Becoming Human

In 1974, near the village of Hadar in the northern Afar region in Ethiopia, a marvelous fossil was discovered. It had an estimated age of 3.2 million years and represents the first fossil of its kind ever found by scientists.

The fossil was found by Donald Johanson, an American paleoanthropologist currently a Professor at School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Founding Director of the Institute of Human Origins. The fossil he uncovered was the Lucy specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, which is thought to be very closely related to humans on the tree of life. Some speculate that A. afarensis could even be a direct ancestor to Homo, but that is currently unknown.

The Institute for Human Origins built an intriguing website around early hominin evolution called Becoming Human with a lot of exciting features. At its center is a video documentary narrated by Johanson called Becoming Human. It examines the evidence from early hominins, the anatomy of different hominin fossils with a particular focus on bipedalism, the origin and extinction of the neanderthals and their genetic legacy to modern humans, as well as the development of early human culture. The first chapter starts of with a fascinating introduction to wet our appetite:

What is it that makes us human? That gives us the ability to reflect on the past and ponder the future? Who we are as a species and where we came from make up the basis of a fantastic story, spanning more than 4 million years.

Johanson takes us on a journey back to Hadar in Ethiopia and describes the different kinds of field work he performed that he made there, reaching a crescendo with the discovery of the Lucy specimen with an amazing degree of complexity (40%) given its age. There have been many fossil discoveries since, but this became a key catalyst for future developments.

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This video also attempts to answer many crucial questions: how do scientists reconstruct ancestral environments? How are bones fossilized? How did early hominins avoid predators like hyenas? How does anatomic and molecular evidence demonstrate common ancestry between humans and chimps? How do large volcanic eruptions and rainfall help scientists identify fossil footprints? What positive feedback mechanisms were involved in bipedalism?

What other early hominin fossils have been uncovered? How did Homo erectus disperse around the planet? What is the origin of the neanderthals? What happened to them? Have they contributed any genes to modern humans?

Besides the core documentary, there is also a ~20 minute side-documentary about early craftsmanship that goes into additional detail about what kind of stone tools were used by early hominins. This video is also accompanied by many other features. There is a regularly updated news section and a section with book reviews.

There are also interactive browser games that let you build skeletons or aligning chromosomes and about a dozen or so classroom materials that you can cut out and play with during class. An interactive timeline lets you look at human fossils for a period of seven million years and a robust glossary will help you understand core concepts.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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