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What does a Paleoanthropologist do?

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Paleoanthropology is a branch of anthropology that focuses on the study of human evolution from the pre-human primates to modern humans. The term derives from the Greek words palaeos ("old" or "ancient"), anthropos ("man"), and logia ("discourse" or "study"), so the field is the study of ancient man.

It combines the disciplines of paleontology and physical anthropology, primarily focusing on the study of ancient hominid fossils. These fossils include human skeletal remains, preserved animal bones and plant matter, tools, and footprints. The goal of paleoanthropologists is to determine how prehistoric primates lived and evolved into modern humans.

Paleoanthropologists are similar to archaeologists and other anthropologists in what they do. Many focus on the discovery and excavation of sites, such as the discovery of a 3.3-million-year-old juvenile skeleton by a team from Arizona State University in 2006. Others use the fossil record and findings to hypothesize about human evolution and cultural developments. Many others may combine their roles and pursue careers as museum curators, university professors, and as published authors of various books and papers regarding their findings or the findings of others. Thus, paleoanthropologists engage in a variety of tasks during their careers, though most will eventually specialize in the study of certain fossils or in other aspects such as teaching or curating.

View of an active dig site in Tennessee.

View of an active dig site in Tennessee.

A Fossil and Two Books

Paleoanthropology is rooted in archaeology. The field began to come into consideration with the late 19th century discovery of Neanderthal remains in Germany. It was furthered by two notable 19th century publications: Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature and Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man.

Neanderthal skeletons were first discovered in the early 1800s, though the first full skeleton was not discovered until 1856. The discovery was the first physical evidence of the philosophy that man may have descended from the great apes. The first discovery happened in the Engis Caves, in what is now Belgium, by Philippe-Charles Schmerling in 1829. Further discoveries at Forbes' Quarry in Gibraltar in 1848 confirmed earlier findings. However, neither of the scientists analyzing the finds believed them to be a new species: they were merely "early humans."

Then, in August of 1856, Neanderthal 1 was discovered in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf. It consisted of a skullcap, two femora, three right arm bones, two left arm bones, part of the left ilium, fragments of a scapula, and ribs. The discovery was originally thought to be bear remains, but the naturalist Johann Carl Fuhlrott gave the fossils to Hermann Schaaffhausen, and they jointly announced the new species in 1857. The first nearly perfect skeletons were not discovered until 1886, near Spy, Belgium.

Neanderthal 1, lateral view, front/left: the pieces of the temporal and zygomatic bone discovered in 2000

Neanderthal 1, lateral view, front/left: the pieces of the temporal and zygomatic bone discovered in 2000

This was followed by the publication of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature in 1863. Huxley's book evidenced the evolution of man and apes from a common ancestor and was the first book devoted to the topic of human evolution. It was published on the heels of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which had deliberately tried to avoid the topic of human evolution. Huxley traced what was known of the great apes at the time, the relations of man to other animals, and fossil remains that had been found of early man (including the Neanderthal discoveries to date) as compared with modern humans. Huxley's primary argument based on this evidence was that man was a primate, but differed from apes at the family level. (Later evidence would show that man was more closely related to apes than Huxley thought.)

The final piece was Charles Darwin's book, The Descent of Man, which legitimized the idea that man was descended from great apes. Published in 1871, it followed Darwin's evolutionary theories from On the Origin of Species (1859). The Descent applied Darwin's evolutionary theories by positing theories on sexual selection, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, race and gender differences, and the relevance of evolutionary theory to society. His arguments drew on the recent Neanderthal discoveries, as Darwin argued against the concept that Neanderthals were ancestors to modern humans due to the larger size of the Neanderthal skull. His theory would not be confirmed by science until 2007.

Kimeu and Leakey

Two pioneers of paleoanthropology are Kamoya Kimeu and Louis Leakey.

Kamoya Kimeu is generally thought to be one of the most successful fossil hunters for pre-humans in the world. He began work as a laborer for the Leakey family in the 1950s and eventually discovered two fossils in Tanzania, East Africa.

The first, KNM-ER 1813, is a almost complete skull specimen of Homo habilis, which lived around 1.9 million years ago. It was discovered by Kimeu in 1973 at Koobi Ford in Kenya. It is likely the skull of a female, though the skull's brain size of 510 cc is much smaller than the lower limit (600 cc) of the genus Homo. Despite its size, however, KNM-ER 1813 is surprisingly similar to modern humans, with a rounded skull, no sagittal crest, modest eyebrow ridges, and a small nose.

