The Symposium has a date! January 15th at 1:30AM PST! So expect to see it uploaded on January 16th!
I have something VERY #EXCITING and special to announce!
If you have ever wondered about Neanderthals, this is something you are going to be very interested in!
Early in the #newyear, we will tentatively be hosting our very first ONLINE RECORDED SYMPOSIUM!
Between Tom Higham, Chris Stringer, and Rebecca Wragg Sykes, we are going to have a world-class panel of experts to give a sort of #Neanderthal 101 Presentation and answer all your questions!
There will be a half hour of presentations, each split into around ten minutes and then a half hour Q/A period.
THIS IS NOT LIVE
A week prior to the event, I will create a form for people to submit their questions to ask the experts, or that you are curious about. I will pick the ones I feel will provide the best conversation, and we will do that for half an hour.
Boy, is this going to be AMAZING, some of the top experts in the field, together and at once, presenting an open access #STEM #Scicomm Symposium on a topic that so many people find fascinating but do not know how to approach, or where to look for the proper, and correct information. We want to offer this for free as an educational tool for any of you who may be in the educational field, and a resource for students to use themselves. You are free to share, and use this however you see fit, as long as you credit those involved.
You won’t want to miss this!!!
Expect to see much more news about this in the coming weeks and months and as we get closer to the date, we will release more information.
A big Thank You to all those amazing Anthropologists, and Archaeologists who are participating in this symposium.
Up until we arrive at this most exciting date, be sure to keep up to date with what we are doing! We just published the VERY FIRST Morphology Video in our new series, you can check that out here:
And beyond that, which I do not know what interval it will be on, but shall become a regular thing, we are of course continuing our interview series, the next interview we shall be posting is with Dr. Becca Peixotto, and we following that we have an interview with the amazing Pat Shipman, AND THEN we have an interview with Author Henry Gee about his new book, and explore some content a little outside of our regular realm, and take a deep dive into biology and the Earth’s history.
And on top of all of that, we are working on projects that we have not been able to even talk about yet! There is so much coming up! The future is bright!
Remember, there is always more to learn!
Want to stay up to date with what is going on with this event, and maybe see how you can participate or help? Check out our Facebook event:
Today, Dr. Ellie McNutt & a large team announced in @nature the discovery of 3.66-million-year-old footprints at Laetoli, Tanzania. These tracks are different from the famous site G trail–evidence of a 2nd species of bipedal hominin at Laetoli!
Footprints at Laetoli were discovered by Mary Leakey’s team in 1976 after Kay Behrensmeyer, Andrew Hill, and others famously had an elephant dung fight. Ultimately 18,400 footprints were documented at site A from different mammals, birds, insects. Image by K. Behrensmeyer.
In September of 1976, Philip Leakey and Peter Jones found 5 consecutive tracks made by a bipedal mammal at site A. Mary Leakey and Dick Hay proposed in the pages of @nature that they were made by a hominin with a “somewhat shambling” gait. Image by J. Reader.
But, the footprints were strangely shaped and, if from a hominin, were from one that was crossing the left foot over the right while walking, like a model on a runway.
In 1978, the famous trackway at site G was discovered by Paul Abell and Ndibo Mbuika. These footprints were clearly hominin. Photo by John Reader
So, what were the strange site A prints? Some wondered if they might have been made by a bipedal bear. Prof. Russ Tuttle found that the trackway and footprints showed some affinities with bears. Dismissed as non-hominin, the site A prints fell into obscurity.
BUT… Tuttle also wrote, “until detailed, naturalistic biometric and kinesiological studies are performed on bipedal bears and barefoot humans, we will have to defer choosing among the hominid and ursid hypotheses on Laetoli individual A.”
And the site A prints were never fully excavated. Tim White and Gen Suwa wrote, “reliable identification of these enigmatic prints at Laetoli site A will be impossible until they are more fully cleaned and followed laterally.”
Up here in the woods of @Dartmouth, we have a lot of bears. Dr. McNutt worked with Dr. Ben Kilham—a black bear expert—and collected footprint data on black bears whose feet were about the same size as the footprint maker at Laetoli site A.
Up here in the woods of @Dartmouth, we have a lot of bears. Dr. McNutt worked with Dr. Ben Kilham—a black bear expert—and collected footprint data on black bears whose feet were about the same size as the footprint maker at Laetoli site A.
Bear heels are narrow, they have fan-shaped toes, and they sometimes leave claw marks. The Laetoli site A prints preserve none of those features.
Plus, bears cannot balance on a single leg easily and wobble back and forth when they walk bipedally, leaving widely spaced prints. Chimpanzees do this, too.
In fact, the easiest way to produce a trackway with one foot directly in front of the other is to have an abductor mechanism and/or valgus knees. These are key characteristics of hominins and hinted to us that the site A prints were not from a bear.
In June 2019, Prof. Charles Musiba @CUDenver led a team to Laetoli to, in part, search for these prints. It is not easy to get to the outcrops.
We were even joined by Joshua Gates from @ExpeditionUNK for a day.
We used Mary Leakey’s maps to measure to the exact spot where the A prints should be (if still preserved), and luckily found the juvenile elephant prints that ran parallel to the bipedal trackway, before Kallisti Fabian uncovered the first print.
