Thursday, February 14, 2019

New meta-study reinforces evidence that the herbicide glyphosate is a possible human carcinogen

Credit: Boasiedu/Wikimedia Commons
A new epidemiological study, published online earlier this week in Mutation Research, provides new evidence that the herbicide glyphosate--the most widely used pesticide in the world--may be associated with higher cancer risk. While as of this writing the journal has so far posted uncorrected proofs, and they are behind a paywall, the study finds that the highest exposed groups showed a 41% greater risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL.)

I have read the study carefully, and I am discussing it with epidemiologists, as part of a feature story on the glyphosate debate I am preparing for a major science publication. In the meantime, however, science writer Carey Gillam--author of the award-winning book "Whitewash" about glyphosate and the decades-long efforts by Monsanto (now owned by Bayer, and manufacturer of the Roundup formulation of the herbicide) to suppress evidence of its dangers--has published an excellent article on the study and its implications in The Guardian. I strongly recommend you read that for the basic news.

The new research, led by toxicologist Luoping Zhang at the University of California, Berkeley, reports on a meta-analysis of six previous epidemiological studies of glyphosate-based herbicides and their possible association with NHL risk. Zhang, along with two other authors of the paper, were members of the Environmental Protection Agency's external Scientific Advisory Panel on glyphosate carcinogenicity, which met in 2016 to advise the agency on its updated evaluation of the herbicide's potential cancer risk. The six studies include a major cohort study, called the Agricultural Health Study (AHS), which did not, in and of itself, find a higher risk in glyphosate-exposed workers. However, each of the five other studies included in the analysis, known as case control studies, did find a positive association. (I will say more about the difference between cohort and case control studies in a moment.) By combining the studies together, and testing a novel hypothesis for glyphosate risk, the team found what it calls a "compelling link" between exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides and NHL risk.

The new study is potential bad news for Bayer, which is currently facing well over 9000 lawsuits from people exposed who are suffering from NHL and blame exposure to glyphosate/Roundup for their cancers. Last August, in a well reported verdict, a California jury awarded a school employee, DeWayne Johnson, nearly $300 million in damages for the NHL that will ultimately take his life. While the judge in the case reduced the award, it was a wakeup call for the German pharmaceutical giant and its investors that science was not necessarily on their side--despite decades of claims by Monsanto that glyphosate was safe.

The current round of fierce debate over glyphosate began in 2015, when the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), after a year of study, concluded that glyphosate was a "probable" human carcinogen. In response, Monsanto and its allies launched a ferocious attack on IARC and its credibility, which has been well documented in discovery documents from the lawsuits against the company currently under way. (The so-called "Monsanto Papers" also document decades of attempts to influence, and in many cases distort, the scientific process of glyphosate evaluations.) While IARC has done its best to defend itself of numerous false charges (many of which I have personally investigated in my own reporting), the campaign against the agency reached the U.S. Congress, where Republican representatives demanded that the National Institutes of Health cut its major financial contribution to the agency. (In contrast to all this, Monsanto's own representative at the IARC working group on glyphosate told me that its proceedings were entirely above board.)

In their attacks on IARC and its conclusions about glyphosate, Monsanto and its proxies (which includes scientists and industry front groups partly funded by the company, such as the American Council on Science and Health) branded the agency as an "outlier" among other regulatory bodies, such as the EPA and the European Food Safety Authority, which had concluded that glyphosate was safe--at least at normal exposures the public was likely to be exposed to. (Numerous studies have shown that the heavily used herbicide is ubiquitous in the environment, and traces are routinely found in food products.)

At the EPA, however, IARC's report on glyphosate attracted immediate attention among its scientists, who realized that the agency's earlier approvals of its use might need review. After much resistance from industry (which I will discuss in more detail in the article I am preparing), EPA finally did launch that process, which included convening the Scientific Advisory Panel. The SAP met in December 2016 (the 1261 page transcript of this meeting is available at this link.) The panel reviewed EPA's proposed evaluation, which was already in draft form and proposed to classify glyphosate as an "unlikely" human carcinogen; that evaluation had already essentially ignored input from its research wing that urged serious consideration of IARC's arguments.

In a wide-ranging discussion over several days, some members of the panel expressed reservations with EPA's proposed bill of health for glyphosate. Three of those members are now coauthors of the new meta-analysis: Berkeley's Zhang, Emanuela Taioli of the Icahn School of Medicine in New York, and Lianne Sheppard of the University of Washington in Seattle. As the transcript shows (and in interviews I conducted with all three of them) these researchers objected in various ways to the EPA's dismissing of case control studies which concluded, within the confidence limits of such studies, that glyphosate was a potential human carcinogen. In its evaluation of human epidemiology, the agency relied on an earlier version of the AHS cohort study, published in 2005, which like the most recent 2018 update (not available to EPA or the panel in 2016) did not show an association between pesticide exposure and cancer.

At this point let me pause to briefly discuss the difference between a cohort study and a case control study. In a typical cohort study, a population of individuals is identified that features a typical exposure or behavior--in the case of the AHS, pesticide applicators exposed routinely to glyphosate--along with a control population. Both populations are followed over time, to see if the exposed population shows a greater incidence of the phenomenon being studied, in this case cancers such as NHL. The bigger the cohort, and the longer the study continues, the more sensitive it is to any higher risk.

A case control study goes at the problem in pretty much the opposite direction. A population that already has the feature being studied--in this case, patients who have been diagnosed with NHL--is compared to a carefully matched control population to see how they differ. In this way, factors such as increased use of glyphosate can often be identified.

