I’ll be in Israel this week to present a lecture for a symposium of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. The theme of the symposium is, “Time”, and I’ll be reflecting the deep time of human origins and evolution.
I’m excited about this presentation. Over the last two years, our field has seen an array of new discoveries that have changed the way we think about the origins of living people from mostly African ancestors. To me, right now, the most critical area where we know the story was complex, and badly need new data and models to understand that complexity, is around 250,000 to 350,000 years ago.
It was then that our modern human ancestors in Africa began to differentiate from an initially small population into branches that still exist in different regions of Africa today. It is now clear that many other hominin populations existed at the same time, including Homo naledi and some archaic forms of humans in Africa, Neandertals, Denisovans, and possibly other archaic humans in Eurasia, Homo floresiensis in Flores (and maybe others). In Africa, in Europe, and in Asia, some ancient populations experimented with, and ultimately adopted, new stone tool forms.
The big questions of human evolution all now cause us to focus upon this time interval for answers. How did culture influence our evolutionary pathway? How did ancestral hominins become modern humans? How did these hominin populations fit into their environment in ways that enabled them to survive and coexist?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I now think that this critical time period is where we must look. I’ll be reflecting the big questions and the data that lead us to examine this time in my lecture.