Seasonal rains had not washed the prints away. It had pulled enough sediment on top of them to preserve them for forty years. We brushed them clear of matrix, uncovering details that were still obscured in 1977.
The team found the original 5 prints and excavated back into the hillside but could not find any more prints, unfortunately. We plan to return to search for more. Image by Shirley Rubin.
We laser scanned the trackway and took enough photos to do photogrammetry. These were tools unavailable to researchers in the 1970s.
Kevin Hatala worked his magic and showed that the shape of the site A footprints are as different from the prints at sites G and S as a chimpanzee footprint is from a human’s.
And then there is just the eyeball test.
There is growing evidence that multiple hominin species coexisted during the Pliocene of Eastern Africa. The Burtele foot from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia demonstrates that different kinds of hominins were walking differently from one another at this time, too.
Not only were different hominins coexisting—some of them shared the same landscape. The Laetoli footprint tuff captures a snapshot in time. As the site A hominin was walking north, a group of A. afarensis—2km to the west—were trudging that way, too.
Skeptical of our interpretation? That’s ok. Science is not about belief—we welcome other teams to assess our findings and attempt to replicate our results. That can only happen if fossils/footprints are available for study.
To that end, you can find high-resolution 3d scans of the footprints on morphosource.org. They are great for teaching, too! @Evo_Explorer @WrldOfPaleoAnth
One question that remains for me is what hominin made the site A prints? In our paleoanthropological Cinderella story, what foot will fit the proverbial slipper? There are secrets still hiding in the ancient ash at Laetoli.
Hello and welcome to not only the next episode of our previously known “interview series”, and welcome to the full blown show, “The Story of Us!” This is the first episode to bear such a name and we are so excited to be bringing this to you!
We have some great guests on this time, Gabriel and Ryan, and they have some awesome stuff to share with us! This episode is a little different than our usual, and I really hope you all enjoy it, and learn a great deal from it! I know I did!
Watch to learn all about Pio-Pleistocene hominin reconstructions. Mainly dealing with the cranial features, at least for now; Ryan and his partner Gabriel are testing and developing a new way to create reconstructions of all, and any hominin based on features that we all share as apes. Using modern humans and non human primates, along with the fossil record, they try to show the world what these long dead creatures may have looked like.
Check it out!
If you like what you see, please like, share, and subscribe! We would also love to hear any questions that you have (leave them in the comments below!) and would love to hear what you think!
Until next time!
World of Paleoanthropology
P.S I misspoke at the part where I said it was the anniversary of the discovery of the Lucy skeleton! It was actually the anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin! Ooops!
In the hopes of creating more conversation, and community with our readers/viewers, I would like to introduce you to our brand-new Discord Channel!
Please come on by, I will admit I am not too familiar with Discord, but we can all learn along together! But I am sure we can have some amazing, and interesting discussions, and all learn together! For we all have different things to teach from our amazing, and varied experiences, for is that not what makes us human?
Well! Here we are again, finally! I am so glad to welcome you to our next Morphology video, the next episode in our show The Story of Us, and I hope you enjoy your time and learn a great deal! If you do, let other people know about us! We post new content, and keep up on the news all of the time!
On this episode, we explore the fossil KNM-ER 1813, one of, if not the best and most well known Homo habilis cranium. The following is a brief description provided by the Human Origins Institute:
Read what esteemed Paleoanthropologist John Hawks has to say not he matter, and especially in relation to another species that we did not discuss today, A. sediba that actually just made headlines last week with the announcement of the first near complete lower spine of a hominin found! You can read all about that in our “News” section, so be sure to check that too! Catch his blog post here: https://johnhawks.net/weblog/fossils/habilis/er/er-1813-africanus-malapa-2010.html!
I would like to remind everyone that this is but an introductory video/ post to this species, there is of course so much more to learn and discover about this species, that even the experts in the field are not sure about yet! Please, do your own research, allow this only to be one of many tools in your kit, as you learn about Human Origins, and the roots of our shared humanity! We will be going more in depth about this species, and this particular specimen at a later time. But for now, I hope that this will suffice as a good introduction to habilis, and that you have indeed learned something from my efforts!
If you have a spare moment, please be so kind as to comment, like, share and most importantly SUBSCRIBE to stay up to date with all of our major going ons! We produce content regularly, and the more interest/ help we get, the more we are able to do it! So please, show your support! There are many ways to do so!
Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you next time!
Ancient human relative, Australopithecus sediba, “walked like a human, but climbed like an ape.” New Fossils Improve Our Understanding of Bipedality and Being Human
Newly described fossils of A. sediba show that sediba was capable of walking equally as well arboreally as terrestrially! Join us as we take a deep dive into this new announcement from Dr. Lee Berger et al.
Sediba first emerged with then nine-year-old Matthew Berger’s finding of the Malapa hominins on August 15th, 2008. As we have seen so many times before with such discoveries, the paleoanthropological world would never be the same again! This new species would hold many secrets, and li ke other finds before it, answer many questions. The thing with science, and especially paleoanthropology, is that the more we find out, it seems the more questions we have! There is always more to learn!