While cohort studies are often considered the "gold standard" of epidemiology, both have their strengths and weaknesses, as Zhang and her colleagues explain in the Mutation Research paper. Cohort studies are generally better at determining the exposure subjects have to a particular chemical, such as glyphosate, which can be determined when the study population is first identified. However, they require the recruiting of very large numbers of subjects, and researchers must wait years--sometimes decades--before enough cases (eg NHL) are diagnosed to provide a statistically significant finding (the current AHS study involves some 45,000 pesticide applicators who used glyphosate.)

The biggest weakness of case control studies is that they are subject to what epidemiologists call "recall bias." When researchers interview NHL sufferers, for example, they will ask them about their use of pesticides such as glyphosate. With years of news stories about the possible risk of cancer from Monsanto's Roundup and other glyphosate formulations, the possibility that a cancer victim will exaggerate their exposure in their minds must be taken into account. Although there are ways to correct for this statistically, the problem is not entirely insurmountable. On the other hand, as Zhang and her coworkers point out, case control studies are strong at identifying very rare cancers, because researchers do not have to wait years for them to pile up--the cases are already there.

In its evaluation of glyphosate, IARC took the case control studies already done very seriously, while the EPA tended to discount them. Zhang, Taioli, and Sheppard all raised concerns with this, and the meta-analysis represents their independent attempt to look into the issue further. Although a few meta-analyses had been conducted previously, none included the most recent version of the AHS study, which was an integral part of the new analysis. In addition, Zhang et al. decided to test a novel hypothesis. As they put it in the paper:

"Our a priori hypothesis is that the highest biologically relevant exposure to [glyphosate-based herbicides], i.e, higher levels, longer durations and/or with sufficient lag and latency, will lead to increased risk of NHL in humans. This hypothesis is based on the understanding that higher and longer cumulative exposures during a biologically relevant time window are likely to yield higher risk estimates. given the nature of cancer development. Hence, when cumulative exposure is higher, either due to higher level or longer duration exposures, an elevated association with the cancer of interest is more likely to be revealed if a true association exists. This a priori approach has been employed to estimate meta-risks for benzene and formaldehyde, but not in any of the previous meta-analyses exploring the [glyphosate-based herbicide]-NHL association."

To put it in simpler terms: The statistical and methodological difficulties in determining whether glyphosate causes cancer can be better addressed by focusing primarily on the most highly exposed subjects. If such an association is found, it may be possible to say more about the risk to lower-exposed populations.

The paper includes a critique of the AHS study and an examination of why it has failed so far to detect an association with NHL (although the latest version of the study did find a possible association with acute myeloid leukemia, largely ignored in media accounts, and which its authors urged be followed up.) I won't get into those details here. But the most important takeaway from the study is that even when the AHS is included, there is a clearly greater risk of NHL--41%--in the most highly exposed groups.

In her article in The Guardian, Carey Gillam quotes an EPA spokesperson saying that the agency is studying the paper, although Bayer had not responded to requests for comment when her article went to press. However, there is little doubt that Bayer is working on a response as I write, and we should see it soon. One can hope that it will be based on a serious evaluation of this new scientific study, which will be hard to dismiss out of hand given the reputations and qualifications of the researchers involved. If so, it would be a departure from Monsanto's and Bayer's previous behavior, which has largely consisted of attacking its critics--including many scientists--and trying to deflect all concerns. The DeWayne Johnson trial showed that such tactics are not working, and may be even less effective as thousands of court cases go forward.

Addendum Feb 14: One of the problems in assessing the risk that glyphosate and its formulations pose both to workers who use it as well as the general public--including vulnerable children--is that we don't have a very good idea just what those exposures are. This was underscored in another study published earlier this year, in which Zhang, Sheppard, and Taoili participated, published in the journal Environmental Health. This review of the literature (19 studies, of which five investigated occupational exposure to glyphosate, 11 documented exposure in general populations, and three reported on both) came to the following conclusion:

The current review highlights the paucity of data on glyphosate levels among individuals exposed occupationally, para-occupationally, or environmentally to the herbicide. As such, it is challenging to fully understand the extent of exposure overall and in vulnerable populations such as children. We recommend further work to evaluate exposure across populations and geographic regions, apportion the exposure sources (e.g., occupational, household use, food residues), and understand temporal trends.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

AAAS rescinds award to glyphosate researchers and deletes its press announcement. Here is the original press release.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science today rescinded its 2019 AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from two researchers who had studied the relationship between exposure to the herbicide glyphosate and kidney disease outbreaks in Sri Lanka. In a short Tweet today, the AAAS said that it had received protests from some scientists and members about the award, and was withholding it until it could conduct an inquiry. These odd circumstances have raised suspicions from many anti-glyphosate activists and advocates that the AAAS came under untoward pressure to do this. Given the very long history implicating Monsanto (now Bayer), the manufacturer of the most popular version of glyphosate (Roundup), in attempts to skew both the scientific process and the public debate over the herbicide, there could be reason to be concerned.

AAAS has deleted its original release, but it was captured on Evernote, and I have reproduced the original text below. I will have more to say on this subject soon.


