KPU Arts Speaker Series event to discuss trilobites and 'othering' of the Neanderthal

Two sociology instructors will be presenting their research as an ode to curiosity, innovation, and what it means to be human

Rebecca Yoshizawa’s hand-made, clay trilobites that blend the ancient with the contemporary. (Submitted/Rebecca Yoshizawa)

On March 17, Kwantlen Polytechnic University sociology instructors Dr. Rebecca Yoshizawa and Dr. Ryan Higgitt will give students and faculty a peek into the contemporary, exciting research they have been working on.

Yoshizawa will be sharing her research on how trilobites — which are ancient arthropods with thick exoskeletons that fossilize easily — can be used to measure and understand time.

Thousands of different trilobite species existed before they went extinct approximately 250 million years ago. Since these diversified fossils are found in different layers of sedimentary rock beds and in different environments, they are referred to as “index fossils,” explains Yoshizawa.

“If you see a certain trilobite species within a certain rock layer, then you actually know what time period that rock layer is associated with,” she says.

Trilobites can also be used to gather information about contemporary time, as their fossils continue to be exposed by humans changing and affecting the environment, she explains. This kind of human intervention is connected to the ongoing discussions about climate change and how it relates to time and humans.

Yoshizawa says she is curious about how sociologists and paleontologists contribute to these conversations, and she will be exploring these ideas during her part of the presentation.

“My research is about … looking at the world through the eyes of a trilobite,” she says. “And what does it mean to be a sociologist, but not trying to think about the world through the lens of the human, but through the non-human.”

Higgitt will be sharing his research that looks into how the Neanderthal, which he perceives as the “quintessential ‘other’,” has been used to legitimize or justify colonial oppression.

“I’m interested in human origins in these scientific narratives about what it means to be human, where human beings came from, and how [these narratives] have been caught up within our modern institutions. Including our modern legal systems, in ways that inevitably privilege some over … others in our society,” says Higgitt.

Whoever has the power to create these narratives also has the power to define what it means to be human, and from there, which groups of people will be dehumanized, he explains.

His research traces the ‘evolution’ of the Neanderthal as a pejorative or derogatory term, and how it has become institutionalized and serves to structure and order human lives, says Higgitt.

“When you’re calling somebody a Neanderthal, you’re not complimenting them, right? So even that word itself is very politically charged,” he says.

Yoshizawa says that her and Higgitt’s research is proof that there doesn’t need to be a limit on curiosity, which she calls the “knowledge emotion.”

The event will be hosted through Microsoft Teams at 1:00 p.m. on March 17, and to receive the invite link, email