So, who is Australopithecus sediba? Sediba was found in Malapa, Gauteng Province, South Africa in a cave that was blasted open by miners nearly a century ago. Professor Lee Berger, Matthew, and a few friends were exploring the local area with their dog. Berger looked at his son and told him, “Go find some fossils!”. Little did he know, and dare he not expect what was about to happen.
“Dad I found a fossil!” rang his son’s excited voice, and there, in a large rock that had been blown out of the cave, was a piece of hominin clavicle. Even from a distance Prof. Berger knew what this was, for he had done his dissertation on the very thing.
After excavation, examination and analysis, A. sediba was officially designated as a new species, and it was given a preliminary place on our family tree. Two partial skeletons were discovered: the holotype, MH1, a juvenile; and MH2, an adult female, newly dubbed “Issa,” which means ‘Protector’ in Swahili. Dating to 2 million years ago (MYA), these fossils did not seem to belong where they were found. These creatures seemed to be clearly adapted for a life in the trees, as shown by their upper and lower limb morphology. Examinations from Berger’s team tentatively assumed that sediba was an arboreal hominin, unlike some of its more well-known kin such as Lucy, (A. afarensis, 3.4 MYA).
One of the biggest questions in paleoanthropology is when did we become obligate (or full-time) bipeds? Bipedality is a universal feature of modern humans, and of hominins in general. It is one of the defining features. But we do not know exactly how bipedality came about.
In the history of the Earth, bipedality was nothing new. Dinosaurs and other early creatures experimented with it. Birds are bipedal. But no animal did what the ape lineage began to d o some tens of millions of years ago in the forest canopy. They developed long arms and legs and divergent big toes, and long, grasping fingers to hold onto branches securely as they moved through the trees.
The original sediba fossils from 2008 support the conclusion that like many arboreal primates, sediba could also move on the ground and probably even bipedally, but there was little direct evidence to show that they could walk for long lengths of time, as later hominins do.
But now we have these new sediba fossils – several contiguous bones of lower spinal vertebrae. These new fossils show us a view we have never had of an early hominin, a complete view of their lower spine.
These lumbar vertebrae show some very specific features that support the hypothesis that sediba was an obligate, or full-time, bipedal hominin, who by choice or necessity could also easily climb through the tree canopy.
These new fossils show that Au. Sediba had what is called a lumbar lordosis, or curvature of the spine—-think of the “S” shaped spine of modern humans. This S shape is only found in creatures that are fully bipedal, providing strong evidence of sediba’s ability to move easily on the ground.
If this hypothesis proves to be true, sediba could be an updated type of “missing link” — with features extremely primitive and ape-like, as well as features that are found in you and I!
Despite the features of the 2008 fossils have that showed that sediba was adapted for climbing and arboreal locomotion, these newly described 2015 fossils show that sediba had very modern traits as well, traits that allowed it to walk upright through the woodlands too. These new finds shed light on a part of our history that we have so many questions about. While we may now have some answers to our questions, there are of course more and more questions! Only the future, and continued analyses and study will reveal the many secrets that these hominins contain, as a glimpse into our very distant past. There is much work to do!
So what does this all mean? Well, Sediba was is a perfect example of mosaic evolution, some parts of the fossils are more modern, while other parts are more primitive. There is no one link, no one species that fills all the gaps, checks all the marks. But what we have learned about sediba, will lead to a better understanding of how we began to walk upright, when, and possibly even why.
Well, there you have it! If you would like to learn more about these new fossil finds, please refer to the official media release statement from Dr. Berger and Wits University, as well as the Q/A that they have provided!
“Ancient human relative, Australopithecus sediba, “walked like a human, but climbed like an ape”
New lower back fossils are the “missing link” that settles a decades old debate proving early hominins used their upper limbs to climb like apes, and their lower limbs to walk like humans
New York and Johannesburg – An international team of scientists from New York University, the Unive rsity of the Witwatersrand and 15 other institutions announced today in the open access journal e-Life, the discovery of two-million-year-old fossil vertebrae from an extinct species of ancient human relative.
The recovery of new lumbar vertebrae from the lower back of a single individual of the human relative, Australopithecus sediba, and portions of other vertebrae of the same female from Malapa, South Africa, together with previously discovered vertebrae, form one of the most complete lower backs ever discovered in the early hominid record and give insight into how this ancient human relative walked and climbed.
The fossils were discovered in 2015 during excavations of a mining trackway running next to the site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, just Northwest of Johannesburg South Africa.
Malapa is the site where, in 2008 Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand and his then nine-year old son, Matthew, discovered the first remains of what would be a new species of ancient human relative named Australopithecus sediba.
Fossils from the site have been dated to approximately two million years before present. The vertebrae described in the present study were recovered in a consolidated cement-like rock, known as breccia, in near articulation.
Rather than risking damaging the fossils, they were prepared virtually after scanning with a Micro-CT scanner at the University of the Witwatersrand, thus removing the risk of damaging the closely positioned, delicate bones during manual preparation. Once virtually prepared, the vertebrae were reunited with fossils recovered during earlier work at the site and found to articulate perfectly with the spine of the fossil skeleton, part of the original Type specimens of Australopithecus sediba first described in 2010. The skeleton’s catalogue number is MH 2, but the researchers have nicknamed the female skeleton “Issa,” meaning protector in Swahili. The discovery also established that like humans, sediba had only five lumbar vertebrae.
