Spotlight on… Lia Betti

Lia Betti

Position: Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Roehampton

Bio: Born in Italy, Lia completed her undergraduate degree and MSc at the University of Milan. She moved to the UK in 2006 to complete a Master of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She completed her PhD at the University of Kent in 2012 with a dissertation on the origins of human pelvic variation.   Following her PhD, she was a lecturer in human evolution at the University of Cambridge before taking up her current position at Roehampton in 2014.

Research interests: Lia’s main research interest concerns the origin of modern human variation: how it relates to past population history – from the origin of our species to more recent migrations of people – and to selective pressures due to the colonisation of different environments. Her recent research has mostly focused on two areas of the human skeleton: the cranium and the pelvis (hips). Both of these anatomical regions underwent substantial evolutionary changes in the hominin lineage, and are related to some key human adaptations such as increased encephalisation and bipedalism. At the same time, both regions appear to vary remarkably between modern human populations.  Her research explores reasons for these anatomical shifts and the adaptations they have produced.

Recent significant study: Lia has co-authored a recent publication showing that there is substantial geographic variation in the shape of the female pelvis across human populations, and that most of the differences can be best explained by migration of humans across the globe (and genetic variation accumulated along the way). These results are important for our understanding of human evolution, especially in challenging the leading obstetrical dilemma theory. The results are also important for obstetric training and practice in modern multiethnic societies and suggest that a revision of textbooks and guidelines might be needed to include the wider spectrum of pelvic shape diversity shown by this paper. The study has been widely covered in the press, including: ScienceAgence France PresseThe GuardianThe Scientist and The New York Times. It also featured as one of Science’s favourite new stories of 2018, where the coverage states that “Far from just a paradigm shift, the work could improve practices surrounding childbirth.” You can hear Lia speaking about the study here.

Latest projects: Since 2015, Lia and our colleague Todd C. Rae, with the help of students who volunteer over the summer, have been cleaning and studying the skeletal remains of a late Anglo-Saxon/Early Norman population from Godalming, Surrey. The cemetery was abandoned around the year 1200, and had remained untouched until rediscovered by chance in 2012. With more than 300 burials, this is the largest excavated cemetery from this period and a finding of national importance. Diet and migration within this population are being investigated through ancient DNA and the analyses of bones and teeth’ stable isotope contents, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, the University of Minnesota and the university of California at Santa Cruz. A recent exhibition on the cemetery was held at the Godalming Museum.

Teaching: In the anthropology programme, Lia convenes Key Skills in Anthropology & Beyond and our third-year module Human Osteology and Diversity, which explores the history of the discipline of anthropology and its socio-political influences related to the study or racial diversity, whose implications are still felt today. It provides a detailed understanding of the origin and pattern of modern human variation, both genetic and phenotypic, and evaluates the importance of such knowledge in modern forensic practice, medical practice, and for society as a whole. It also provides training in osteology, and can prepare the students for a career as osteoarchaeologists or as curators of an osteological collection.

Did you know…?

1) When Lia moved from Italy to Cambridge for her MPhil she could not speak English very well. Desperate that she was not being understood, she tried to speak Latin (it’s Cambridge, right?!), with very predictable results (hint: it did not make her popular in the pub).

2) Lia cannot resist a good climbing tree, and one of her favourite books is The Tree Climber’s Guide. On the weekend, you will often find her up a tree with her 5-year-old daughter.

3) Lia’s parents never allowed her to get a cat. Fortunately, 15 years ago she found a lovely mummified kitten in an abandoned attic; her pet has followed her to England and is now comfortably curled up on her bookcase.


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