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history of paleoanthropology

Human evolution research has existed for more than 150 years, and the ideas of past scientists continue to shape our concepts and practices today.

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Why anthropologists rejected the aquatic ape theory, and what is left of it today

Human ancestors did not evolve in an aquatic environment. But they did make use of coastal and shoreline resources where they were abundant.

A painting showing an ape and some kind of fish in water, with an ape-looking-Darwin-looking figure at lower right
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Kabwe: A famous fossil unearthed amid the human costs of mining

Mining led to the skull's discovery, destroyed its context, and left a century-long legacy of lead poisoning.

The Kabwe skull viewed from the left side
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Research highlight: Taking human origins research into the next decade

Notes on the recent history of paleoanthropology from my Distinguished Lecture for the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association

Hands reaching into the center of frame to make a cricle
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Research highlight: Looking at what Darwin knew about primate relationships

I provide a context for Darwin's ideas about human and primate relationships and update Descent of Man with today's knowledge.

Notebook page from Darwin showing his proposal of primate phylogeny
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There are no “anatomically modern” elephants. Why do we treat humans differently?

A quote from Phillip Tobias illustrates the strange way that we talk about human variation compared to other species.

Two adult elephants and one calf in black and white, with a black background
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Denisovan traits bring up the old problem of understanding morphological continuity

A paper by Shara Bailey and coworkers suggests that three-rooted lower molars are diagnostic of population mixture from Denisovans.

Fossil mandible from Xiahe, China, viewed from right side.
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A mid-century observer wrote about hybridization and Neandertals

A quote from Loren Eiseley, one of the best known writers about anthropology and human origins.

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A critical look at the idea of Australopithecus prometheus

A historical perspective on a species name that was associated with fossils from Makapansgat, South Africa.

Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which an ape is using a bone to bask a skeleton
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How many students in paleoanthropology can see casts of Australopithecus afarensis?

The real problem with a lack of data access is that 50 years of the fossil record is invisible to many students in the field.

Cranium of Australopithecus afarensis
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Scientists doubted the Piltdown hoax from the beginning. What can they teach us?

For nearly forty years between the Piltdown discovery and exposure as a deliberate hoax, many scientists never believed the story.

Skull and jaw from Piltdown, viewed from the left side.