“The lumbar region is critical to understanding the nature of bipedalism in our earliest ancestors, and to understanding how well adapted they were to walking on two legs,” says Professor Scott Williams of New York University and Wits University and lead author on the paper.
“Associated series of lumbar vertebrae are extraordinarily rare in the hominin fossil record, with really only three comparable lower spines being known from the whole of the early African record.”
The discovery of the new specimens means that Issa now becomes one of only two early hominin skeletons to preserve both a relatively complete lower spine and dentition from the same individual, allowing certainty as to what species the spine belongs to.
“While Issa was already one of the most complete skeletons of an ancient hominin ever discovered, these vertebrae practically complete the lower back and make Issa’s lumbar region a contender for not only the best-preserved hominin lower back ever discovered, but also probably the best preserved,” says Berger, who is an author on the study and leader of the Malapa project. He adds that this combination of completeness and preservation gave the team an unprecedented look at the anatomy of the lower back of the species.
Previous studies of the incomplete lower spine by authors not involved in the present study hypothesized that sediba would have had a relatively straight spine, without the curvature, or lordosis, typically seen in modern humans. They further hypothesized Issa’s spine was more like that of the extinct species Neandertals and other more primitive species of ancient hominins older than two million years.
Lordosis is the inward curve of the lumbar spine and is typically used to demonstrate strong adaptations to bipedalism.
However, with the more complete spine, and excellent preservation of the fossils, the present study found the lordosis of sediba was in fact more extreme than any other australopithecines yet discovered, and the amount of curvature of the spine observed was only exceeded by that seen in the spine of the 1.6-million-year-old Turkana boy (Homo erectus) from Kenya, and some modern humans.
“While the presence of lordosis and other features of the spine represent clear adaptations to walking on two legs, there are other features, such as the large and upward oriented transverse processes, that suggest powerful trunk musculature, perhaps for arboreal behaviors,” says Professor Gabrielle Russo of Stony Brook University and an author on the study.
Strong upward oriented transverse spines are typically indicati ve of powerful trunk muscles, as observed in apes. Professor Shahed Nalla of the University of Johannesburg and Wits who is an expert on ribs and a researcher on the present study says: “When combined with other parts of torso anatomy, this indicates that sediba retained clear adaptations to climbing”.
Previous studies of this ancient species have highlighted the mixed adaptations across the skeleton in sediba that have indicated its transitional nature between walking like a human and climbing adaptations. These include features studied in the upper limbs, pelvis and lower limbs.
“The spine ties this all together,” says Professor Cody Prang of Texas A&M, who studies how ancient hominins walked and climbed. “In what manner these combinations of traits persisted in our ancient ancestors, including potential adaptations to both walking on the ground on two legs and climbing trees effectively, is perhaps one of the major outstanding questions in human origins.”
The study concludes that sediba is a transitional form of ancient human relative and its spine is clearly intermediate in shape between those of modern humans (and Neandertals) and great apes.
“Issa walked somewhat like a human but could climb like an ape,” says Berger.
Note: The virtual fossils published in the new study are free to download on Morphosource.org
Questions and answers about the lower back of Australopithecus sediba
Q: How were these new fossils discovered?
A: The block containing the fossils was removed from a trackway built by miners, who had a century ago blasted rock from what would later become known as the site of Malapa. The lumbar vertebrae discovered within the block were found to refit perfectly with previously known lower lumbar vertebrae of the MH2 skeleton.
Q: How do we know about the curvature of the lumbar spine and how does it relate to back problems in living people?
A: The upper and lower surfaces of the vertebral bodies are not parallel to each other. Instead, they form a wedge such that several lumbar vertebrae together create a curve, the lumbar lordosis (lumbar depression). This curve contributes to a balanced position of the center of body mass so that no force is needed to stand upright. If this balance is not achieved or if body mass compresses the lumbar spine too much, back pain can result.
Q: How do we know how many regional numbers of vertebrae a fossil hominin had?
A: Like us, all primates have multiple vertebral regions that serve different functions: cervical (neck) vertebrae, thoracic (rib-bearing) vertebrae, lumbar (lower back) vertebrae, sacral (pelvic) vertebrae, and coccygeal (tailbone) vertebrae. Most fossils are incomplete to various degrees. As far as completeness goes, the A. sediba partial skeletons are fairly complete. The adult female (MH2) now has a nearly complete lower back—all five lumbar vertebrae are represented, and we know that’s all there are because we also have the lower thoracic vertebrae and the sacrum, which surround the lumbar region.
Q: Might the curvature in MH2’s lower back be due to the fact that she was a female? Is it possible that male members of A. sediba didn’t have lumbar lordosis?
A: This is certainly a possibility. A. sediba falls nearest the modern human female mean, whereas a male A. africanus specimen, a close relative of A. sediba, falls near the modern human male mean. Modern humans are sexually dimorphic, where females demonstrated more lordosis on average than males, although significant overlap between the sexes exists. We might expect male A. sediba individuals to show less evidence for curvature than Issa (aka Malapa Hominin 2) and other females. There is a male partial skeleton (“Karabo,” Malapa Hominin 1), but it belongs to a juvenile individual currently known from just two lumbar vertebrae.
Q: What movements does one observe in the lumbar region?
