Paleoanthropology: making the past come alive.

August 15, 2007

Here are some questions you might have: Lucy and her relatives lived millions of years ago.  How do you find out what Lucy looked like? How do you know what she ate?  What was the environment like when she lived? Who can answer these questions?


Paleoanthropologists, or people who study early humans, specialize in finding answers to these questions.  Working with scientists in other fields, these scholars act like detectives, although the trail they follow is truly cold. They tease information from the material remains of a distant past, sometimes millions of years old. This is not an easy job, but it is a fascinating one.

As a paleoanthropologist, you will spend a lot of your time outdoors.  However, before you do, you need to develop your research plan. Imagine that you are interested in who walked around on our planet 4 million years ago. You will need to be able to locate those areas on our planet where you can easily access 4 million-year old geologic layers. Geologists can help you to find these layers. At that point, you and your team will go to work. Your training, as well as patience and luck will contribute to your success.

You will be looking for bone fragments that are visible on the surface. This is the most practical approach to finding early human and animal bones. Since these early people did not leave any buildings behind, you only have their bones on the surface to go by.  Random digging into the ground to find early humans would waste your time and money.

If you are lucky enough to have found bone fragments, you will want to know what they are and exactly how old they are. Geologists and physicists can help with the dating of the soil in which the bones were laying. Your own training and that of animal specialists will help identify what or who you have found.

If you are extremely lucky, you may have found enough fragments to reconstruct parts of a skull or even parts of a skeleton, like that of Lucy. Using casts of these bones, skilled artists can then layer in the various muscles and slowly reconstruct the face.  

Dietary clues may be found in the teeth.  Some early humans have massive jaws with huge teeth covered by thick layers of enamel, capable of cracking the toughest nuts. Compare that to our jaws and small teeth and consider what we eat. 

Using clues like plant pollen and soil typology, other specialists can help reconstruct what the environment looked like when the early humans you found were around.

What emerges from this research, which can take an entire lifetime, is a snapshot of a distant past. It presents the best possible approximation of what these early creatures may have looked like, what they may have eaten and what the landscape looked like when they walked around. In other words, you have found some answers to your questions.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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