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Curator Emeritus Ian Tattersall On New Hominid Fossils

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Hominid fossils recently unearthed in Kenya provide evidence that the evolutionary line from Homo habilis—the earliest known species of the genus Homo—to Homo sapiens is not as direct as once believed, according to a feature story published August 8 in The New York Times. The fossils may confirm the simultaneous existence of at least three Homo species in East Africa some 2 million years ago.

The New York Times story about the discovery quotes Ian Tattersall, who studies the human fossil record as curator emeritus in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology. While Tattersall was not involved in the fossils’ discovery, his work similarly seeks to help unravel the mysteries of human evolution.

One of his projects is the compilation of “an entire description of the human fossil record, according to a standard procedure so that we can make comparisons between human fossils that are scattered in different institutions all over—all around the world,” says Tattersall. “To bring this together not only provides a resource for other people who haven’t got the opportunity to see the fossils that we have, but creates a database for us in which to do our own comparative research on the human fossil record and decide how many species of different extinct hominids there were out there.”


Anthropologists’ view of human evolution has itself evolved over the past decades.

“What we believed 50 years ago was that human evolution was basically a linear progression from primitiveness to perfection,” says Tattersall. “And now we realize that the picture was very much more complicated than this. It was a picture that involved many, many different extinct hominid species, all of them out there experimenting with the potential of being a hominid.”

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