A: The lumbar region allows flexion (forward bending) and extension (backward bending), with limited lateral bending. Rotation is restricted in the lumbar region, whereas it is achieved in the thoracic region. These movements are achieved (and prevented) largely by the orientation of the intervertebral articular facet joints, which are generally flat in thoracic vertebrae and curved in lumbar vertebrae.
Q: We know now that A. sediba had five lumbar vertebrae, just like humans. Why is that important to know?
Q: With its mosaic features, is A. sediba a “Missing Link”?
A: The term “Missing Link” is often used to speak about ancient human relatives. It derives from the idea that evolution is like a “chain” where one species inevitably “links” to the next more advanced. This is where the misleading image often seen on T-shirts of the “march of progress” from a primitive four-legged ancestor all the way to modern humans. Evolution doesn’t happen that way and the actual image of human evolution is more like a braided stream, with complex interactions occurring between species in the past through gene exchange. Some species go extinct, some share their genes with others, and some persist through long periods of time, but may make no contribution to future generations. Issa’s spine though is a sort of missing link between the upper body and lower body. Some scientists had long thought that australopithecines like A. sediba climbed well due the anatomy of their upper limbs. Other scientists disagreed seeing the adaptations in the lower limbs as committed to terrestrial bipedalism and early hominins would climb no better than a human and certainly not as well as an ape. As the spine “links” the lower body with the upper body, it shows us, in Issa, that she could and did climb using her upper limbs as well as many apes, but it also shows she could walk on two legs extremely well. So, the discovery of her spine was in some ways the “missing link” for proving that A. sediba could climb as well as an ape, but still walk on two legs efficiently.”
What an amazing announcement! We are so grateful to be a part of sharing this amazing news, and helping educate and share the information so that all can understand it! If you have any questions, please feel free to contact myself at email@example.com or any of the listed contacts above!
Now, before we go, let us give a quick thanks to all of the authors involved!
Well, and there you have it! What an exciting day! I thank you all for participating with us here, and I hope you have learned a great deal and are now up to date with some of the latest ideas and hypotheses!
Be sure to join us next time!
World of Paleoanthropology
You can find a link to the actual paper below, and in our Featured Papers section!
Following up on our very popular posts on the “Top Ten Modern Anthropology Books, Lectures, Documentaries” etc. we have a new article to share with you! The Top Ten Anthropology Related AudioBooks of 2021! (Look for updated versions of the other lists in early 2022!) I don’t know about you, but while I love reading, and you can always find me with multiple physical or ebooks in hand, sometimes I just do not have the time to read all of the books that I want to! And there are so many new ones published all of the time, especially in the last few years with how many major discoveries there have been over the last decade. Sometimes, it is just nice to sit down and listen to a good audiobook, either in your garden, on your couch, or on your way to and from work. Audiobooks are a great way to fill gaps of time where you are otherwise occupied. I love them, and I know that I am not the only one!
So for those of you who do not have the time to read physical books, and or just are a fan of audiobooks like myself, please check out the following list! It is not in any particular order, not by popularity or rating, just in the order that I thought of them in. I highly recommend each and everyone of these books as great educational sources for those interested in Anthropology and Primatology, Human Origins, and our beginnings, there is so much to learn!
While I have not written full reviews of each of these books, I do plan on it, and will get to it as soon as possible! Please look forward to that, but in the meantime, please enjoy and learn from the following!
The links provided lead to Apple Books audiobooks, but they can also be found on Audible, and your other audiobook sources.
“A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution-from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality, and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.”
“Our species’ unique capacity for culture began to evolve millions of years ago, but it only really took off in the last few hundred thousand years. This capacity allowed our ancestors to survive and raise their difficult children during times of extreme climate chaos. Understanding how this has evolved can help us understand the cultural change and diversity that we experience today.”
Hopefully, you have found these as enjoyable and educational as I have! Let me know what you think, and what books are your favorites as well!
The world as we know it, and especially how we do not know it, is an amazing thing. We discover new things each and every day. About our present world, the future of that world, and it’s past. The more we learn, the more questions we find need answering. From the start of life on earth, to the very first of humankind, there is just so much we wonder, and do not know about. Science, is a way of looking at the world where things are proven by testing, by curiosity and the people who forward this research. For many, science almost has qualities found in the place of religion. While many scientists are religious, and maintain a connection to the divine, following the rules of science can be quite common as well.
One specific area that we strive to learn so much more about, is our own history. Yes one could follow our history back to the first one celled organisms surviving in pools of water But where most people go, is to our own history. They wonder, “Where did I come from? Where did we come from?” When studying Human Origins, what we focus on, is when we split from our closest cousins, the apes, and what the common ancestor may have been. Anthropology is the study of humans, and everything that humans do, or have done; previously, presently and into the future of where our species is headed is Anthropology. From Cultural Anthropologists who study the amazing and varied cultures of the world past and present, to the good people in the lab, using air scribes to blast dirt and rock from fossils and bone. There is so much to learn about this world, and about ourselves. It is through science, education, and Anthropology that we have any hope of learning of our origins. To learn the past, is to build the future.