The second, KNM-WT 15000, also known as "Turkana Boy," is one of the most complete and oldest specimens of Homo erectus. "Turkana Boy" was approximately nine to twelve years old at his time of death and is dated to around 1.6 million years ago. He was discovered by Kimeu in 1984 near Lake Turkana in Kenya. The only missing parts are the hands and feet. He was 5'3" tall at the time of death. Though strikingly similar to modern young boys, Turkana Boy notably had holes in his vertebrae and might have lacked fine motor control in the thorax (meaning he might not have been a fluent speaker).

Another prominent paleoanthropologist was Louis Leakey, along with his wife Mary. The couple are primarily known for their work at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania during the 1950s.

They are credited with many finds in the region, but the most significant find of their careers was Mary's discovery of the first specimen of Homo habilis (nicknamed "Handyman"). "Handy Man" lived between 2.4 and 1.4 million years ago in eastern and southern Africa. It is one of the earliest specimens of prehistoric humans and was thought, shortly after Leakey's discovery, to be the first prehistoric human to make and/or use stone tools. (This thought has been proven wrong, however, as evidence of stone tool use now extends further back in time than "Handy Man.")

Kimeu and Leakey became two of the most prominent discoverers and excavators in paleoanthropology. Along with other paleoanthropologists, they provided specimens that enabled others to trace the origins of human evolution further back in time than had ever before been accomplished.

Mysteries of Mankind

Hypothesizing Who We Are

Another prominent role of paleoanthropologists is using the fossil record and other evidence to hypothesize about human evolution and the development of human cultures that coincided with our evolution. However, paleoanthropologists do not just have to write about what they think; they also have to be able to defend it in the presence of their colleagues, the media, and other professionals.

Eugene Dubois, who in the 1890s made several discoveries with his team on Java, is a prime example. "Java Man," a series of fossils that Dubois supposed came from the same individual, was on of his most important discoveries and gained him notable publicity after publication of his findings in 1894. He named the fossils Pithecanthropus erectus, describing it as an intermediary between apes and humans.

Shortly after his publication, he returned to Europe to promote his hypothesis, but encountered many scientists who disagreed with him. Eventually, Dubois ceased participating in the debates about his findings, withdrawing from public life. However, future findings supported his hypothesis that "Java Man" was an intermediary between apes and humans.

Lab Work:

The lab at the Gray Fossil Site.  Many paleoanthropologists spend time in similar labs, working to process, identify, and preserve fossils.

The lab at the Gray Fossil Site. Many paleoanthropologists spend time in similar labs, working to process, identify, and preserve fossils.

Other Roles

Paleoanthropologists also have a myriad of other roles that they may occupy in conjunction with discovery, excavation, and hypothesizing.  

First, they may become museum curators.  In his later life, Kimeu became the curator for all prehistoric sites in Kenya through the Kenya National Museum, during which he directed surveys and oversaw excavations at all the sites under his jurisdiction.  

Second, many choose to teach at universities, which provide a source of funding and encourage publication while helping to educate the next generation of professionals.  Dubois began his career at Amsterdam University as an anatomy lecturer.  Many others begin or end their careers in university settings.

Finally, many others choose to publish their findings and the findings of others.  Raymond Dart, noted for his discovery of the "Taung baby" (the first specimen of Australopithecus africanus), published his findings in Nature magazine in the 1920s.  Louis and Mary Leakey were profiled in many issues of National Geographic magazine during their excavations at Olduvai Gorge.  Today, many magazines publish articles and profiles of excavations in progress, such as in National Geographic and Archaeology.  Publishing findings helps to gain recognition for one's work, allows the dispersal of knowledge in the academic community, and serves as a source for other paleoanthropologists to begin their work.  



wrongwong and falsestatmentfilly on February 12, 2018:

thanks fam

loreen on August 11, 2012:

Thanks for this amazing information!This kind of study really help me to decide what profession I want to be in the future.I believe that our history or happenings in the past is full of mistery.

Beth Perry from Tennesee on June 14, 2011:

I enjoyed this informative hub!

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on June 14, 2011:

Thanks for this great information! Paleoanthropology is an exciting study field and there are still things we need to understand about the past! Voted up and useful!


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