Friday, 2 December 2022


Rizwaan Abbas, Palaeoanthropologist
Meet Rizwaan Abbas—palaeoanthropologist and archaeologist working with the Semiahmoo First Nation. 

He is all kinds of awesome. I had the great pleasure of learning more about his work and research this past week on the set of BC's Fossil Bounty.

I have shared some of the Behind the Scenes moments with you including Riz holding a rather fetching mosasaur.

Rizwaan ensures that First Nation issues are addressed within multiple levels of government and that the people of the Semiahmoo First Nation always have a seat at the table. 

Semiahmoo First Nation (/ˌsɛmiˈɑːmuː/ SEM-ee-AH-moo) is the band government of the Semiahmoo people, a Coast Salish subgroup who inhabited an extensive territory across Washington state, the Strait of Georgia (now known as the Salish Sea) and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia for thousands of years.

The band's main community and offices are located on the 312 acres (1.3 km2) Semiahmoo Indian Reserve which is sandwiched between the boundary of White Rock, British Columbia and the Canada–United States boundary and Peace Arch Provincial Park.

Before 1850, they primarily spent their winters at Drayton Harbour, Birch Bay, Crescent Beach and Semiahmoo Bay. Summers were spent a few kilometres west across the shallow waters of Boundary Bay in what is now known as Tsawwassen—derived from the Halkomelem word sc̓əwaθən, meaning "land facing the sea"— and Point Roberts.

Rizwaan Abbas and Eva Svobodova on set
Point Roberts is a pene-exclave of Washington on the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula, south of Vancouver, Canada. Point Roberts was created when the United Kingdom and the United States settled the Pacific Northwest American-Canadian border dispute in the mid-19th century with the Oregon Treaty. 

The two parties agreed that the 49th parallel would define the boundary between their respective territories, and the small area that incorporates Point Roberts is south of the 49th parallel. 

Questions about ceding the territory to the United Kingdom and later to Canada have been raised since its creation but its status has remained unchanged. Returning the land to its original Coast Salish inhabitants has not been an active topic of discussion. 

The Coast Salish are ethnically and linguistically related Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, living in the Canadian province of British Columbia and the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon.

The area around the southern Tsawwassen Peninsula was a favoured fishing spot for several Coast Salish groups, who named the peninsula "q̓ʷulƛ̕əl̕". 

The first Europeans to see Point Roberts were members of the 1791 expedition of Francisco de Eliza. The maps produced from Eliza's explorations depicted Point Roberts as "Isla de Cepeda" or "Isla de Zepeda."

In 1792, the British expedition of George Vancouver and the Spanish expedition of Dionisio Alcalá Galiano encountered one another near Point Roberts. 

Hair & Makeup Artist Eva Svobodova preps Rizwaan for camera
On the morning of June 13, 1792, the two ships under Galiano sailed into Boundary Bay and verified Point Roberts was not an island, which was thus renamed Punta Cepeda. 

They then sailed around Point Roberts and immediately encountered HMS Chatham, the second ship of Vancouver's expedition. The two parties made contact and agreed to share information and work together in mapping the Strait of Georgia.

Point Roberts acquired its present name from Captain Vancouver, who named it after his friend Henry Roberts, who had originally been given command of the expedition.

In 1790, Europeans estimated the Semiahmoo population at 300. By 1854, the band's numbers were reduced to 250 from smallpox and warfare. Contact with Turtle Island’s residents proved devastating. By 1909, when the Canadian Pacific Railway's Spiral Tunnels are opened in British Columbia's Kicking Horse Pass, there were 38 band members in British Columbia. 

In 1963, that number dropped to 28 and then just 25 by 1971. Today, there are 98 registered members and 53 members who live on-site. It is a time of resurgence for the nation and Rizwaan’s working to support that endeavour.

Rizwaan Abbas on the set of BC's Fossil Bounty
Rizwaan is of Indo-Fijian descent, a descendant of Girmitiyas, and a First Generation Canadian. His heritage fuels his passion for researching, preserving and perpetuating the Indo-Fijian Culture (in Canada) for the benefit of future generations. 

