Skip to content
F. Clark Howell, 81; redefined anthropology
F. Clark Howell, the UC Berkeley anthropologist who altered the landscape of his discipline irrevocably by adding a broad spectrum of modern sciences to the traditional "stones and bones" approach of the past, died March 10 at his home in Berkeley.
Howell, who was 81, was diagnosed last year with cancer.
"We have lost one of the fathers of paleoanthropology," said Jordi Agusti, director of the Institut de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Madrid. "His scientific and personal character cannot be replaced, and, in this way, this is a terrible loss for our science."
Added anthropologist Tim White of UC Berkeley, "Clark's central importance since the 1950s has been to make paleoanthropology what it is today -- that is, the integration of archeology, geology, biological anthropology, ecology, evolutionary biology, primatology and ethnography. When you look at a modern paleoanthropology project, whether in Tanzania or South Africa or Ethiopia, you find Clark's stamp everywhere."
Howell led or participated in expeditions throughout the world, but his signature dig was in the Omo basin of southern Ethiopia, where he led a team from 1968 to 1973. The team's work revealed fossils and stone tools that helped document a 3-million-year succession of human ancestors and related species. It was here also that he established the multidisciplinary standard for modern anthropological research.
"He is the one who took paleoanthropology from a fossil-recovery type of science to a science where we had to understand the geology, the flora and fauna, the chemistry, everything," said Don Dana of the Leakey Foundation, an organization that supports research related to human origins. "His role, from that point of view, is just enormous."
Howell later shifted his interests to Europe, directing the Ambrona research project in Soria, Spain, one of the earliest known occupation sites of humans who migrated from Africa to Europe. He later co-directed a cave excavation at Yarimburgaz in Turkey, the earliest known Paleolithic site in that country.
He also worked with Louis and Mary Leakey and their son Richard in the region, establishing East Africa as the most likely nursery of human evolution. He was a founder and trustee of the Leakey Foundation from 1968 until last year, and a key member of the science and grants committee.
Among his contributions in that role was providing support for the research of Jane Goodall on chimpanzees, Birute Galdikas on orangutans and the late Dian Fossey on gorillas. He argued that understanding the social lives of those primates would shed light on the activities of humanity's oldest ancestors.
He also tirelessly mentored scores of young students, particularly Africans who thought they should play a role in excavating the history of their continent. "He was a genuine advocate for the advancement of Africans and paleoanthropology research in Africa," said geologist Giday WoldeGabriel of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Articulate and charming, Howell was a forceful popularizer of anthropology. His 1965 Time/Life Nature Library book "Early Man" inspired many would-be anthropologists, including White.
Howell made the first publicly broadcast film on the subject, a 1969 TV special called "The Man-Hunters," and was the scientific advisor on exhibits about early man at the California Academy of Sciences.
In addition to winning a number of major prizes, Howell had his name attached to seven newly discovered animal species, most of them extinct. The species include a snail, a hyena, an oryx and one primate, a loris called Galago howelli.
Francis Clark Howell was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 27, 1925. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he ultimately received his doctorate.
He spent two years teaching anatomy at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis before returning to Chicago to join the anthropology department.
In 1970, he left Chicago to join UC Berkeley, from which he retired in 1991. After he retired, he worked with White and others analyzing fossils from the Middle Awash Valley of Ethiopia. Those fossils, many of them excavated by African scholars trained by Howell, span nearly 6 million years of evolution.
Howell was an avid reader of a broad range of scientific literature, White said. If he couldn't find someone who knew about an area outside his normal expertise, he would become an expert himself.
Aside from anthropology, his interests "were incredibly wide ranging -- from jazz to dinosaurs to deep-sea drill cores," White said. He loved football and baseball and followed the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Athletics.
He also liked to travel with his wife, Betty, to Europe nearly every year. "He would go to a conference, then get in a car and travel about for a couple of weeks, touring the land and meeting the people," White said.
In addition to his wife, Howell is survived by son Brian David Howell of Berkeley; daughter Jennifer Clare Howell; granddaughter Alisa Howell-Smith of McMinnville, Ore.; and two sisters, Margaret Johnson and Elizabeth Howell of Charlotte, N.C.
A campus memorial service has been set for May 7.