Richard Potts

Richard Potts

Richard Potts

Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts is the director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History. Since joining the Smithsonian in 1985, Rick has dedicated his research to piecing together the record of Earth’s environmental change and human adaptation.  His ideas on how human evolution responded to environmental instability have stimulated wide attention and new research in several scientific fields.  Rick has developed international collaborations among scientists interested in the ecological aspects of human evolution.  He leads excavations at early human sites in the East African Rift Valley, including the famous handaxe site of Olorgesailie, Kenya, and Kanam near Lake Victoria, Kenya.  He also co-directs ongoing projects in southern and northern China that compare evidence of early human behavior and environments from eastern Africa to eastern Asia. He received his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard University in 1982, after which he taught anthropology at Yale University and served as curator of physical anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum.  Rick is curator of The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, and has authored the companion book, What Does It Mean To Be Human? When he’s not time-traveling, Rick enjoys singing, Halloween, and the Phillies.

Selected Publications: 

Potts, R., Sloan, C., 2010. What Does It Mean To Be Human? National Geographic, Washington, DC.

Petraglia, M., Potts, R., 2004. The Old World Paleolithic and the Development of a National Collection. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 48, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC (148 pages).


Zhu, R.X., Potts, R., Pan, Y.X., Yao, H.T., Lü, L.Q., Zhao, X., Gao, X., Chen, L.W., Gao, F., Deng, C.L., 2008. Early evidence of the genus Homo in East Asia. Journal of Human Evolution 55, 1075-1085.

Potts, R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Deino, A., Ditchfield, P., Clark, J., 2004. Small mid-Pleistocene hominin associated with East African Acheulean technology. Science 305, 75-78.

Bonnefille, R., Potts, R., Chalié, F., Jolly, D., Peyron, O., 2004. High-resolution vegetation and climate change associated with Pliocene Australopithecus afarensis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (U.S.A.) 101, 12125-12129.

Zhu, R., Potts, R., Xie, F., Hoffman, K.A., Deng, C.L., Shi, C.D., Pan, Y.W., Wang, H.Q., Shi, R.P., Wang, Y.C., Xhi, G.H., Wu, N.Q., 2004. New evidence regarding the earliest human presence at high northern latitudes in northeast Asia. Nature 431: 559-562.

NPR Science Friday March 2014 - Sculpting Science: Interview with Rick Potts and paleoartist John Gurche

PBS Nova October 2009 - The Adaptable Human: Q & A with Graham Townsley, producer of "Becoming Human"

AnthroNotes article by Ruth O. Selig, ‘Human origins: One man’s search for the causes in time’