So then, what is Paleoanthropology?:
So what are we even talking about here? What is Paleoanthropology? To be specific, it is the study of the origins of man. While we may look to modern, and ancient apes for clues on how our ancestors acted and survived a great deal, it is specifically the human lineage that we are referring to. From the earliest bipeds that some refuse to call human, right up to our modern-day bodies, a span of about seven million years of evolution. This time period is very gray, we know very little about this period, even less than we know about dinosaurs which lived sixty-five million years ago! There are so few fossils and tangible evidence of fossil apes and hominins, or bipedal apes that belong to our braided stream of a family. The reason for this, is while the dinosaurs were all over the earth, providing many various circumstances to preserve fossils, hominins are strictly from Africa, and the environment is not prime relegate for the creation of fossils. What we know from Paleoanthropology one day, can completely change the next.
At this point, we know more about Human Evolution than we ever have, in fact, for the first time in United States history, over 51% of the population agrees with the Theory of Evolution, but that means nothing, as new finds destroy previously held beliefs. It was once said in 2001, that there was nothing left to find, since then, multiple entirely separate species have been named and accepted.
Paleoanthropology is an ever-changing field with new information coming out weekly, if not daily. As we study Human Origins, we begin to understand ourselves, and the world we created better. Human Origins, the search for possibly the most valuable and precious items we know of, fossils, is an amazing journey that one can undertake. Either from their armchair at home, or deep in the African wilderness, searching for these fossils yourself, the adventure is never ending. “The road goes on and on, down from the door from which it came…”
In short, Paleoanthropology is the study of Human Origins, where we came from, using the Fossil Record and new DNA technology, we are learning more about ourselves than ever before. Paleoanthropology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields in science. Requiring team work between geologists, chronologists, anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, cavers, and so many more experts, it really takes a team to come to the proper conclusions. Or, as close as we can get.
Now, some of you might be asking yourself, why does it matter? Many people explain our origins through religion and spirituality, but many depend on the modern, accepted versions of the Theory of Evolution. For some, there just is no interest, they do not ponder nor wonder where our species came from and that is ok. For those of us who care, its like an ever pulling sensation to learn more, to learn as much as you can. To learn of our origins, how we came to be on this earth, and following the evolutionary path of our ancestors, is what allows us to see our future. Knowing where we came from, can show us where we are going.
Those who find themselves in awe of this evolution, cannot learn enough. Knowing where we came from is a gift to these anthropologists. It is what their life work is about, and it can change the way in which we see the world and our place in it. Why are we so special and so different from any other animal alive today? Why are we the only hominin species to survive? (At least up to the last ten thousand years in some cases). These are the holy grail of questions. To answer them, one needs to know not only the history of Paleoanthropology itself, but the tools and methods that are used therein.
There are few things more important the grand scheme of things than where Homo sapiens came from. It is us, our past and our history, Through amazing hardships and trouble, our ancestors in one way or another survived, thrived and led themselves to where we are standing today., Ancestry is all, and that is why Human Origins is important, to understand that, and how important this information is for our species.
So where did it all begin?
The study of Paleoanthropology is a relatively new science, even when compared to other fields of Anthropology and evolution. Who knows how many thousands of years these fossils and evidence of our current situation have been lost. But it all started with a find in the Neander Valley, in Germany. Where the skull cap and leg bone of some sort of mysterious human were discovered. This was before Darwin’s very famous book The Decent of Man. Which laid the foundation for the ideas of Natural Selection and Common Decent.
We had no idea about where we came from or what these old strange fossils meant. Well, scientifically of course, there are plenty of people who had a religious explanation. But since the time of the renaissance, (not including an individual here and there), some people began to question the physical world around them, and wondered less on what lay beyond life, but rather what lay in front of them. There was the idea that we were related to the great apes of Africa, as suggested by Darwin. But no one at the time wanted to think that they were “Descended from monkeys”. One has to remember that during this period of time during the 1800s, the world was changing vastly, and Europeans were pulling ahead in the field of science, and wanted the glory of having the missing link in their very own back yard. Today, we know the damage that this superiority complex and colonial take over has caused for the study, the biases and incorrect work that has been done since that we are still trying to fix and work out to provide a better picture of the actual data.
The idea of the “missing link” came across when anthropologists and archaeologists first started to believe that we had a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other great apes, one believed that there had to be some sort of link, or connecting species that made it possible for our evolution. This did nothing to quell the fears or the hatred of the idea that we came from the apes.
As we know today, Human Evolution is not linear, and is a braided stream rather than a straight line. There is no one missing link, they are all links in our evolutionary past. Species genetic information comes in, and out of our history, in our own DNA we show traces of other species, appearing at different times and in different locations.
This want for glory by the Europeans, especially the British ended with a massive hoax that lasted for over fifty years. (If you are reading this on the night of it’s republishing, it is actually the anniversary of the unmasking of said hoax!) Piltdown man, was supposedly the missing link itself, it had the features of a modern man, and that of an ape. The scientific community went crazy, and to top it off it was found in Britain! What better luck! There was a general consensus that this was indeed what they were looking for when it came to the missing link. Fast forward half a century, and new technology revealed that this missing link was indeed fake. Using a human cranium and a mandible from an orangutan, while filing the teeth, this skull was created, and it fooled even some of the most esteemed scientists for a long time. No one is sure who pulled the hoax, but there are a few candidates; but its unlikely we will ever find out the absolute truth in this situation.
