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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

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Hands reaching into the center of frame to make a cricle
Photo: Perry Grone on Unsplash

Citation: Hawks, John. 2022. Taking human origins research into the next decade. General Anthropology Bulletin 29(1): 3–7.

Last year, the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association invited me to provide the Distinguished Lecture at their annual meeting. It was a great honor to talk with this group of anthropologists who are committed to the four-field nature of the discipline. I chose to accentuate the ways that the science of human evolution is changing, and the visible impact of those changes on the types of discoveries that we have made, and the big questions we are now addressing. The text of my lecture is now available from the General Anthropology Bulletin.

In the talk, I gave a whirlwind tour of recent fossil and genetic discoveries, accentuating how the picture has changed from the textbooks of only a decade ago.  Some of these have received attention from across branches of science, like the Denisova 3 genome and subsequent work characterizing the “Denisovans”. Others may be more obscure, such as the new fossil crania attributed to Homo erectus from Gona, Ethiopia. The cumulative effect of these discoveries has been remarkable. The published record of partial skeletons of ancient hominins from before 2 million years ago has roughly doubled during the last 15 years.

After running through the recent history of hominin discoveries, I turned to consider the new modes of collaborative work that are accelerating the science.

Today human evolutionary research is collaborative research in conception, design, and execution. Our collaborations over the last 20 years have gotten enormously larger and have begun to involve people who have fundamentally different training. People who have different ways of studying fossil sites and archaeological sites are solving long-standing problems. One of our major challenges for the upcoming decade will be to train people to work in creative ways to accelerate our collaborations. We are developing new ways to plan and carry out excavation of sites to maximize the data recovery from varied methods, and to preserve evidence for future methods.

The remarkable thing to me is that we have accelerated research so greatly in paleoanthropology while international investment in field science has been stagnant. More and more of the resources invested in human evolution are going into laboratory branches of the science, everything from DNA, proteomics, and stable isotope chemistry to 3D analysis of morphology and zooarchaeology. This work is valuable and has generated enormous scientific returns. But these investments are mostly going to scientists and institutions in the rich countries of Europe, Japan, Australia, and North America. The science of human origins is global, and many of the most important discoveries are coming from Africa and Asia, which have received little investment.

Today's fossil record is truly the tip of an iceberg. Exploring what remains beneath the surface must be our highest priority.
Yet even amid the discoveries of the last two decades, many field scientists have remained disempowered. Funding for exploration is stagnant. Collaborations are very important to our work, but the diversification of paleoanthropology means that money that once might have funded field exploration is now funding laboratory science instead. Lab science tends to have predictable outcomes, while by its very nature, explorers cannot predict as accurately what they will find. But could there be any more persuasive argument for funding than the successes of the last decade? We are still finding fundamentally new hominins in areas that have been targets of exploration for decades. Only on a fraction of the globe have we explored for fossil hominin material with any intensity.

To be sustainable, paleoanthropology must be supported in all the countries and regions that are the custodians of our heritage.

Explorers have made good use of limited funds over the last twenty years. One of the highest impacts of funding has been to broaden representation in the field. Many of the leaders of paleoanthropology today are people of the nations where hominin fossil heritage is found. Investments in research have many returns. Heritage is a source of pride and a target for investment in communities who benefit from infrastructure development, tourism, and jobs. I believe in the value of human evolution research in connecting global communities. The greatest key to realizing this potential is in building human capital, communities of learners, and ways for more and more people to be engaged in exploration.
Research by John Hawksmetasciencehistory of paleoanthropology
John Hawks

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I'm a paleoanthropologist exploring the world of ancient humans and our fossil relatives.

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