Paleoanthropology & Comparative Anatomy

Session Date: 
Mar 23, 2019

That humans and chimpanzees shared a most recent common ancestor during the late Miocene of Africa is supported by both molecular and fossil evidence, and is beyond serious doubt. Likewise, there is no question that over the course of human evolution, virtually every anatomical/behavioral system (cognitive, reproductive, locomotor, dietary, social, technological) has been substantially refashioned relative to potential ancestral conditions, with dramatic consequences for our life-history. Much less certain are critical details concerning the extent of past taxonomic diversity, the phylogenetic relationships among our extinct ancestors and relatives, and the origin and environmental contexts of major adaptations. Yet each of these issues is an essential link in a chain of arguments from which we forge causal explanations about the past. While significant gaps in fossil and archaeological records account for much of the uncertainty, the mismatch between the scope of many of our key questions and the resolution of the data we bring to bear on them suggests greater modesty about our claims to understanding the past is warranted (e.g., the role of “climate change” in human evolution). Field work targeting under-sampled spans of time and space marks one path forward, but increased introspection about how our research strategies are constructed is a necessary adjunct to the agenda for paleoanthropology.