Paleoanthropology, Africa

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Summary

Paleoanthropology (English: Palaeoanthropology; from Greek: παλαιός (palaeos) "old, ancient"), anthrōpos (ἄνθρωπος), "man", understood to mean humanity, and -logia (-λογία), "discourse" or "study"), which combines the disciplines of paleontology and physical anthropology, is the study of ancient humans as found in fossil hominid evidence such as petrifacted bones and footprints.

Details

In South Africa, a notable and rare find came to light in 1924. In a limestone quarry at Taung, Professor Raymond Dart discovered a remarkably well-preserved juvenile specimen (face and brain endocast), which he named Australopithecus africanus. (Australopithecus = Southern Ape). Although the brain was small (410 cm³), its shape was rounded, unlike that of chimpanzees and gorillas, and more like a modern human brain. In addition, the specimen exhibited short canine teeth, and the foramen magnum was more anteriorly placed, suggesting a bipedal mode of locomotion.

All of these traits convinced Dart that the Taung child was a bipedal human ancestor, a transitional form between ape and man. Another 20 years passed before Dart's claims were taken seriously, following the discovery of additional australopith fossils in Africa that resembled his specimen. The prevailing view of the time was that a large brain evolved before bipedality. It was thought that intelligence on par with modern humans was a prerequisite to bipedalism.

The factors that drove human evolution are still the subject of controversy. Dart's savanna hypothesis suggested that bipedalism was caused by a move to the savanna for hunting. However recent evidence suggests that bipedalism existed before the savannas. Several anthropologists, such as Bernard Wood, Kevin Hunt and Philip Tobias, have pronounced the savanna theory defunct. The aquatic ape hypothesis, developed in response to the perceived flaws of the savanna hypothesis, suggests that wading, swimming and diving for food exerted a strong evolutionary effect on the ancestors of the genus Homo and is in part responsible for the split between the common ancestors of humans and other great apes. It is not well accepted by most researchers in paleoanthropology.

Today, the australopiths are considered to be the last common ancestors leading to genus Homo, the group to which modern humans belong. Both australopiths and Homo sapiens are part of the tribe Hominini, but recent morphological data have brought into doubt the position of A. africanus as a direct ancestor of modern humans.

The australopiths were originally grouped based on size as either gracile or robust. The robust variety of Australopithecus has since been renamed Paranthropus (P. robustus from South Africa, and P. boisei and P. aethiopicus from East Africa). In the 1930s, when the robust specimens were first described by Robert Broom, the Paranthropus genus was used. During the 1960s, the robust variety was moved into Australopithecus. The recent consensus has been to return to the original classification as a separate genus.

The real hub of palaeoanthropological activity was in eastern Africa at the famous Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. The Leakey family became a name associated with human origins, particularly the search for the first human.

In 1975, Colin Groves and Vratislav Mazák announced a new species of human they called Homo ergaster.

Ian Tattersall once noted (Nature 2006, 441:155) that paleoanthropology is distinguished as the "branch of science [that] keeps its primary data secret."

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External Links

  • WikipediaPaleoanthropology in the 1990sFossil HominidsAspects of PaleoanthropologyBecoming Human: Paleoanthropology, Evolution and Human OriginsDepartment of Human Evolution ~ Max Planck Institute, Leipzig

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