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.

Lions and zebra and black rhino, oh my! Join HMNS on an African safari next November

There are some things you just can’t see in your own backyard, or even at the Museum — so our entertaining and informative curators David Temple and Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout are bringing a group to Tanzania in November 2013.

The unique eco-system of the Ngorongoro Crater, the vast savannahs of the Serengeti, the forest and grassland near the shores of Lake Manyara, and the renowned anthropological and geological sites at Olduvai Gorge are must-see wonders of east Africa included in this HMNS-exclusive trip.

Herds running across road.HR.RM

This two-week trip includes safaris to superb areas for seeing giraffe, zebra, elephant, hippo, tree-climbing and black-maned lion, black rhino, wildebeest, impala, flamingo, warthog, baboon, and many other species of African wildlife. All are guaranteed a window seat for wildlife viewing in a 4×4 with photo roof. You will also visit the site where the roots of modern man were unearthed by Mary Leakey and a Maasai village.

Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, HMNS curator of anthropology, curated the human evolution section of the new Hall of Paleontology along with numerous special exhibitions, including Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. He has a special interest in this trip as Africa is the cradle of humanity. Tanzania’s Rift Valley has yielded important early human fossils, landmarks in the evolution of mankind. “We are all descendants of these early Africans. Visiting Tanzania will be a return home for all of us,” Dr. Tuerenhout says.

Maasai Men Jumping 6.HR.RM

David Temple, HMNS associate curator of paleontology, curated the Museum’s new Morian Hall of Paleontology and possesses a wide knowledge base of the evolution of mammals and modern African wildlife. “Tanzania is a perfect destination to learn of the great creatures of the past and witness the great creatures of the present,” he adds. Temple also holds a special interest African history, culture and economic development.

Lioness & cubs in Crater.HR.RM

Space is very limited. For complete itinerary, pricing and registration, click here and mark your calendar for our informational session March 19.

Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution

Our new exhibition Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution is opening this Friday, and we know you have questions! In today’s post, Paul Bernhard answers some of the most frequent and important questions about our new fossil.

 See the Archaeopteryx fossil, on display at HMNS
April 23, 2010.

What is the highlight of the exhibition and why? 
The nearly perfect fossil of Archaeopteryx, with the imprint of a body completely covered with feathers, providing a strong link between dinosaurs and modern birds. To date, ten skeletons have been found, among which, the Thermopolis specimen coming to Houston is considered  in many regards as the world’s finest, rivaled only by the Berlin specimen.

What else can you see in the exhibition?
More than a hundred other 150-million-year-old fossils from the world-famous Solnhofen quarries of Bavaria, including fish, turtles, insects, lizards and pterodactyls.

Why is Archaeopteryx important to science?
Archaeopteryx, classified as the world’s earliest bird and regarded by many experts as the “world’s most important fossil” (take THAT, Lucy!), provides compelling evidence that modern birds are direct descendants of the dinosaurs.

Is there any debate on how this fossil relates to birds?
Although the evidence linking Archaeopteryx to birds is pretty persuasive, a spirited controversy amongst scientists will likely rage for some time to come. Detailed anatomical analysis, made possible by the stunning, near-perfect condition of fossils such as the Thermopolis specimen, make the conclusion all but irrefutable.

Where was the fossil found?
The Thermopolis specimen was found in the world-renowned stone quarries of Solnhofen, Germany. The celebrated quarries are known around the world for high quality “lithographic limestone,” the original–and still optimum–source of rock plates for the world’s first lithographic printing. Before the smooth, warm-hued limestone quarried at Solnhofen was used in lithography, it was prized for its beauty and durability as a carving and building stone. But perhaps most significantly, the Solnhofen limestone is among the world’s most prolific sources of superb fossils of animals and plants that lived 150 million years ago.

What makes this exhibition important?
I think the answer to that question can be best answered by Joel Bartsch, President of HMNS. “The discovery of a single fossilized feather in the stone quarries of Solnhofen, Germany in 1861 led to the discovery of  a lizard-like creature, whose near-perfect fossil showed clearly that it was completely covered with feathers. Dubbed Archaeopteryx, and now considered the world’s earliest bird, this renowned fossil will be displayed in Houston for the first time ever. This is a rare opportunity to witness for yourself the direct link between dinosaurs and modern birds.”

What is the condition of the fossil – can you see the feathers clearly? Is there a certain pattern to the feathers?
There are only ten fossil Archaeopteryxin the entire world, and the Thermopolis specimen on display in Houston is in many ways the most complete of all of them. You can clearly see the imprint of feathers on the bird’s extremities.

How big is the fossil? 
In size,  the Thermopolis specimen of Archeopteryx is about the size of a crow.

We know you have more questions. Please email them to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Come learn the answers for yourself by visiting our new exhibition Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, opening this Friday.

Lucy’s Great Mystery: Part 3

In Part One we learned the frightening facts: Lucy was surrounded by formidable felines. She was too slow to run away and she didn’t have weapons to repel 150 pound leopards or 500 pound  homothere saber-tooths.

In Part Two we discussed even more of the fearsome predators surrounding Lucy, and began to discuss how futile fighting back would be.

How Could Our Lucy Survive a Legion of Cats and Hyenas?

How did she defend herself?

Here are some suggestions:

She made sharp-edged knives out of broken antelope bones and buffalo horns
Lucy model - faceThis was a popular theory in the 1950’s.  In South African caves, Lucy’s relatives are found with hundreds of broken antelope bones, horse bones, and broken horns form all sorts of hoofed creatures. Conclusion: Australopithecus didn’t make stone tools – they made bone-tools.

