The study of human origin, progression and behaviors is a fascinating topic to many people. Kersey native Herman Pontzer, now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., helps students explore the human family tree as a professor of anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York, in New York City. He uses many disciplines and skills in his career, and his work has taken him around the world.
“I spend about one-third of my time teaching courses in human evolution, human physiology, the fossil record, and related topics, and my other time doing research. I've done a number of different research projects, investigating how differences in leg anatomy affect the amount of energy it takes to walk and run in humans and other animals, analyzing the anatomy of 1.8 million-year-old fossil hominins (human ancestors) from the Republic of Georgia (the site of Dmanisi), and studying chimpanzees climbing in a rainforest in Uganda (Kibale National Park).
“I find the research I do really fun and interesting - my job is to try and figure out how the natural world works, especially our species. Also, the teaching is very rewarding. To give students a different perspective on the world and watch their perspectives broaden is wonderful.”
Pontzer’s current research project takes him to northern Tanzania every summer, where he and some of his colleagues are working with a hunter-gatherer group, the Hadza, to understand how their lifestyle affects their physiology and health.
“Many of the Hadza still live a very traditional lifestyle - men hunt wild game with bows and arrows, women gather wild plant foods, and families live in camps in the middle of the savannah, in grass huts. They don't farm or have any industry, or guns, or motorized tools, Pontzer said. “We measure their activity patterns, diet, and health - many Hadza live well into their 80s and 90s, and they never develop heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic diseases typical in the U.S. They are a fascinating group and incredibly gracious hosts.
“In a different project, I've been working with zoos around the country to measure how much energy apes, our closest relatives, use each day. Interestingly, their metabolism is quite different from ours, and we want to know why that is.” Pontzer is married to Janice Wang, originally from West Chester, Pa., and the couple is expecting a boy in February. He is the son of the late Herman Pontzer and Victoria Ehrhardt-Pontzer, who married his stepfather, George Ehrhardt, after his father died. Both his mother and his late father taught English at St. Marys Area High School (SMAHS), his alma mater, until the 1990s. He has three sisters: Heide Reese, married to Jerry Reese and living in Pittsburgh; Holly Daniels, married to Michael Daniels and living in L.A.; and Emily Khan, married to Saleem Khan and living in Jersey City, N.J. Ponzter said his parents have been his biggest influence. He also credited some of his former teachers, particularly George Neubert, John Fedorko, Bill Scilingo and William Granche, with influencing him and instructing him in courses which he would eventually make use of in his current career.
“They taught me to write, and to do trigonometry, calculus and physics, all of which I use on a daily basis now,” Ponzter said. “Grover Slater was also a fantastic art teacher, and I enjoyed those classes immensely. Guido Riccadonna was a great civics teacher and also taught an anthropology course, which sparked my initial interest in the subject. And I shouldn't forget Dennis Murray in the (St. Marys Area) middle school, who got me excited about science. “My cousin Chris Casey was also a great influence and mentor - he's faculty at St. Marys Area Middle School now, but wasn't back then. I always enjoyed the outdoors, but it was Chris that opened the door to rock climbing, backpacking, and mountaineering.” Following his graduation from SMAHS, Ponzter attended and graduated from The Pennsylvania State University, where he continued to pursue courses that would shape his career path.
“I had a couple of amazing courses in human evolution and behavior with Dr. Jeff Kurland, and worked in the lab of Dr. Alan Walker, a world-renowned human paleontologist who had discovered a number of really important hominin fossils - 'hominins' are species on our branch of the evolutionary tree - our extinct ancestor species and us. Those professors - and others - broadened my perspective and my view of our species' place in the world. They were wonderful teachers and mentors,” Ponzter said. “I became fascinated by human evolution, the puzzle of trying to figure out where we came from by looking at fossils, archeological remains, and our living relatives, the apes.”
Following his graduation from Penn State, Pontzer earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he again had the opportunity to work with and learn from renowned professionals.
“I worked with Dan Lieberman, a professor there who is now known for his work on the evolution of barefoot running,” Pontzer said. “Grad school was another eye-opening experience, as I got to work at the hominin fossil site of Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia, study chimpanzees in the rainforests of Uganda, and conduct experiments in the biology and anthropology labs at Harvard.”
Pontzer has received some professional accolades over the years for his work in the field of anthropology.
He has received some Excellence in Teaching awards for the undergraduate courses he has taught, as well as the Herrnstein Prize at Harvard in 2006 for “the best dissertation that exhibits excellent scholarship, originality and breadth of thought, and a commitment to intellectual independence" for his research.
“I love my job, because it brings me to amazing places and lets me see incredible things. I've seen a Hadza man take down a warthog with a bow and arrow that he made himself with a knife, tracked a wounded giraffe across the savannah - the Hadza men are unbelievable trackers, excavated 1.8 million- year-old fossils with my own hands, and watched chimps hunt monkeys in the rainforest,” Pontzer said.
“I also love teaching, which of course I do regularly back at Hunter. And I'm my own boss - I decide what research projects I want to pursue next, what papers I want to write, etc. As anyone in academia will tell you, getting a tenure-track job at a good university feels like winning the lottery. It's a tough profession in the sense that there are very few jobs out there.”
While at Penn State, Pontzer enjoyed a number of interesting experiences. He worked as an EMT in State College for a few years and also taught rock-climbing courses, led backpacking trips, and managed programming and budgets for the Outing Club at Penn State, and still enjoys these outdoor activities today.
“Since college - late high school really, I've really gotten into rock climbing and mountaineering. It's my non-work passion. And while it wouldn't necessarily seem to be the case, Brooklyn, where I live now, is a pretty good place for it. We're not too far from the Shawangunks, a world-class rock climbing area in upstate New York, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire aren't too far away,” Pontzer said.
In addition to his longtime interests, Pontzer said he is also passionate about a new endeavor – a charitable fundraising project that will provide basic medical care to those who need it.
“My colleagues and I have recently started the Hadza Fund to help the Hadza people. As hunter-gatherers, their access to medical care is extremely limited,” Pontzer said. “We're trying to raise funds to provide medicine and health screening to the Hadza population by starting a HyperMobile Medical Clinic - nurse, medicine, and motorcycle - to get out to remote Hadza camps and provide basic, lifesaving care. If people want to help out, they should visit our website at www.hadzafund.org.”
Pontzer said he does not return to Elk County much these days, since his sisters live elsewhere and his mother and stepfather are in Lancaster, and the family house in Kersey has been sold. But even though he has been around the world and now lives in Brooklyn, he said he has some fond memories of his childhood and misses the rural landscape of Elk County.
“I miss the woods. Growing up, I could walk out my back door and I was in the woods - I could go for a run, ride my mountain bike, go cross-country skiing, ride my four-wheeler,” Pontzer said. “New York is amazing, and I'm having a lot of fun - but there's no woods.”