Feature: A Korean-American’s quest

Christopher Bae during a visit to Hokkaido, Japan, where he was invited to give a presentation about his paleoanthropological research.

“So tell me, what’s your five-year plan?” It’s a question that occasionally stumps people when asked in job interviews, on college applications, and during beauty pageants. But for Dr. Christopher J. Bae, an assistant professor in the UH Mānoa Department of Anthropology and member of the Center for Korean Studies, the answer is easy—to use a $1.2 million research grant to conduct paleoanthropological (human evolution) research in Korea through the year 2015.

Awarded the prestigious grant by the Academy of Korean Studies in South Korea in 2010, Bae recently departed for Korea on his quest to reconstruct the past. The award is one of only six proposals in the world funded by the Academy’s Korean Studies Promotion Service (KSPS) division.

It was his unique life story that led to an interest in Anthropology. Born in Korea to Korean parents, Bae was orphaned at the age of one in Seoul. After living in an orphanage for six months, he was adopted by an American family. Thus, his awareness and interest in topics such as race and human variation stemmed from an early age growing up in a Caucasian-American household and neighborhood. In order to discover and understand his ethnic “roots,” Bae’s curiosity took him back to Seoul during his undergraduate studies at Yonsei University on an exchange program.

While his main objective in visiting Korea was initially to reconstruct his own past, Bae has since expanded his focus to address a variety of questions about East Asian paleoanthropology. Besides Korea, Bae has been conducting paleoanthropological field and laboratory research in Japan and China as well. A man of diversity, he has been carrying out collaborative research on a diversity of projects (e.g., hominin fossils, vertebrate taphonomy, lithics) in all three countries.

Bae attributes having spent a good part of his time living and becoming acclimated with each country’s particular culture as facilitating the development of his strong network of collaborators and collaborations. “From the accumulated experience, I believe that the best way to develop a firm understanding of the human evolutionary record in East Asia is to link the hominin morphological and behavioral records,” noted Bae. “As such, my current research interests crosscut different subdisciplines in anthropology and other scientific fields.”

Titled “The Earliest Peopling of the Korean Peninsula: Current Multidisciplinary Perspectives,” Bae’s $1.2 million project will develop an active long-term research program in Korea to facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of eastern Asian human evolution during prehistory. “In particular, this project will integrate datasets from different social and natural science fields to reconstruct a synthetic view of human evolution in the region,” explained Dr. Bae, a resident of Mānoa Valley.

The research project is multidisciplinary in nature, and involves close collaboration with scientists from various institutions in Korea, England and the United States. The proposal was strongly supported by the UH Mānoa’s Department of Anthropology, College of Social Sciences, and the Center for Korean Studies. And though Bae’s project in Korea may end in five years, his journey of self-discovery remains infinite.

For more information, contact Dr. Bae at cjbae@hawaii.edu.

Top photo: Christopher Bae looks for hominin fossil sites during a survey in Guangxi Province, China, in 2008.