Before Lucy: The state of knowledge on human origins

Session Date: 
Apr 6, 2024

Since my entry to the field of paleoanthropology in 1970, a more focused and rigorous implementation of an expanded collaborative, multinational, transdisciplinary strategy of inquiry with the application of new theoretical and technical innovations has resulted in a richer picture of our origins and a deeper understanding of how we became human—not only in Africa, but Eurasia as well.

The discovery of Lucy 50 years ago provides an appropriate benchmark by which to contrast what we know in 2024 versus what we thought we knew prior to her discovery in 1974:

  • Europe is no longer touted as the finishing school for humanity.
  • The human family tree is significantly more speciose than anticipated.
  • The multiregional origins of Homo sapiens is no longer a tenable hypothesis.
  • Neanderthals did not evolve into Homo sapiens; paleogenetics has demonstrated that they contributed to the modern human genome.
  • Australopithecus africanus no longer holds the place at the base of the human family tree as the common ancestor to all later hominins.
  • The theory that man the hunter made us human is being challenged by an expanded appreciation of the role of women in our evolution.
  • The appearance of the genus Homo and its purported ancestor now reaches back a million years further than previously documented.
  • The proposition that hominins left Africa after the control of fire is no longer accepted.
  • The single species interpretation of australopithecines is effectively negated.

As far back as the late 1960s, Sherwood Washburn’s New Physical Anthropology proposed moving away from a study “characterized by theories, or rather by a group of attitudes and assumptions” to a more comprehensive and thorough grasp of the biology and behavior of fossil hominin taxa. Knowledge of the environment in which our ancestors lived and interacted and successfully navigated the challenges of survival is now coming into clearer focus. We are in a period of specialization, and it is imperative to embrace an integrated approach that melds biological and cultural evolution. Only in this way can we continue to provide a more far-reaching vision of our ancestry.