Fast forward a little more, and we have the discovery of Australopithecus africanus in South Africa, by the notable Raymond Dart. Not only did this shock the world, but it began to show that possibly, as Darwin suggested, our roots were to be found in Africa, along with the great apes. Since that time, more and more early human species have been found throughout the continent of Africa. Proving that is where we originated. None of these early humans, Australopithecines, were not found anywhere in the world save in Africa. These first bipeds and somewhat chimp/human-looking creatures are found nowhere else. The only fossils we begin to see elsewhere around the world is Homo erectus. The first species to leave the continent after their development millions of years later.
Homo erectus then began to evolve in situations to match their needs, and we have splits and other species branching off of them, leading up finally to more contemporary species, such as the Denisovans, Neanderthals and Us. It has been a long journey and the world of paleoanthropology has gone through some major changes. From scientists hiding the finds in their labs until they were ready to show them to the world, to free access publication in online journals, and the publication of free 3D files, and models.
Lee Berger, is at the fore front of this initiative, and has helped spread education far and wide with the help of notable educational professionals such as John Mead from Texas.
In short, that is a very basic introduction to the history of Paleoanthropology, there is so much more to learn and discuss of the history of the search for Human Origins I implore you to go out and do some research on your own. If we included it all here, this would be a much longer article. So go! Explore!
The Present Day and Future of Paleoanthropology:
The way in which we go about our studies of our origins, has changed much over the last few decades, from only being able to rely on the fossil record, to DNA evidence that has helped decipher some of the many codes and questions that we have about our past. Each year it seems, if not more, a new method of testing, examining and describing these fossils and DNA evidence appears. Some are more controversial than the other, but these methods not only shed light on things we did not know, but help to clarify some of the questions that we have. Even things we thought we knew about, are viable to change and to alter. As we learn more it’s apparent that we truly do not know much about where we came from. There is simply too much wonder out there in the world to properly say we know where we originated.
This leads to even more discoveries, and allows puzzle pieces to come together. As new technologies are developed, the better tools we have to study these amazing specimens. The future of Paleoanthropology, and Anthropology, in general, is very bright. New discoveries lend lifeblood to the field, and just bring up so many other questions that we may never have the answers to. But the only thing we can do is to continue exploring, and doing the research that must be done.
The World of Paleoanthropology is truly an amazing one. It some of the most active scientific explorations going on in the world right now. Until recently there were more students than fossils to examine, with recent finds this has changed things in a positive way, as there is just so much research to be done. What role our origins play for you? If it works for you great. But there are some that cannot sit idle, the wanderlust is just too strong of a force, and it is because of these people that we know anything about our past at all.
The important role of knowing where we came from, is the key to our future, and where we go from here. As we understand evolution and its cause and effect not only on us but all living beings, we begin to see the connection. Yes, we are different than any other animal today, but it ways not always so drastically as one thought. It is only for the last forty thousand years that man has gone unchallenged (save in a few specific and until recently, unknown areas, aka Flores).
There is just so much left to learn that the only way is to keep exploring, and to never cease our efforts to find where we come from.
Today I would like to share my latest paper for my Behavioral Evolution class, I think you will like it, and I hope you will learn from it! I shall also consider this a review of the book, “Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human” by Dr. Richard Wrangham!
If you enjoy what is discussed here, be sure to pick up you own copy of Catching Fire!
Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human, a Review
In “Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human” by Dr. Richard Wrangham, we learn about what is possibly the most important change in human, and pre-human history. Fire changed everything that our ancestors did, from how they digested food, to how they hunted and fended off predators. Fire changed how we viewed the world, it spurred on the formation of culture as we know it today, and led to massive dietary changes that allowed for the explosion in brain size we see between H. habilis and H. erectus in the fossil record. While there is little actual evidence of fire in the fossil record, at least until much more recently, it is difficult to say for sure just exactly how the first hominins came across fire, and how they used it. What possessed them to take something that they knew would be so dangerous, and apply it in the ways that they did? We may never know for sure, but we can look at the biological changes that have brought us to be where we are today, and we can trace the very roots of our many cultures to sitting around the campfire, preparing food. Dr. Wrangham proposes the “Cooking Hypothesis” in this book, which since its publication has been widely accepted, and changed the way we view early Homo. While fire may date back much earlier than we know currently, the basis of its effects remains the same. We would not be the same without fire, it has fueled our evolution and fuels the machine of our modern world. But how?
