Are we there yet? Dr. John Kappelman discusses Africa and the human evolutionary journey at HMNS

In the history of mankind, there have been three major migrations: two of these happened a long time ago, and one (of the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type) happened in our own lifetime. 

evolution astronautAbout 1.8 million years ago, hominids we call Homo erectus ventured outside Africa, wandering into Europe and Asia. Our own species evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens followed in Homo erectus’ footsteps, with significant numbers leaving Africa. Eventually they crossed Asia and made it all the way into the Americas.

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image Wikimedia)

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image from Wikimedia).

 On July 20, 1969, Homo sapiens marked another milestone, with the first step on the Moon. Today, we have a permanent presence in space, albeit it on a very limited scale. We have come a long way indeed.

Long before Homo erectus left Africa, other bipedal creatures roamed Africa. Among these was Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid first discovered in Ethiopia. In 1974, Donald Johanson and his team uncovered a well preserved specimen who was nicknamed Lucy, and shortly afterwards also Dinkenesh. 

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh” (Image by Viktor Deak).

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh”
(Image by Viktor Deak).

Lucy and her species have been the subject of many scientific studies. However, when she traveled to the United States for the second time in 2007 (the first time was in 1975, to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), she underwent a scientific procedure never before applied to her: for 10 days, she resided on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where she underwent a high resolution CT scan.

The scanned data was handed over to the government of Ethiopia and Mamitu Yilma, director of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The successful completion of Lucy’s scan meant that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format — one of the reasons behind the scanning.

A small but dedicated team participated in the scanning project in Austin: 

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;  John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin.  The team used the ultra high-resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin. The team used the ultra high resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Dr. John Kappelman has had a long-standing relation with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He was one of many scientific advisors to the curator of anthropology when the exhibit featuring Lucy was prepared. His own research into human evolution is the topic of an upcoming presentation at the museum.

To find out if we are “there yet,” come listen to Dr. Kappelman on Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The First Big Trip – Are We There Yet? Africa and the Human Journey
John Kappelman, Ph.D.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America – Houston Society as part of its 2013-2014 Innovations series.

Can you spell g-a-u-t-e-n-g-e-n-s-i-s?

It seems like barely a few weeks have gone by since the last public announcement about the discovery and identification of a new fossil human ancestor and here we are again, looking at a new face in the family line up.

Meet Homo gautengensis.

Recently we were “warned” that the discovery of several proto humans were about to hit the headlines. The first of these is now getting the limelight; a new member to the genus Homo no less.

Homo gautengensis lived in what is now South Africa. Gauteng refers to a province in that country, and a term in the local Sesotho language meaning ‘place of gold.’

 Photo courtesy of Darren Curnoe

The preliminary information available through public channels at the time of writing indicate that this new species of hominid, which  measured about three feet tall and weighed around 110 pounds, was capable of walking upright as well as moving around in the trees. They lived from about 2 million years ago to 600,000 years ago. According to the researchers involved in this discovery, Homo gautengensis predated Homo habilis, officially still listed as the oldest known tool making and using human. As you will see below, there are other researchers who claim that Homo habilis had a much greater time depth. This headline grabbing statement will, no doubt, generate an interesting discussion.

This may now change as more context information becomes available. According to Dr. Darren Curnoe thinks it is highly likely that these hominids ‘produced and used stone tools and may even have made fire.” The presence of burnt bones found in association with the human remains points to this alleged use and mastery of fire.

More information will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. Until then, this seems to be the extent of what the general public knows. What is certainly interesting to note here is that, while the announcement is to be made soon, the skull fragments were found in 1976 in the famous Sterkfontein caves. According to a University of New South Wales publication,

“The surprise finding was based on a partial skull – known by its museum catalogue number Stw 53 – along with two other partial skulls, several jaws, teeth and other bones found at various times at Sterkfontein and other nearby caves.”

This is not the end of the story. As they say in late night commercials: “but wait there is more…”  What is the broader picture here? We all know that when it comes to the study of early human ancestors, hyperbole often abounds in press releases and subsequent newspaper articles. With that in mind, be prepared to read headlines in which the totally incorrect terminology of “missing link” will re-appear. There will also be claims that our understanding of human has been “severely shaken,”  as it was claimed in other cases, again and again. You get the picture.

Homo erectus
Creative Commons License Photo credit Thomas Roche

Aside from all this predictable hoopla, we do have a chronological range (2 million to 600,000 years ago) and a place (Gauteng province, South Africa). Who else was around during that timeframe? As it turns out, quite a few hominids were around during that time span, all members of the genus Homo. Homo rudolfensis lived in East Africa from 1.9 to 1.8 million years ago; Homo habilis lived in Eastern and Southern Africa from 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago; Homo erectus lived in Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa as well as parts of Asia; Homo heidelbergensis lived in Europe, and possibly Asia and Africa from 700,000 to 200,000 years ago.

It looks like the place was crowded. In a way it was, with many more species of hominids present on our planet, mainly Africa, than there are today. In another way, it was not; we should not conjure up images of all these ancient hominids bumping into each other and stepping aside to let the others pass as if it were a busy pedestrian crossing in downtown Tokyo. Chances are that most may not have seen other species, and, if they did, were they aware that these others were different?

The earliest accepted evidence of using and controlling fire dates back to 790,000 years ago, at a site in Israel. If this find is pegged closer to the 2 million years ago mark, this would move the marker of fire use back in time considerably. We are not yet at stage of the game yet to make that call.
I wonder what the next announcement will bring.

Stay tuned.