The study of paleoanthropology seeks to discover evidence to understand our evolutionary past. Before we understood how hominin fossils track the biological changes in anatomy and artifacts and provide insights into the behavior of our ancestors, it was thought that modern humans first appeared in Europe. In the mid-1800s, Charles Darwin and his colleague Thomas Henry Huxley, suggested that significant anatomical resemblances between modern humans and African apes indicated a common ancestor in Africa. Some 65 years later, in 1924, Raymond Dart introduced the world to a fossilized hominin skull now thought to be more than 2.0 million years old. Known as the Taung Child, it was officially called Australopithecus africanus and solidified the prediction of Darwin and Huxley.
Since then, thousands of hominin fossils and an untold number of artifacts found in Africa take the record of human evolution back to perhaps 7.0 million years. The human family tree has numerous branches with more than 20 hominin species, but one prevailed while all the others went extinct—Homo sapiens. A curious, bold species, we migrated out of Africa and populated the rest of the planet. With our increased cognitive capacity, we were singularly innovative in terms of culture, language, agriculture, and eventually, technology.
As the only surviving hominins, we have a fascination to understand our origins and the means to discover and interpret clues left behind by our ancestors.
Written by Donald Johanson, PhD