Fight against lethal herbicides earns 2019 AAAS Scientific Freedom & Responsibility Award

Two public health researchers who battled powerful corporate interests to uncover the deadly effects of industrial herbicides, solving a medical mystery and protecting the health of farming communities across the world, will receive the 2019 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Drs. Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana faced death threats and claims of research misconduct while working to determine the cause of a kidney disease epidemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in their home country of Sri Lanka and around the world. Ultimately, their advocacy led to the culprit, an herbicide called glyphosate, being banned in several affected countries.
"To right a wrong when significant financial interests are at stake and the power imbalance between industry and individual is at play takes the unique combination of scientific rigor, professional persistence and acceptance of personal risk demonstrated by the two scientists recognized by this year's award," says Jessica Wyndham, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at AAAS.
Beginning around 1994, rice farmers in Sri Lanka's North Central Province began falling ill with Chronic Kidney Disease. The epidemic was unique in that those succumbing to the disease were relatively young and did not suffer from ailments associated with CKD, such as diabetes and hypertension. In 2011, the country's Ministry of Health invited Gunatilake, a physician and researcher at California State University, Long Beach to investigate the cause of the disease.
At the time, Jayasumana, also a physician, was struggling to find funding to research the CKD epidemic for his doctoral degree at Rajarata University, in North Central Province. He decided to join California State University, Long Beach as a visiting scholar under Gunatilake's supervision, bringing with him samples of urine, drinking water and rice. Gunatilake and Jayasumana found that glyphosate, marketed mostly by Monsanto as Roundup, was transporting arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, causing CKD.
In 2014, they published their results in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Because similar epidemics were occurring in Central America, North Africa and Southeast Asia, the study earned worldwide attention. To date, the paper has received 23,000 downloads and 64 citations.
Jeopardizing the profits of glyphosate distributors, subsidiaries and importers, however, did not come without consequences. Gunatilake and Jayasumana received death threats, and twelve scientists who had obtained industry-funded grants filed a research misconduct complaint against Gunatilake. Eventually, he was exonerated, after a California State University, Long Beach scientific investigation panel dismissed the complaint.
Thanks to pressure applied by a massive public health campaign led by Gunatilake, the Sri Lankan president created the National Project for Prevention of Kidney Diseases, naming Jayasumana as director. In 2015, Sri Lanka became the first of many countries to ban the import of glyphosate. Three years later, Sri Lanka lifted the import ban, but continued to restrict the use of glyphosate on tea and rubber plantations.
In the past few years, Gunatilake has convened multi-disciplinary international conferences to discuss the dangers of glyphosate and raised more than $20,000 to help the families of victims. CKD has claimed the lives of at least 25,000 Sri Lankans and 20,000 Central Americans.
"What started as a bold effort to provide a voice for the impoverished, powerless rice paddy farmers in Sri Lanka has now blossomed into a worldwide environmental movement through research, advocacy, networking and collaboration," wrote public health professional Hanan Obeidi in the award nomination letter.
The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award was established in 1980. It honors scientists, engineers or organizations whose exemplary actions have demonstrated scientific freedom and responsibility in challenging circumstances. Achievements that the award recognizes include acting to protect the public's health, safety or welfare; focusing public attention on important issues related to scientific research, education and public policy; and establishing important new precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities of scientists or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers. The award consists of a $5,000 prize and a commemorative plaque.
The awardees will receive the prize during the 185th AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 15, 2019.

About the American Association for the Advancement of Science
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, as well as Science Translational MedicineScience Signaling; a digital, open-access journal, Science AdvancesScience Immunology; and Science Robotics. AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes more than 250 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world. The nonprofit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, public engagement and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
For more information on AAAS awards, see
AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society, dedicated to "Advancing science; Serving society."
Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

Update: Here is a link to the journal paper referred to in the press release above. It is open access. And here is another link to the press release which includes the original photos, etc.

Update February 19: I have now received an update from the AAAS press office about its process in evaluating the award. Here it is:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is taking steps to reassess the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, after concerns were voiced by scientists and members. The award was not presented last week as originally planned while AAAS further evaluates the award selection. AAAS plans to address the specific concerns raised through a peer review process designed to further evaluate the scientific findings underlying the award selection. The process will include a panel of experts in relevant fields who will be vetted for potential conflicts of interest. Once that review concludes, AAAS will reach a decision about the award status.
And in terms of timing:
We expect this process to take a couple months before it is completed.

Anne Hoy

Sunday, January 13, 2019

An alleged #MeToo story told at last: Dian Hunter's account of her affair with Max Planck paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin

Introductory note: Shortly after the events related in the first paragraphs of the story below, The Verge assigned me to investigate the allegations against Jean-Jacques Hublin made by a female student calling herself "Dian Hunter." I spent a number of months reporting the background to those allegations, along with accusations against Georgian paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze which I have published separately on this blog. Once the reporting on the Hublin story was completed, however, we held back on publishing it for more than a year to protect Hunter from the severe legal pressure that Hublin and his lawyer put her under (details of that below.) This contracted assignment for The Verge continued to be current until last week, when my editor and I mutually agreed that it would best if I published the story myself, in a form over which I had total editorial control--and for which I take complete responsibility. Why now? Because while Hublin has told his version of the story to many friends and colleagues over more than a year and a half, as well as to this reporter, Hunter has never had the chance to tell hers. She has decided the time has come for her to do so. However, for reasons that will become clear below, the details of their intimate relationship are restricted to those provided in communications between myself and Dian Hunter that took place before May 10, 2017, the date of a court injunction Hublin obtained to try to keep her silent.

A shocking email
Jean-Jacques Hublin

In April 2017, the worldwide anthropology community got a shock. One of the field’s most high-profile experts in human evolution was accused of sexual misconduct.

