Faculty Bio

Zachary Cofran

Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Zach Cofran is a biological anthropologist who studies growth and development in humans and our close relatives, both living and extinct. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2012, worked at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan from 2012-2016, and moved from there to Vassar College in 2016.

Zach’s research aims to uncover how patterns of growth and development contribute to human uniqueness. Living animals provide large sample sizes and a comparative context for understanding the growth of extinct animals represented by sparse fossil samples. His earlier work presented new statistical tests to understand skull and brain growth in our extinct relatives Australopithecus robustus, Homo erectus and Neandertals. In one project building off this work, he is working with Vassar students to create a large collection of primate endocasts, or molds of the bony braincase. Zach is also involved in projects relating to the development of the newly discovered, extinct human relative Homo naledi from South Africa.

Zach’s other major research goal is to add to the human fossil record through field work in Kazakhstan. Paleolithic tools discovered throughout the massive country attest to human presence in the region for hundreds of thousands of years, and important human fossils have been discovered just on the other sides of its borders. Nevertheless, no human fossils have yet been discovered in the country. Zach collaborated with local archaeologists to search for sites in Southern Kazakhstan, and is now directing his attention to the Altai Mountains bordering with Russia and Mongolia.

As with his research, Zach’s teaching incorporates data and theory to critically question what it means to be human. Courses examine a broad range of topics such as human evolution, primate behavior, race and society, and prehistoric cultures. Outside the classroom, students are learning to use computer-based methods to analyze the bones of humans, primates and our fossil forebears in the developing Biological Anthropology Laboratory.