Ice age globetrotter

Michelle Langley

What did you want to grow up to be when you were younger? Dr Michelle Langley knew she wanted to be an archaeologist from age five, and that’s exactly what she became.

Being an archaeologist may seem like a career with no real-world potential, like how you dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a rocket scientist as a kid. “No!” laughs Michelle.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do archaeology. There is a lot of archaeology to be done (especially in Australia), and there are jobs! Not just in museums, but also in universities as researchers and lectures, and as consultants.”

Michelle works in academic research for Griffith University. Her speciality is deciphering “human behavioural uniqueness”, i.e. the things that evolutionarily set humans apart from other animals. She looks at ancient tools and ornaments, as well as how Neanderthals behaved and interacted with humans.

“The tiny traces left behind on the surfaces of the artefacts we find tell us how exactly they were made and how they were used.” Michelle explains.

“These differences – no matter how small – can indicate changes in how people are thinking, how they are interacting with each other, and their knowledge about the world around them.”

Some of the objects Michelle studies includes ornaments and jewellery dating back as far as 30,000 years, like a pendant made from the finger bone of a bear cuscus – an animal native to Sulawesi in Indonesia. Michelle and her team also discovered disc-shaped bone fragments used in jewellery that were carved from the teeth of a primitive pig native to the island.

These discoveries challenge ideas that human culture declined in sophistication after the Late Pleistocene era, and convey vital information about the passage and colonisation of humans through the Wallacea region.

These aren’t the only discoveries Michelle has made in her work, and you’ll often find her digging through dirt that is more than 45,000 years old. “In my work so far, I have been lucky enough to visit some beautiful painted caves in Australia and in France, I’ve also seen first hand some gorgeous artefacts that are thousands of years old.” she says.

“Archaeology is a great field for people who like to travel and learn about other cultures. There is also a lot of different ways to do archaeology — so you can study tools, or animals, or particular time periods — you can use various technologies or methods, making archaeology very dynamic.”

– Eliza Brockwell

Michelle’s path to becoming an archaeologist:

> > Bachelor of Arts (Honours 1st Class), The University of Queensland
> > Master of Philosophy (Archaeology), The University of Queensland
> > Doctor of Philosophy (Archaeology), The University of Oxford

Michelle Langley archaeologist

“The tiny traces left behind on the surfaces of the artefacts can indicate changes in how people are thinking, how they are interacting with each other, and their knowledge about the world around them.”

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