The students have completed three modules thus far and are now at the beginnings of what many students came to TBI for: Human Evolution. Being home to one of the most extensive collection of fossil hominins, Turkana Basin is the ideal place to learn about human prehistory. Specimens like Paranthropus boisei, Homo rudolfensis, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Australopithecus anamensis have all been discovered in this region, further broadening our understanding of our evolutionary past. With that, it is not only exciting but extremely beneficial to be right where it all began, East Africa.
This module will be taught by paleoanthropologist Dr. Matt Skinner, where he will lead the students into our evolutionary past, introducing them to the vast amount of hominin fossils that have left evidence of who our ancestors once were. From the University of Kent, Dr. Skinner’s primary research focuses on the analysis of teeth and bones in order to answer the many questions we have about the evolutionary history of living and extinct primates, including our very own ancestors. With Dr. Skinner’s extensive background in paleoanthropology, the students are very fortunate to have someone with his expertise to be teaching their Human Evolution module!
On the first day, Dr. Skinner introduced the students to various significant fossil hominins and proposed a question paleoanthropologists are trying to answer themselves: When, where and how did we become the humans we are today? Not only did this question leave many of us stumped, but it brought up many other critical questions involving origins of bipedalism, first members of the genus Homo, stone tool technologies and environmental influences on human evolution. In the lab later that afternoon, the students began to fish for answers as they became more familiar with other primate anatomy and compared it to our very own. They learned how to recognize a primate from a non-primate, a Strepsirrhine from a Haplorhine, Old World Monkeys from New World Monkeys, and most importantly a human from an ape. Being able to identify these differences are extremely crucial in the field when searching for a fossil hominin! Also, it allows the students to fully appreciate how many similarities we have with other living primates.
When trying to answer the question “what makes us human?”, one cannot help but think of the key characteristic that sets us aside from all the rest: Bipedality. In order to be bipedal, the skeleton will possess specific anatomical features, seen in the foot, pelvis, leg and even cranium, that will make it more efficient to walk on two legs. In order to stress this, Dr. Skinner went over key differences in the anatomy of humans and apes, our closest relatives. Not only do the bones show differences in weight bearing elements, but because we get around on two legs rather than all four, a chimpanzee or gorilla skeleton will possess different muscle attachments on their bones. As humans, each step we take we are using multiple muscles in order to stand upright and move forward. The students did a little activity to learn about exactly what muscles we are using each step we take.
After this activity, Dr. Skinner played videos of a gibbon, bonobo, and even a gorilla that habitually walk bipedal. There were key differences seen in their posture: trunk slightly forward, arms moving frequently, knees slightly bent, and a flat foot. These other primates could, if needed, walk bipedal for a short amount of time but it was not the most efficient form of locomotion and that was very clear based off of their postures. The students noted the drastic differences seen in the primate gait cycle in comparison to ours.
In order to understand skeleton correlates of bipedalism, the students compared the bones of different apes and a human, noting these anatomical differences. After each analysis, they presented their findings to the class.
Now that the students have an overall understanding of the differences seen in humans and other primates, they will begin to dig deeper into our evolutionary past. Check in later to learn more about the different fossil hominins the students become very familiar with!