Milford Wolpoff, Professor of Anthropology

Karen Rosenberg joined as a student in Biological Anthropology in 1977 and studied Paleoanthropology. She completed her degree in 1986.

Rosenberg is currently a professor of Anthropology at the University of Delaware.


What prompted you to surprise Professor Milford Wolpoff? 
Milford has been an inspiring, brilliant and also fun teacher, advisor, mentor and friend to so many people over the years. He is incredibly generous with his time and his ideas and he taught all of us so much.  He also has a great sense of humor and likes to have fun.   
Can you tell me a little about how you went about organizing your plan?
Milford told me that this was his last semester teaching at UM.  He has been doing that for half a century!   This seemed momentous and worthy of some kind of celebration.  I knew that we couldn’t all come to Ann Arbor because of COVID.  I talked to Rachel Caspari when she and Milford were visiting me and my husband, Tom Rocek, (also a UM Anthropology PhD - he and I took classes from Milford together).  I told her what I was thinking of doing – that we would all show up in Milford’s last class and surprise him.  I didn’t want to take time away from his students at the end of the semester, so I had to figure out a way to get us all there at the very last minute of his zoom class. Fortunately, Rachel told me that Georgia Oppenheim was Milford’s TA, so I wrote to her and we talked and hatched a plan. I sent out invitations to about 70 people from all over the world – lots of Milford’s ex-students but also colleagues and friends and just about everyone showed up!  It was better than I had imagined (or feared).  This is a great group of people – some have left the field, but remain connected to MIlford and were delighted to be there.  His graduate advisor (Gene Giles) was there!  There were several people on the zoom who have known him since the 1960s and many who have worked with him since that time.  The group included many people who have made major impacts in paleoanthropology and biological anthropology as scholars and teachers as well as many who talked about Milford’s influence on their work and thinking outside the discipline.

What was Professor Wolpoff’s reaction to seeing everyone on screen?
I think he was surprised when he saw me and then when other people started pouring into the zoom but he wasn’t rattled at all and he seemed to really enjoy it.   The zoom flash mob was fun – after almost two years of COVID we all enjoyed laughing together and could have gone on all day.  People told stories, some moving, some funny, some embarrassing but all entertaining and reflective of the exciting and energizing experience of being Milford’s students and colleagues.   They described how important MIlford had been in their educations, their careers and in m.any other aspects of their lives.   It was inspiring to see how many lives Milford has influenced.  Milford has had an enormous impact on both the field of Paleoanthropology but also on many people outside the field.  Bringing these people together to celebrate Milford as teacher, scholar, colleague and friend was a great pleasure!
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
MIlford changed the way we think about human evolution. He has worked on fossils from throughout the span of the human fossil record.  He was one of the early figures bringing modern population biological thinking into the study of the human evolutionary past.   He always encouraged us to formulate hypotheses that could be tested.  While not one to shrink from controversy or disagreement, he always encouraged us to look at other scholars' work in the best possible light.   For many years, he was one of the few voices recognizing the likelihood of a Neandertal contribution to modern human ancestry based on fossils – a view now dramatically vindicated by advances in genetic research.