On the 18th of that month, a student calling herself “Dian Hunter” sent an email to a large number of female students, postdocs, and more senior researchers in Europe and the United States. She also sent it to the head of the Max Planck Society in Munich. The subject line of her email was: “The truth about Jean-Jacques Hublin Max-Planck-Institute Leipzig—A warning for every women [sic] he works with!”

Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, is a noted expert in the evolution of Neandertals and modern humans (over the years I have reported extensively, and sympathetically, about Hublin's important research.) In her email, “Hunter” (not her real name) accused Hublin of making “wrong promises” and threatening “to finish my career” if she did not stay silent about an affair she claimed to have had with him. “By the time he dropped me I was pregnant,” Hunter wrote. “He did not care. When I lost the child four months later even did not call me back.”

The email, which quickly circulated in and beyond the anthropology community, included attachments of what were purported to be sexually explicit text messages between Hublin and Hunter, in which Hublin allegedly described various acts that he wished Hunter to perform. “From my point of view this is prostitution,” Hunter wrote. “I refused to do that. He dropped me like a hot potato.”

Hublin vehemently denies the allegations, as well as other accusations of inappropriate conduct that I uncovered during the investigation. These include allegations against Hublin of sexual harassment.

Hublin insists that his relationship with “Dian Hunter” was entirely consensual. In May 2017, his attorney convinced a German court to grant an injunction against her communicating with anyone about their affair. Hublin has threatened to sue Hunter for 100,000 Euros in damages for allegedly invading his privacy, and aspects of the case are pending in the German court system. Over the more than a year and a half since the allegations against him surfaced, Hublin has succeeded in controlling the narrative, convincing many or most in the anthropology community that his relationship with Hunter was a private matter that did not involve misconduct or other ethical questions. Indeed, Hublin’s intense legal and financial pressure against Hunter has made it impossible for her to tell her story before now.

My investigation established that Hunter is not in Hublin’s department at Leipzig, but she is a graduate student in her early 40s at another German institution. And Hublin insists that he “never had any kind of professional or academic authority” over her. Nevertheless, although Hublin and Hunter disagree about who initiated the relationship, they agree that it began right after a scientific meeting over which Hublin presided. These circumstances have raised questions in the minds of some researchers as to whether Hublin, who is married, acted appropriately.

This is not the first time that anthropologists have had to grapple with allegations of sexual misconduct in their field. In December 2016, paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond resigned as curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, in the wake of an investigation I conducted for Science into charges that he had sexually harassed a number of women, and sexually assaulted a colleague.

By then, however, many in the anthropology community had already been made aware of the prevalence of misconduct and harassment. In 2014, four anthropologists published a “Survey of Academic Field Experiences” in the journal PLOSOne. The so-called SAFE study, based on an anonymous online survey, found that 64% of the 666 respondents reported they had suffered sexual harassment while doing the kind of fieldwork fundamental to anthropological and archaeological research. (A sequel to this study, based on interviews with researchers engaged in fieldwork, was more recently published in American Anthropologist.)

More recently, I published the results of my investigation, also originally conducted for The Verge, of allegations of sexual assault and harassment against David Lordkipanidze, leader of the key hominin excavations at Dmanisi and general director of the Georgia National Museum. I have also reported on other cases of sexual harassment by anthropologists in the United States and in South Africa.

With yet another major researcher now standing accused of sexual misconduct, anthropologists are again forced to make judgements about the merits of the allegations, which could have crucial consequences for the future of key research programs. And, as has so often been the case with investigations of sexual misconduct, many witnesses have chosen to remain anonymous, for fear of retaliation or of being ostracized by colleagues. Yet all of the sources for this story are either established academic researchers, graduate students, or, in one case, a former personal assistant to Hublin himself.

While some researchers were taken aback by Hunter’s sudden and dramatic allegations against Hublin, other anthropologists say that he has a long reputation for inappropriate actions towards women. “There are a few titan European scientists that I’ve heard some young female scientists are terrified of,” says one leading female anthropologist based in the United States. “Hublin is one of them. He definitely has a sleaze-ball reputation, so the sexual harassment news sadly doesn’t surprise me.”

Indeed, when Hunter’s email first landed like a bomb in their inboxes, many anthropologists assumed erroneously that she was one of Hublin’s students in Leipzig. Had that been the case, there would have been little question in the minds of many or most researchers that it was an inappropriate relationship. Thus an increasing number of universities, and many individual academics, have come to believe that affairs between senior researchers and students cannot be consensual because they reflect a highly unequal power dynamic.

Hublin, who acknowledges having an affair with Hunter that went on for about a year, insists that it was entirely consensual and that he is not guilty of misconduct. After the email hit, he told colleagues that Hunter was not a young student but a “mature woman” in her 40s, only dabbling in paleoanthropology part-time, and that she had approached him in the manner of a scientific “groupie.” He did not, colleagues say, volunteer information about where he had met her and under what circumstances.

Hunter, for her part, has been under severe pressure to keep quiet about the affair. In December 2016, several months after the relationship ended, Hublin’s attorney sent her a letter insisting that she “refrain from disclosing any intimate details of the relationship to third parties” and demanding 25,000 Euros in damages (a demand increased in June 2017 to 100,000 Euros.) In late April 2017, two police officers showed up at her home, Hunter says, and also ordered her not to discuss the affair.

And on May 10, 2017, Hublin’s attorney succeeded in getting a German court to issue a formal injunction prohibiting her from communicating with anyone about the affair.

