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Faculty and Staff Directory

Sandi Copeland, Ph.D.


Email: Sandi Copeland
Office Location: AD 270R
Phone: (303) 556-2676
Fax: (303) 556-8501
Office hours: Monday and Wednesday, 1-2 or by appointment

Areas of Expertise:
Biological anthropology, paleoanthropology, archaeology, isotope analysis, South Africa, East Africa


Education & Degrees

Ph.D., Anthropology, Rutgers University, 2004

M.A., Anthropology, Stanford University, 1992


My research involves the development of new methods and applications for investigating the diets and landscape movements of modern and ancient animals, particularly early hominins. In my current research projects, I use strontium isotope analysis to determine the geographic origins and landscape movements of animals based on the fact that strontium isotope ratios vary by region. I have helped to pioneer the use of laser ablation technology for analyzing strontium isotopes in teeth. Using this technique, my research team obtained the first direct evidence of landscape use patterns amongst early hominins, in this case ~2 million year old australopithecines from South Africa. Our results suggested possible differences in male and female hominin landscape use, with females more likely to disperse from their birth communities. I am now involved in projects related to early hominin landscape use in northern Tanzania and the Western Cape of South Africa.

Prior to coming to UC Denver, I completed a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany (2007-9). I also held a post-doc at the University of Colorado Boulder (2006-7), where I began my isotope-based research. During my time as a graduate student at Rutgers University, I spent four field seasons excavating 1.8 million-year-old sites at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. In an effort to understand the potential diets of early hominins, I also spent a year studying the distribution of wild plant foods in Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania. I chose these areas because they might resemble the habitats occupied by early hominins. My research showed that, unless one wants to eat grass or acacia pods, plant foods for large primates are quite sparse in modern semi-arid savannas of East Africa, especially compared to the plant foods available to and eaten by modern savanna chimpanzees (whose natural habitats, although savanna, are moister and more tree-filled than most of my study sites). Recent work (that I was not involved in) has shown that, surprising though it sounds, perhaps East African robust australopithecines did in fact eat grass! (Cerling et al., 2011 PNAS 108:9337-9341)


Select Publications

2011. Copeland, S.R., Sponheimer, M., de Ruiter, D.J., Lee-Thorp, J.A., Codron, D., le Roux, P.J., Grimes, V., Richards, M.P. Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins. Nature 474, 76-78.
2010. Copeland, S.R., Sponheimer, M., Lee-Thorp, J.A., de Ruiter, D.J., le Roux, P.J., Grimes, V., Codron, D., Codron, J., Berger, L.R., Richards, M.P. Using strontium isotopes to study site accumulation processes. Journal of Taphonomy 8 (2-3), 117-129.
2010. de Ruiter, D.J., Copeland, S.R., Lee-Thorp, J.A., Sponheimer, M. Investigating the role of eagles as accumulating agents in the dolomitic cave infills of South Africa. Journal of Taphonomy 8 (2-3), 130-142.
2010. Copeland, S.R., Sponheimer, M., Lee-Thorp, J.A., le Roux, P.J., de Ruiter, D.J., Richards, M.P. Strontium isotope ratios in fossil teeth from South Africa: assessing laser ablation MC-ICP-MS analysis and the extent of diagenesis. Journal of Archaeological Science 37, 1437-1446.
2009. Copeland, S.R. Potential hominin plant foods in northern Tanzania: semi-arid savannas versus savanna chimpanzee sites. Journal of Human Evolution 57, 365-378.
2009. Copeland, S.R., M. Sponheimer, C.A. Spinage, J. Lee-Thorp, D. Codron, K.E. Reed. Stable isotope evidence for impala Aepyceros melampus diets at Akagera National Park, Rwanda. African Journal of Ecology 47, 490-501.
2008. Copeland, S.R., M. Sponheimer, P. le Roux, V. Grimes, J. Lee-Thorp, D. de Ruiter, M. Richards. Strontium isotope ratios (87Sr/86Sr) of tooth enamel: a comparison of solution and laser ablation MC-ICP-MS methods. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 22, 3187-3194.
2008. Copeland, S.R., M. Sponheimer, C.A. Spinage, J. Lee-Thorp. Bulk and intra-tooth enamel stable isotopes of waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus from Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. African Journal of Ecology 46, 697-701.
2007. Copeland, S.R. Vegetation and plant food reconstruction of lowermost Bed II, Olduvai Gorge, using modern analogs. Journal of Human Evolution 53, 146-175.


​Courses Taught

ANTH 1303: Introduction to Biological Anthropology

ANTH 3500: Human Osteology

ANTH 3512: Human Evolution