Indo-Fijians are Fijian citizens of Indian descent, including people who trace their ancestry to various regions of the Indian subcontinent. Although they hailed from various regions in the Indian subcontinent, the vast majority of Indo-Fijians trace their origins to the Awadh and Bhojpur regions of the Hindi Belt in northern India.

Many of the Muslim Indo-Fijians also came from Sindh and Balochistan and various other parts of South Asia. Fiji's British colonial rulers brought Indian people to the Colony of Fiji as indentured labourers between 1879 and 1916 to work on Fiji's sugar-cane plantations. 

The Indo-Fijian community has a complex history and heritage. Coming to the Fiji Islands as indentured labourers from India between 1879 and 1920, these Girmitiyas were forced to reevaluate their place in the world while simultaneously rebuilding their culture and maintaining their traditional and religious practices in a harsh colonial environment. 

Finding no place in India, Girmitiyas created a unique Indo-Fijian culture in the Tropical South Pacific through their shared struggle for respect and acceptance. Some stayed in Fiji and others pushed further afield and found their way to our shores.

Nestled within British Columbia’s population, lies a unique Indo-Fijian culture born from the tropical paradise of the Fiji Islands. Explore the shared history of these Voyager People who left India in search of a future but found hardship in Fiji before finally finding a home.

Piltdown Skull being examined
Rizwaan's family share that lived history. He grew up in British Columbia hearing those stories firsthand. 

It is because of that sharing of lived history that he chose to study archaeology at Simon Fraser University. Archaeology is the study of how people lived in the past—all people, no matter when in the past or where in the world.

Wanting to delve deeper into both archaeology and palaeoanthropology, he continued his studies, this time in Europe. Rizwaan undertook his Masters in Paleoanthropology and Paleolithic Archaeology at the prestigious University College London where he graduated with distinction. 

The UCL Institute of Archaeology and Department of Anthropology have considerable staff expertise in the fields of palaeoanthropology and palaeolithic archaeology. Staff and research students are currently involved in field projects as well as museum-based studies in Britain, various parts of Europe, the Middle East, and eastern and southern Africa.

His research focus was on the Geometric and Morphometrics Analysis of Molars. His work led to a remarkable discovery which he published in the Royal Society Open Science in 2016, “New genetic and morphological evidence suggests a single hoaxer created Piltdown man.“’

In 1912, palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian and solicitor Charles Dawson announced the discovery of a fossil that supposedly provided a link between apes and humans: Eoanthropus dawsoni meaning Dawson's Dawn Man. 

Museum of Surrey - The Indo-Fijians: Surrey's Pocket of Paradise

The publication generated huge interest from scientists and the general public. Piltdown man's initial celebrity has long been overshadowed by its subsequent infamy as one of the most famous scientific frauds in history. 

His re-evaluation of the Piltdown fossils using the latest scientific methods (DNA analyses, high-precision measurements, spectroscopy and virtual anthropology) shows that it is highly likely that a single orang-utan specimen and at least two human specimens were used to create the fake fossils.

The modus operandi was found consistent throughout the assemblage (specimens are stained brown, loaded with gravel fragments and restored using filling materials), linking all specimens from the Piltdown I and Piltdown II sites to a single forger—Charles Dawson.

Whether Dawson acted alone is uncertain, but his hunger for acclaim may have driven him to risk his reputation and misdirect the course of anthropology for decades. The Piltdown hoax stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to be led by preconceived ideas but to use scientific integrity and rigour in the face of novel discoveries.

Rizwaan's Exhibit at the Museum of Surrey is now closed but you can still take the virtual tour through the link below:

You can also read his Chapter about Indo-Fijians printed in the "Social History of South Asians in British Columbia" published by the University of the Fraser Valley (Chapter 9):

Image: Piltdown Man. (2022, December 2). In Wikipedia. Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A. S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and Ray Lankester. Note the portrait of Charles Darwin on the wall. Painting by John Cooke, 1915.