Despite these restrictions, Hunter, who feels badly wronged by Hublin, is now determined to tell her story. She says she is convinced that Hublin is “out to destroy me” and that she has “nothing left to lose.” What follows is based on interviews and other evidence Hunter provided to me  before the May 10 injunction took effect.

Dian Hunter is the pseudonym of a German woman in her early 40s. She is a graduate student at a German university; her adviser is an archaeologist well known in Europe. Hunter says she had long been passionate about archaeology and prehistory, but that she had left home at age 17 after several years of sexual abuse by her father. “I had to manage all alone,” she says. “I did not have the possibility to get a higher education.” She eventually landed a good job as a financial administrator. But by the time she was 40, she decided to “fulfill my life’s dream and study archaeology. I left everything behind, financial security, for this study.”

In September 2015, Hunter attended the annual meeting of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution (ESHE), held that year in London. The president of ESHE, then and now, is Jean-Jacques Hublin. Hunter says that Hublin tried to approach her more than once during the meeting itself, but she didn’t really understand why and so did not encourage him. The day after the formal meeting ended, however, she went on an excursion that had been organized by London’s Natural History Museum. The researchers visited Swanscombe, an archaeological site in Kent where fragments of a 400,000 year old early human skull had been unearthed in the 1930s, as well as Down House, where Charles Darwin lived with his family during the last decades of his life.

Hunter says that during the excursion, “I found him next to me several times.” And during lunch at a pub in between the two visits, she says, Hublin sat down at her table and began smiling at her. As she boarded the bus, Hublin was sitting in the first row and, Hunter says, actually stood in the aisle and blocked her way as he beckoned for her to sit next to him. Back in London that evening, their affair began. (Hublin acknowledges that he met Hunter during the excursion, but insists that she approached him rather than the other way around; however, as described below, witnesses who were present tend to support Hunter's version of events.)

“He was very charming,” Hunter says. “I had no idea he was married.” Hunter says that when he finally did tell her, perhaps a week or two later, Hublin said that he had been unhappily married and was now separated from his wife. Hunter says that it took several months, until the end of December 2015, before she realized that Hublin in fact still had a strong bond with his wife. “For months he pretended his marriage just existed on paper.” By the time she did realize, she says, she had already fallen in love with him. “I was a full idiot. I was naïve and stupid. It was such a release for me to be able to talk about my past," which, like Hublin's, had been troubled in a number of ways. "In the beginning, he was very gentle.” (Although Hublin responded by email to a number of my questions and provided on the record quotes for this story, he has not responded to repeated queries about whether he misrepresented his marital status to Hunter, and what he actually told her about it.)

Hunter says that from her perspective, at least, the two of them quickly formed a strong bond of their own. Both had suffered from troubled childhoods, she says, and talking about it brought them together. “On our first evening he told me everything about his childhood and I told him everything about me.” He also told her about the death of his daughter from his first marriage, a traumatic event that people who know Hublin say he talked about often, but which also marked him greatly.

Over the following months, Hunter says, she and Hublin communicated incessantly, by text, telephone, Skype, and other means. They talked about their lives, and about prehistory, sharing scientific papers and talking about their research. Hunter says that Hublin had a keen interest in her work on a particular Upper Paleolithic stone tool type, and that she translated a Powerpoint presentation he gave at a meeting in Vienna because he was concerned his German was not adequate. “It was not just about sex,” she says.

They also saw each other as often as they could. “Twice he came to me and visited me in my apartment, twice we met in hotels, and once in his apartment [in Leipzig] where we stayed in his guest room,” Hunter says. She also says that she told Hublin that she had always wanted to have a child, but that she did not expect him to raise the child with her. She says that Hublin acquiesced in this desire and thus they did not use birth control when they were together. (Hublin insists that Hunter deliberately entrapped her into fathering her child, without his knowledge, an accusation she vehemently denies.)

Hunter says that the affair started out very romantically, but that as the months went by Hublin began to make more and more sexual demands on her. At first she went along, but became increasingly upset by it. “I was very much in love,” she says. “I did a lot of things.” But her growing discomfort with the demands, combined with increasing evidence that Hublin had no intention of leaving his wife, caused considerable friction between them, she says. During their last meeting, in August 2016, Hunter says she picked Hublin up in Leipzig and they drove to the village of Schochwitz, in Saxony-Anhalt, where they spent the weekend in a hotel. But they argued bitterly, and it became clear that the relationship was coming to an end.

At that time, Hunter did not know that she was about to become pregnant from that last encounter. From then on, things would only get worse for both her and Hublin.

A long history of sexual misconduct?

By the time Dian Hunter sent her email to the anthropology community in April 2017,  Jean-Jacques Hublin already had a longstanding reputation for sexist attitudes and behavior towards women, according to a number of researchers who discussed this with me.

 Some women say that Hublin made advances to them during scientific meetings. One such incident occurred at the 2010 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, according to a former student who is now on the faculty of a major university. “Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin sat next to me in the student awards reception and put his hand on my thigh under the table,” she says, adding that he “told me how much he liked me. I obviously got out of there as fast as I could.”

Another woman, more advanced in her scientific career, describes Hublin sidling up to her during a more recent meeting and whispering sexually suggestive words in her ear. This researcher declined to specify what Hublin said, stating only that it was “disgusting.”

(Hunter says that Hublin actually told her about some of these incidents, both before and after their relationship had ended. Hunter says that Hublin told her he had been able to make sexual advances to women without them reporting him, and that he would be able to keep her quiet as well.) 