The book starts, as most books on Human Evolution do, with a recap of the fossil record, who is, and is not a part of our “family tree”. We learn the names of various hominins and specific specimens, and then we get into the biology of it. Discussing how these animals evolved to survive, and what they did to find shelter, safety, and for the purpose of this book, most importantly food. According to current Paleoanthropologic hypotheses, Homo habilis, “Handy Man”, was the first hominin to make and use stone tools. While this idea has been challenged since Wrangham’s book was published, the fact that they were able to scavenge, and eat meat, with the use of said tools, was a huge development in our history. What would soon become clear, was without fire, meat did not have the same effect as it does today. Fire had an important role in our early evolution into Homo. Before habilis, we had the Australopithecines, creatures that were more ape-like than human, but a far departure from our common ancestor with the great apes. They ate hard, tough food, such as roots and tubers, that had little nutrition, it was enough to survive, and our brains grew at a steady rate, but it was nothing spectacular. Soon bone marrow was discovered as a reliable, and easy food source, and that helped us along quite a bit. But because of what we ate, we had to have the right “tools” to do so. We had larger teeth, the massive molars of Zinj, and huge muscles connecting sometimes to a large sagittal crest. We had larger intestines, that were harder to handle bipedally than what we have today. We survived, we continued to evolve, and that is how it was for millions of years. But then, somehow, somewhere on the continent of Africa, lightning struck. Some curious hominin carried this fire back home or used it in situ by some miraculous reason to cook meat. With that, a new age began. Fire allowed us to cook our food, which truly unlocks the potential nutritional value of not only meat but fibrous plants as well. Digestion became a much easier task, requiring less energy. This was diverted to brain growth, and we could walk, and run in more efficient ways as our guts shrank, a more anatomically modern human morphology took place. All of this was brain food, and in what is an extremely short time geologically, our brains exploded in size. Going from around 750cc in an adult male habilis to 1200cc erectus, which very close to our volume. The modern human body was beginning to truly take shape, and with the growth of our brains, many more changes were to come.
With the newly freed up energy from digestion going straight to brain development, many morphological changes occurred to the skull of erectus. As erectus moved around the world, it became more adapted to its environment, which would have been impossible without the nutrients brought on by cooked food. With fire, food became physically easier to chew, which led to smaller teeth than our contemporaries, and smaller chewing muscles as well. This led to a reduction in skull size, and prognathism, which created a more “modern” looking face. Erectus fossils are found around the world. Their behavior, their skills, dare we say their culture dare, was something the planet had never seen before, and this was because of the changes that fire brought to their brains. We can only presume that erectus hunted, with their ability to run long distances. It is supposed they were very like modern-day hunter-gatherers still present in Africa. They would hunt, bring back the food, and cook it. Cooking takes time. The hominins would have to sit around a fire, waiting for the food to be prepared. They had to learn how to be patient, to be social, how to behave, and how to work together to achieve common goals for not only the small family units but for the group as a whole, started to become critically important. A new behavior not seen prior. Erectus went from only being able to be active during the day, the diurnal creatures that they were, but with the introduction of fire, suddenly traveling, and possibly even hunting at night became more plausible, albeit dangerous still. The cultural implications of having fire could very well be what set us on the road to where we are today, as the earth’s most social creatures. Sitting around the fires, we can imagine that storytelling perhaps had its first roots, that language and communication reached a level not seen in other primates, unique to us. Would any of this have happened without fire? Without cooked food?
As discussed previously, fire also had a major effect on our physical bodies from early on. Evolution occurs when there is a need to adapt to a new environment, or challenges in ones environment. With the earth’s ever-changing climate, the fluctuations have been something that we have been dealing with for millions of years and we have learned a trick or two, but it has not by far been easy. Homo erectus had to adapt, culturally and physically if it were to become the most successful hominin, even against us arguably, in the history of the world. Fire fueled that change, that evolution. The bodies of homo erectus were different than anything we had seen before, which was arguably quite more “ape-like” than human. When we look into the orbits of Nariokotome Boy, we see, possibly for the first time, a true sense of humanity as we recognize it today. The expansion of the brain that occurred around 1.5-2 MYA was, proportionately, unheard of in the animal kingdom. Almost doubling in size compared to their predecessors, erectus was able to do things no hominin had ever been able to do. Reaching all through Eurasia, almost into Europe, and down to Polynesia and the tip of the land. They had the brainpower to do it, they had the toolset to make these remarkable treks and changes that would lead them to us. And it all started with cooking, and allowing our bodies to better digest food that we found. We went from being the hunted, who scavenged for food on the ground, to the hunter, with a bountiful supply of prey for an ever-growing brain.
According to the FDA website, an adult human male, ages 30 and up, should consume anywhere between 1800-2500 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight depending on activity level. For an animal of our size, that is a massive amount of energy consumption, and most of it is used by our brains alone, 20% in fact. For early hominins, especially those before eating raw meat, it would have been nearly impossible to achieve such a massive intake, especially in groups. With the discovery of fire, less became more. We could unlock the potential of raw foods, and we took every advantage of this that we could. Our brains could finally be unshackled. We truly became what one could say is recognizably human, compassion, care, possibly love, became possible in erectus with the advanced social and behavioral skills that they would have been forced to develop to survive in the ways that they did. Today, fire heats our homes, indirectly now, but it powers the machine of the city. The Industrial Revolution would never have happened without the discovery and use of fire to its fullest. Our modern world, let alone our modern bodies, would never have existed had we not taken that giant leap, and changed the world forevermore. Fire is sacred in so many cultures around the world, and it’s easy to understand why. Often a gift of knowledge or life, fire is the literal light in the darkness, and it puts warmth in our bellies. Next time you stare into a flame, remember what it has done for you, feel the voices of all those millennia of generations that have gone before who would not have without this magical, dangerous, unpredictable, godly, force. In “Catching Fire…” by Dr. Richard Wrangham, the author truly presents a hypothesis that is hard to counter, and, in my mind one that will one day become an even more recognized theory, as we learn more about our lives and development into anatomically modern humans today.