Over the past seven million years, many different kinds of ancient humans have roamed Earth--first in Africa and later in Asia, Europe, Australia and finally the Americas. Where the bones of these hominids have been preserved as fossils, they provide a record of when and where new species evolved. They can also tell us how species lived and died, and to which other species they are related. But finding fossils and unlocking their secrets is no easy task.
It Takes A Team
Teams of scientists--including paleoanthropologists, geologists, anatomists and paleoecologists, to name just a few--cooperate to examine the evidence and to draw conclusions. In these hands, every fossil has a story to tell.
The fossilized leg bone, or femur, found in 1972 by John Harris on the edge of Lake Turkana at Koobi Fora, Kenya, is from an early Homo species that lived about 2 million years ago in East Africa. Researchers studying this fossil, one of the few complete leg bones found at Koobi Fora, concluded that this ancient species was bipedal.
The skull fragments and remains from some forty other Homo erectus individuals were found between 1928 and 1937 in Zhoukoudian cave, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Peking (now Beijing), China. To protect the fossils from invaders during World War II, paleoanthropologists packed them for shipment to the United States--but they disappeared and their fate is unknown. Fortunately, a set of casts had been made, which today resides here at the American Museum of Natural History.
When construction workers on Gibraltar, a peninsula at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, unearthed a skull around 1848, no one paid much attention. But eight years later, for the first time ever, scientists identified fossils from the Neander Valley, Germany as belonging to an ancient human species--a Neanderthal. Ultimately, the Gibraltar skull received its due as the first complete adult Neanderthal cranium ever found.
Kow Swamp 5
Paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne found the remains of some forty Homo sapiens individuals at Kow Swamp, Australia, between 1968 and 1972. This roughly 13,000-year-old skull, along with many others from the site, is marked by a long, flat forehead. Recent analyses suggest that these crania were deformed by long-term pressing or binding of the head--a cultural ritual practiced by some modern populations on Pacific islands and in Australia.
The 1987 discovery of this Australopithecus africanus pelvis and associated vertebrae was unusual. Delicate pelvises and vertebrae usually break down and wash away before they can fossilize. But this rare preserved specimen confirms that A. africanus was largely bipedal and that males, such as this individual, were typically much larger than females.