Hublin, however, denies that these incidents of harassment occurred. “I don’t go to meetings to harass students,” he says. “I suspect that professional rivalry and frustration are the primary explanation for some of [these] anonymous character denunciations.”

Indeed, some women who have worked closely with Hublin over the years say that his behavior with them has always been correct. One female researcher, who spent several years in Leipzig during the 2000s and continues to be affiliated with Hublin’s department of human evolution, says that “over the past 12 years I have never experienced, witnessed or heard of sexual harassment perpetrated by Jean-Jacques Hublin.” Another department associate says “my own personal relationship with Jean-Jacques has always been supportive and professional.” This researcher adds that she has “never seen him or heard of him engaging in any kind of inappropriate behavior.”

Nevertheless, the view from within the department itself is much less dismissive of harassment allegations. “I was warned about Jean-Jacques in person by a concerned staff member,” says one former graduate student in the department. “I was forewarned that there had been cases of sexual harassment in the department before I started and that none of the victims were able to demand any sort of justice.”

Some sources in Leipzig say these concerns flared up again in 2017, when Hublin began to contemplate bringing accused sexual harasser Brian Richmond to the human evolution department, on at least a temporary basis.

Richmond’s resignation from the American Museum of Natural History was effective at the end of 2016, and as part of the departure deal he was to receive an additional year of salary during 2017. When the museum announced his resignation last December, Richmond minimized the charges against him, telling Science that there had been only one formal complaint. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he told the publication.

Although a number of anthropologists have told me it is unlikely that Richmond will ever get an academic position again, he apparently has not given up on that goal. In early 2017, Richmond wrote to women he might have suspected were anonymous sources for Science’s original investigation and offered to apologize. “I hope you are well,” Richmond wrote. “I would like to apologize to you and thought this might be best done over the phone.” Richmond went on to ask if it was okay to call and offered his own telephone number in case anyone wanted to call him.

Nevertheless, some senior researchers, concerned that Richmond might be trying to identify those who had given evidence against him to the AMNH’s outside investigators, put a stop to these efforts.

“I don’t think he gets it yet,” says one colleague who has known Richmond for some years. “He’s more sorry for being caught.” (Richmond did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

In February 2017, Hublin convened a meeting of his department to discuss the possibility of Richmond coming to Leipzig. Two members of the department who were present talked to me about the meeting, although they asked that their names not be used. According to one of these sources, Hublin read part of an email from Richmond asking if he could come to Leipzig, using a research award that he had earlier received from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. However, the Humboldt Foundation had suspended Richmond’s award when the sexual misconduct allegations against him first surfaced, according to a statement the Foundation provided to me. Richmond was reportedly hoping that if Hublin and the Max Planck Institute supported his visit to Leipzig, the Foundation would lift the suspension.

“Several members of staff raised concerns about the [institute] supporting Brian’s request for the suspension to be lifted, and concerns about him coming to the institute,” one of the sources says, adding that “several female PhD students spoke about their concerns.” The group then decided to hold a secret vote on the matter, open for 48 hours, which Hublin announced to the entire department on February 13, 2017. Although Hublin made clear at the meeting that “the vote would not be the deciding factor, but ultimately he would make the decision,” according to this source, the vote went decisively against Richmond’s visit. Hublin then decided Richmond would not be coming.

According to one researcher who knows Hublin well, when the allegations against Richmond surfaced in 2015, Hublin was “obsessed” with the notion that the charges were unfounded and felt he was getting a bad deal. “Jean-Jacques talked about Brian Richmond endlessly. He was very emotional about it.”

In an emailed statement to me,  Hublin said that Richmond was a “top scientist” and admitted that he had “struggled to come to terms with what was reported about him and then what happened to him.” But Hublin denies ever saying that Richmond was “not guilty of wrongdoing. In fact, when I had a chance to talk to colleagues, I privately and publicly said just the opposite.” Hublin also confirmed the basic account provided by the departmental sources about the meeting and the vote. “I took the results of this survey and the opinions of many I talked to, and in the end decided not to invite [Richmond] for this visit.”

While the Richmond issue was resolved in a relatively transparent manner, colleagues in Leipzig say, one of the most celebrated episodes involving Hublin has remained the subject of lab gossip for several years. The episode is known widely in the department of human evolution as “the story of the secretary and the postdoc.” In brief, the story goes, Hublin fell in love with his secretary and fired her boyfriend, a postdoctoral researcher in the department.

The (former) secretary and postdoc are now married and living in the United States. Although their identities are well known at the Leipzig institute, they asked that their names not be used. The secretary says that she began working at Hublin’s institute in 2005 as a departmental administrator. It was her first job after graduating from the German university system. In late 2006 or early 2007, she says, Hublin asked her to be his personal assistant. The secretary says that they got along well, in part, she thinks, because she had a higher tolerance for what she calls his “sexist jokes” than some other women in the office. Hublin also seemed very relaxed around her, and talked with her often about personal issues, including about his troubled childhood and his troubled marriage. “For an hour every day he would sit in my office and chat about life,” she says.

But after some time, the secretary says, she began to feel that Hublin was developing more than just friendly feelings for her. “He came close to the line a number of times,” she says. “I started feeling uncomfortable.” On one occasion, for example, he asked to accompany her during a tourist day she had planned in Vienna, just before a stay in the city for institute business. Another time, he suddenly presented her with the gift of a necklace. “He said he bought it many years ago for his daughter, but then she died. He said he wanted me to have it.” The secretary said she was at first relieved. “Maybe he sees me as a daughter figure,” she says she thought. “His daughter was 21 years old when she died and I was 21 when he hired me.”