Supposedly Lucy and her clan smashed antelope legs and used the sharp-edged ends the way a hockey fan would use a broken beer bottle in a bar-fight. “Poke, whack, stab!”

Broken bones can be nasty weapons, it’s true, but….

Hyenas broke the bones
Careful analysis of the way the bones were broken proved that Australopithecus didn’t do the breaking. Teeth marks on the bones and the style of breakage matched what we see today around a hyena lair. All of those cave bones had been smashed by the big teeth of hyenas and maybe big lion-sized cats. The predators smashed Australopithecus bones too.

Maybe – Lucy Smelled Bad – Or Tasted Bad

Striped Skunk
Creative Commons License photo credit: Charles & Clint

Seriously – this is a theory we must consider. A few animals stink so thoroughly that predators won’t attack. Skunks are a good example. Even mountain lions are repelled by one spray from the stink glands of a Texas skunk.

And meat can stink or be poisonous. Toxins in the Fugu fish are deadly – if you go to a restaurant and gulp down the wrong part of your Fugu, you’ll die. So…..maybe Darwinian processes gave Lucy toxic flesh.

But primates don’t evolve super-stink
Today we just don’t find any lemurs, bushbabies, monkeys or apes with toxic meat or stinky glands.  In fact, most stinky mammals are predators – skunks, ferrets, and stink-badgers. So, although it’s theoretically possible, we should not be too enthusiastic about Lucy evolving chemical defenses.


Let’s Review Lucy’s Potential


ChimpUs-frontSkeletonLabelLet’s review what Lucy could do – we have nearly all the bones from the skeleton if we supplement Lucy and other Ethiopian finds with close relatives dug from South Africa. Follow along by scrutinizing our Lucy-chimp-us body diagram.


No Grabber Toe
Lucy’s big toe was like ours – it didn’t face away from the other toes the way a chimp big toe does. So Lucy couldn’t grab a branch and climb like a chimp.

Knees Together
Chimps can’t stand perfectly upright, because their knees slant down and out. But Lucy could stand in a modern posture – her joints were shaped so the right and left thighs came down and towards each other. She’d walk and run like us modern humans too – knees close together.

Strong Shins & Thighs
Lucy did have muscular, short shins and thighs. No, she couldn’t sprint as fast as a modern human but she could accelerate fast and turn quickly. And short legs actually are good for climbing.

Modern Hips
Lucy had wide upper hips, like ours, not narrow hips like a chimp’s. Wide hips are good for supporting guts when standing and running upright. And….wide hips could be good for climbing straight up a tree, if arms and legs work together. We see modern people shimmying up coconut palms this way.

Lucy – NOT America’s Next Top Model – Compact Torso
Today’s humans have long waists – especially in the Hollywood starlets and runway models. Not our Lucy. As the song goes, Lucy had “..strong thighs and shins… and her torso…even more so.” Lucy had no waist. Her barrel chest was set on top of her wide hips.

That gave her a low center of gravity, a design useful for three-dimensional movement. Lucy was a natural gymnast! She could jump and twist and do somersaults.

Shoulder-Socket Half Chimp
Lucy’s shoulder socket was half-chimp, half human. The joint let her raise her arms further up, above her head, than we can – but not as far as a chimp. Raising your arms high is useful for climbing vertically; hand over hand (the way we were taught in gym class in seventh grade).

Long Arms
Lucy is half-chimp in arm proportions too – her whole arm is longer and stronger compared to her legs than what we see among modern people. And strong arms certainly would assist in climbing.

Curved Fingers
So far, our review of Lucy’s anatomical equipment is a surprise – she’d walk like a modern human on the ground, but she might be able to climb vertically much better than we can. However – if she really was supposed to climb, she’d need long, curved fingers to wrap around branches.

Did she? Were Lucy’s fingers more curved than ours?

YES!!!!!!

Australopithecus did have more curve in the digits. Not as much as in a chimps but still more than in modern humans.

So, after reviewing all of Lucy’s potential, we now can give her advice:

LUCY!  To avoid being eaten…..STAY NEAR A TREE!

She wouldn’t have to climb like a chimp, but she would have to be near enough to a tree so she could shimmy up when the cheetah charged or the hyena pack came galumphing over a hill. She wouldn’t have to scoot over a branch, holding on with her big toe, chimp-style. But she could avoid most meat-eaters by going vertical.


The Old Theory Is WRONG! Lucy Did Not Evolve on the Open Plains.

Back to our original problem: the old theory said Lucy and her kind evolved to move over open, tree-less terrain. We now have new evidence – from fossil herbivores – that the theory is incorrect. If Lucy lived in treeless areas, her bones should be found only with hoofed animals adapted to plains– the wildebeests and gnu, for example. And zebras. We shouldn’t find woodland herbivores like black rhinos and mastodons.

In fact, the antelope and rhinos and hippos and mastodons we dig with Lucy are mostly woodland critters, adapted to move over grassy areas with many bushes and clumps of trees nearby.

Mystery Solved! Lucy Evolved to Stay Near an Escape Tree.

Her family could forage on the ground. And climb up and away. And maybe they did use pointed sticks to jab down at any leopard who tried to follow.

Our ancestor, Lucy, was a success because she made her world three-dimensional.