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Stephen R. Merritt

Associate Professor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
University Hall (UH) 3129
(205) 934-2742

Research and Teaching Interests: Paleoanthropology, zooarchaeology, taphonomy, actualistic studies, experimental archaeology, paleoecology, hominin carnivory, butchery, human osteology, forensic anthropology, sustainability, foodways

Office Hours: By appointment


  • BS, Rutgers University, Evolutionary Anthropology
  • MA, Rugers University, Anthropology
  • PhD, Rutgers University, Anthropology

My research explores the paleoecology and evolution of human tool-assisted carnivory. Eating animals and using sharp-edged stone tools to butcher is an important example of the intersection between the human diet and technology. The ecological contexts surrounding foraging behavior and technological adaptations have likely influenced major trends in human evolution like brain size expansion and increasing complexity of food production and consumption. In the contemporary world, diet is an important lens for studying culture and human health. By examining industrialized food production, it is easy to appreciate the technological power that humanity wields as it produces more abundant, nutritious, cost-effective foods. Precisely because of the unprecedented ecological power our technology affords, humanity must act responsibly as we control other species’ genotypes and impact our ecosystems.

The important ways in which diet and technology are intertwined in the modern world brings up questions about their origins. How did we come to be the top consumer in all of the world’s ecosystems? To answer questions about the paleoecology of tool-assisted carnivory, I have conducted fieldwork at Koobi Fora, in northern Kenya, where the deep history of human carnivory is encoded in archaeological assemblages of butchered bone that date to approximately 1-2 million years ago. At this time in human prehistory, Oldowan stone tool technology was involved in a dietary shift toward large mammal carcass consumption, an ecological transition that put our ancestors in direct competition with ancient carnivore guild members. As a zooarchaeologist and paleoanthropologist, I also use information generated in modern-day experimental contexts to reconstruct the role ancient humans and carnivores played in the formation of fragmentary bone assemblages.

As a taphonomist for the Koobi Fora Paleoanthropology Research Project, and I also helped coordinate the Koobi Fora Field School. This six-week summer field course introduces students to fieldwork in East Africa, beginning with modern landscape studies in a savanna mosaic environment on Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau, and applies these ideas to independent field-based research projects at Koobi Fora. Students working with me have conducted archaeological and paleontological surveys to determine which bones and how many animals were present in archaeological sites and on the surface of sedimentary outcrops and described the incidence of hominin butchery marks, carnivore tooth marks, and other taphonomic variables. Other student projects involved experimental studies that examined butchery marks created with replicated Oldowan stone tools.

Recently, I have broadened my scholarly attention and teaching to explore local examples of environmental racism in Birmingham. Here, urban agriculture, science education and other examples reveal injustices and open conversations about how to proceed for a more equitable future.

Scholars @ UAB Profile

  • Recent Courses

    My courses emphasize critical thinking about human biology, behavior, culture, the fossil record, and human evolution - topics that are controversial at times, especially when misunderstood, but are very important for understanding the complex place that humanity occupies in the world.

    • ANTH 102: Introduction to Biological Anthropology
    • ANTH 211: Human Evolution
    • ANTH 319/619: Food and Culture
    • ANTH 400/613: Human Osteology
    • ANTH 401/601: Forensic Anthropology
    • ANTH 453/610: Advanced Biological Anthropology
    • ANTH 454/654: Biological Anthropology and Contemporary Issues
  • Select Publications
    • Patterson, D.B., Braun, D.R., Allen, K.A., Barr, W.A., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Biernat, M., Lehmann, S.B., Maddox, T., Manthi, F.K., Merritt, S.R., Morris, S.E., O’Brien, K., Reeves, J.S., Wood, B.A., Bobe, R. 2019. Comparative isotopic evidence from East Turkana supports a dietary shift within the genus Homo. Nature Ecology & Evolution 3:1048-1056. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0916-0
    • Merritt, S.R. 2019. An experimental investigation of changing cut mark cross-sectional size during butchery: implications for interpreting tool-assisted carcass processing from cut mark samples. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 25:184-194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.03.028
    • Merritt S.R., Peters, K.D. 2018. The impact of flake tool attributes and experience on carcass processing time and efficiency during experimental butchery trials. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 29:220-230.https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.2730
    • Merritt, S.R., Pante, M.C., Keevil, T.L., Njau, J.K., Blumenschine, R.J. 2019. Don’t cry over spilled ink: missing context prevent replication and creates the Rorschach effect in bone surface modification studies. Journal of Archaeological Science 102:71-79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2018.07.003
    • Key, A.J.M., Merritt, S.R., Kivell, T.L. 2018. Hand grip diversity and frequency during Lower Palaeolithic stone tool use. Journal of Human Evolution 125:137-158. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.08.006
    • Merritt, S.R., Mavuso, S., Cordiner, E.A., Fetchenhier, K., Greiner, E. 2018. FwJj70 – a potential Early Stone Age single carcass butchery locality preserved in a fragmentary surface assemblage. Journal of Archaeological Science:Reports 20:736-747. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2018.06.016
    • Merritt, S.R. 2017. Investigating hominin carnivory in the Okote Member of Koobi Fora, Kenya with an actualistic model of carcass consumption and traces of butchery on the elbow. Journal of Human Evolution 112:105-133. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2017.08.004
    • Merritt, S.R., Davis, K. M. 2017. Diagnostic properties of hammerstone-broken long bone fragments, specimen identifiability, and Early Stone Age butchered assemblage interpretation. Journal of Archaeological Science 85:114-123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2017.06.009
    • Patterson, D.B., Braun, D.R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Merritt, S.R., Zliobaite, I., Reeves, J.S., Wood, B.A., Fortelius, M., Bobe, R. 2017. Ecosystem evolution and hominin paleobiology at East Turkana, northern Kenya between 2.0 and 1.4 Ma. Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology 481:1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2017.05.001
    • Patterson, D.B., Braun, D.R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Lehman, S.B., Merritt, S.R., Reeves, J.S., Wood, B.A., Bobe, R. 2017. Landscape scale heterogeneity in the East Turkana ecosystem during the Okote Member (1.56-1.38). Journal of Human Evolution 112:148-161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2017.06.007
    • Pante, M.C., Muttart, M.V., Keevil, T.L., Blumenschine, R.J., Njau, J.K., Merritt, S.R. 2017. A new high-resolution 3-D quantitative method for identifying bone surface modifications with implications for the Early Stone Age archaeological record. Journal of Human Evolution 102:1-11. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2016.10.002
    • Merritt, S.R. 2016. Cut mark cluster geometry and equifinality in replicated Early Stone Age butchery. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 26:585-598. https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.2448
    • Merritt, S.R. 2012. Factors affecting Early Stone Age cut mark cross-sectional size: implications from actualistic butchery trials. Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 2984-2994. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2012.04.036
  • Academic Distinctions & Professionals Societies
    • Paleoanthropological Society
    • Society of American Archaeologists
    • American Association of Physical Anthropologists
    • American Anthropological Association
  • Student Groups