But such hopes were dashed, the secretary says, when Hublin found out that she was dating the postdoc. At first the couple were very discreet about their relationship, but one day Hublin called her into his office. “He looked at me and said ‘I know,” with tears in his eyes.” Not long afterwards, she says, Hublin stopped talking to her. “His behavior changed rapidly. He would keep his door closed. I had to do everything by email.”

And very soon after that, Hublin fired the postdoc, on the grounds that his research was supposedly not productive—a contention the postdoc insists was contradicted by an impressive publication record, with even more papers in review. During a meeting in Hublin’s office, the postdoc says, Hublin stated flatly, “I am done with you.”  By the time the postdoc got back to his own office, he says, he had been cut off from access to the institute’s scientific data.

The secretary says that she went home for the day and discussed with friends what to do. She then decided to give her notice. “I feel very sad about it,” she says. “It was the big news in the department, Jean-Jacques had fired [the postdoc] because he was in love with his secretary. All those years I really enjoyed working there. I blame Jean-Jacques for ruining my experience.”

Hublin declines to discuss why he fired the postdoc, on the grounds that he does not discuss personnel matters. Nevertheless, Hunter says that in one conversation Hublin told her about having fallen in love with his secretary, and admitted to her that he had fired the postdoc because of their relationship.

As for the secretary, Hublin says, she was “my personal assistant and we naturally had a close working relationship, which was certainly friendly but never romantic.” Hublin adds that the secretary still comes to see him when she visits Leipzig. “The last such visit was in March 2017,” Hublin says, “at which time we had a cordial conversation in my office.”

Dian Hunter is pregnant

By September 2016, Dian Hunter realized that she was pregnant. She says she never had any serious illusions that Hublin would be a father to her child, even before the August breakup, although she had harbored hopes that he would leave his wife if she did become pregnant. She had no such hopes now. Hunter says that an old and close friend agreed to help her raise the child, and that she looked forward both to motherhood and to continuing her career as a prehistorian. But things between her and Hublin were still very tense. She says that during their argument in the hotel in Schochwitz, she and Hublin had threatened each other: She threatened to tell his wife and family about their affair, and he threatened to destroy her career if she revealed it to anyone. Hunter says Hublin told her that she would never have a career in anthropology and would never be more than a secretary if she ever told anyone about it.

“When he promised to finish me, I started to panic,” Hunter says. “At first I stayed silent.” But then, in December 2016, she miscarried. “When I lost the child, I lost control.” Hunter says she tried to get Hublin to talk to her about what had happened, but he refused. “All I wanted from him was to talk with me and help me to handle the situation. He refused to have any conversation with me. That hurt, yes, that hurt so deeply.”

Hunter says she is “not proud” of threatening to contact Hublin’s family, nor is she proud of what she did next. When he would not talk to her, she began forwarding emails that Hublin had sent her to his wife—about 20 in all, she recalls. In her conversations with me,  Hunter struggled to express what was going through her mind. She was convinced Hublin was going to destroy her career and that she had little left to lose. Finally, in March 2017, she drove to Leipzig to again try to talk to Hublin, and they went for a walk in the city, she says. Hunter says that Hublin again threatened to ruin her career, and that he again boasted of the women he had harassed without getting into trouble for it.

On the day she emailed the anthropology community with her accusations against Hublin, April 18, 2017, “I was in a state of absolute despair. I was sure everything was lost and in vain.”

When I first contacted Hublin for comment in May 2017, he declined to discuss his affair with Hunter. “I will not discuss my private life publicly, but I can assure you that no misconduct has taken place,” he wrote in an email.

But in September of that year, Hublin changed his mind.  He let fly with a litany of accusations against Hunter. “’Dian Hunter,’ someone I never met before, approached me, and we ended having a consensual affair. As soon as I tried to end this affair, she started threatening me and when, finally, I refused to communicate with her, she began harassing my family and me. This harassment developed into stalking, the sending of anonymous letters and undesired emails, and attempts to extort money. Ultimately I came to learn that her project had been to have a child by me without my knowledge and consent.”

In this and other emails, Hublin accused this reporter of behaving unethically and “protecting the aggressor and exposing her victim.”

Was Hublin’s affair with Dian Hunter a purely consensual relationship, and thus none of this reporter’s business nor that of anyone else?

Opinions among Hublin’s colleagues differ on this. Yet none of them—according to Hunter and queries by this reporter—have spoken with her nor heard her side of the story. But the way the relationship began, at the end of the annual meeting of a scientific organization of which Hublin is the president, raises questions in the minds of some researchers. It appears that Hublin may be aware of these concerns, because in his responses to me he made a special point of stating that she had pursued him rather than the other way around. “I was actually surprised by her persistence in engaging in a conversation with me,” Hublin says.

Yet this reporter spoke with three researchers at the 2015 ESHE excursion who say they saw Hublin showing a lot of interest in a woman they all assumed was a student. “He was hitting on a young blonde woman on the field trip,” one of them said. A second researcher agreed with this description, saying that the presumed student had “blondish hair;” a third noted that Hublin was acting very possessive towards her and got angry with him when he started talking to her.

