.P., Deves, M., Hausmann, N., Inglis, R., Laurie, E., Meredith-Williams, M., Momber, G., Winder, I.C., Alsharekh, A. and Sakellariou, D. 2012. DISPERSE: Dynamic landscapes, coastal environments and human dispersals. Antiquity 86(334). Available here.

Winder, I.C. 2012. Hominin landscapes and co-evolutionary ecology: accommodating logical incoherence and complexity. Unpublished PhD thesis, submitted to the Department of Archaeology, University of York and available from White Rose Etheses here.

Winder, I.C. 2010. Energy production and the potential for life on outer solar system satellites. Journal of Young Investigators 19(19): 1-7. Available here.




This year, I am teaching on:

Special Topic: Human Evolution (third year)

Previous years

In previous years, I have taught on the following modules:

Special topic: Human Evolution (third year)

Assessed Seminar: Neanderthals (third year)

Themes in Prehistory - Palaeolithic (second year)

Research Skills (second year)

Accessing Archaeology (first year)

Archaeological Excavation (first year; environmental processing activities)

Understanding Arguments in Management (first year, in the York Management School)




This year, I am teaching on:

Hunting and Gathering Societies (MSc Early Prehistory)

Previous years

In previous years, I have taught on the following modules:

Evolving Minds and Societies (MSc Early Prehistory)

Coastal Settlement and Economy (MSc Coastal Prehistory)


Other teaching


Subject to sign-up numbers, this year I will be teaching on the following CLL courses:

Meet the Primates: The Ecology and Evolution of Our Closest Relatives (non-accredited, autumn term)

An Introduction to Human Evolution (non-accredited, spring term)

An Introduction to Ecology and Ecosystems (non-accredited, summer term)

Climate and the Human Environment (accredited, spring term)

An Introduction to Forensic Archaeology (accredited, summer term)

Previous years

In previous years, I have taught on the following modules:

An Introduction to Forensic Archaeology (accredited course for the Centre for Lifelong Learning)

Climate and the Human Environment (accredited course for the Centre for Lifelong Learning)

An Introduction to Human Evolution (a 'for pleasure' course for the Centre for Lifelong Learning)

'Science Trail' animal bones activities (open days for secondary school pupils)


External activities


Paleoanthropology Society

Primate Society of Great Britain

The European Society for Human Evolution

Society for American Archaeology


Invited talks and conferences

Winder, I.C. 2013. Scrambler man: complex landscapes and the evolution of bipedalism. Public lecture at Uppsala University. 9th October 2013.

Winder, I.C. 2013. Complex systems II: animals, agency and landscape - the baboons. Invited contribution to the SALT "Complex Systems" seminar series, Uppsala University. 9th October 2013.

Winder, I.C. 2013. Reticulate evolution: what it might tell us about Pleistocene species in Asia. Society for the Study of Human Biology Symposium: The Human Biology of the Past. 13th-14th August 2013.


Other presentations

Winder, I.C., Bailey, G.N., Deves, M., King, G.C.P., Inglis, R.H. and Meredith-Williams, M.G. 2013. Dynamic landscapes and complex topography as agents of human evolution: the dispersals of the genus Homo. 78th Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in a session called "Modelling the impact of environmental variability on hominin dispersals". 3rd-7th April 2013.

Winder, I.C., King, G.C.P., Deves, M. and Bailey, G.N. 2013. Landscape matters: a new hypothesis of human evolutionary environments. Unravelling Human Origins Conference. 18th-19th January 2013.

Winder, I.C. 2011. Linking primate anatomy, ecology and landscape use. Primate Society of Great Britain Spring Meeting: Evolution of the Modern Primatologist. 27th-28th April 2011.

Winder, I.C. 2010. Grasping toes and flat feet: exploring the evolution of human locomotion. University of York Public Lecture in the 'Human Origins: How Science Helps us Understand Our Past' Series. 9th November 2010.

Isabelle Winder

Contact details

Isabelle Winder
Department of Archaeology
University of York
The King's Manor

Tel: (44) 1904 433931
Fax: (44) 1904 433902