What is Paleoanthropology?
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.
Remember, there is always more to learn!