Hublin says that Hunter is not blond, and suggests that these witnesses might have been confusing the woman they saw with a blond German friend he had been talking to during the ESHE meeting. However, Hunter says that her hair is actually “dark blond.” Moreover, she claimed to remember the two women who were sitting behind her and Hublin during the bus ride, as well as a brief incident in which one of the women borrowed Hunter’s iPad to check in for her flight home. Although the two women concerned do not know Hunter, both confirmed the iPad incident to me.

“It seems inappropriate that Hublin was using the ESHE meeting to pick up women,” says one former member of the human evolution department. “At the very least it is sleazy, and indicates a pattern of behavior that should have been concerning” to the Max Planck Society. After Hunter went public with her accusations on April 18, 2017, the Max Planck’s central equal opportunity officer, based at the Society’s headquarters in Munich, did travel to Hunter’s home town to interview her. But the Max Planck concluded that it was none of their business.

“The Max Planck takes any such allegations very seriously,” says Angela Friederici, vice-president of the society. After the officer's meeting with Hunter, Friederici says, the society determined that “all claims that are being made… constitute a purely private matter, and are devoid of any employment-relevant circumstances.”

A number of anthropologists told me that whether such an affair between a senior researcher and a student is appropriate depends on what the power relationship between them is. “Do they have power academically over that person, do they have the power to pick up the phone and make sure that person loses their funding, or their job, or their standing in some way?” asks one well known senior anthropologist. “If someone has that kind of power, they are responsible for not abusing it.” Despite Hunter’s threats to expose the relationship to Hublin’s family, this researcher says, “he can do a lot more to hurt her than she can do to him.”

That, too, is how Dian Hunter sees it. And while she claims that she acted out of desperation, she would also like to think that she is helping to strike a blow against the sexual misconduct that is rife not only in the sciences but all walks of life.

“I just hope that for female students it will bring a better world and that male professors won’t take women for their pleasure and do whatever they want like Gods,” she says. “This is the reason I did it. My career and everything I worked for is over, he will destroy me I am sure. I have suffered, I am in my 40s now, I have suffered so much abuse from men, so often. We still have a society where if a woman stands up, and says he did me wrong, she is defaming that man. We have to change that. We simply have to change that.”

Afterthought Jan 14, 2019: I'd like to amplify on something that is implicit in this story but needs to be made explicit. Since a German court on May 10, 2017 granted Hublin an injunction against "Dian Hunter" prohibiting her from writing or talking publicly about their personal relationship, Hublin himself has been unrestrained in making negative comments about her and giving his own version of the story both publicly (in his quotes in this story) and privately. Over time, as I know from conversations with many colleagues in the anthropology community, Hublin's side of the story has become the dominant narrative in the minds of many who know about it (especially men.) On the other hand, women who know Hublin or know his reputation have been more receptive to the possibility that there was more to this than Hublin was letting on. Hublin has been aided in his attempts to spread his narrative by two colleagues in particular: Philipp Gunz, a physical anthropologist at the MPI in Leipzig; and Bernard Wood, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University. Ironically, Wood was regarded by many as a hero in the Brian Richmond story, which he did much at the time to help expose, and Wood wrote a number of opinion pieces about the need to fight against sexual harassment in the sciences and society at large. In my own view, both Hublin and Hunter have the right to tell their stories; this article redresses the fact that Hunter alone has been prohibited from doing so all this time.

More thoughts, Jan 17, 2019: Just in case anyone is wondering: I have known Jean-Jacques Hublin for about 20 years, and wrote about his work from time to time in Science magazine--including a major feature entitled "Was North Africa the Launch Pad for Modern Human Migrations?" (The link provided is behind a paywall, but if you Google the title and my name you will find a pdf at a link by Springer.) He often provided comment for my Science stories about human evolution, and I saw him occasionally at meetings. He is an important and talented scientist who has made major contributions both in terms of direct research as well as developing influential concepts. But I did hear about his harassment of women when I was working on the #MeToo story about human origins curator Brian Richmond at the American Museum of Natural History; thus it did not come as a complete surprise to me (nor to many others I talked to at the time) when "Dian Hunter" first made her allegations.

Update, Jan 18, 2019: As is often the case with a story of this length, there was a great deal I had to leave out, especially as we were preparing the text for publication in The Verge. As readers will note, a central issue in this story is whether the relationship between Jean-Jacques Hublin and "Dian Hunter" was simply a consensual extramarital affair gone bad, of whether there was misconduct involved on the part of Hublin (Hunter clearly states that she did things in the aftermath of the breakup that she now regrets.) As part of that reporting, I asked the officers of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution (ESHE, of which I am a member, and of which Hublin is president) to comment on the appropriateness of their president apparently pursuing a student during a meeting of the organization and initiating a relationship with her. I did not include their response in the original story, but am including it here. The following email, dated June 29, 2017, comes from Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands and currently Vice President of ESHE. Note that the organization did not take a position on this particular case--they would not be expected to under the circumstances--but that could possibly change now that the full story has been published.

Dear Michael,

On behalf of the board officers you addressed, allow me to answer your questions.

Yes, ESHE has a statement affirming our commitment to ensuring a safe and open meeting and our intolerance of sexual harassment in any form (  Our statement, like others we are aware of for similar institutions, does not include specific language about what types of consensual sexual relations between its members are allowed.  We provide a mechanism for individuals to report in anonymity behavior that may violate the goals of our statement, and both the ombudspersons and the board take this responsibility seriously.  We also note that we are not an adjudicating body, and we expect that normally specific complaints will be filed with the home institution and/or local authorities of the accused.  We stand prepared to help with this process.

Best wishes,

Wil Roebroeks