Perspectives on the Future of Fossil-Based Human Origins Research
Current knowledge of our deep past is primarily derived from ancient fossils of our ancestors that paleoanthropologists search for and discover in some of the most remote areas of the world. In the last two decades, significant fossil discoveries have been made and these discoveries have re-written some parts of our deep past. With these discoveries also came significant improvements in analytical methods and technological advances that helped us extract more information from the fossils we have in hand. However, the fossil record is still far from complete, primarily due to the absence of fossils from some critical geological times and the lack of robust samples for the species already identified. Unfortunately, sites that have been "worked" for decades do not seem to substantially add new information to what we already know as they do not fill in temporal gaps in the fossil record. The best way to fill these gaps and meaningfully increase the sample size is by conducting surveys and exploration to locate new areas of paleoanthropological significance. Some newer paleoanthropological sites in Africa found as a result of survey and exploration, such as Woranso-Mille, where the most convincing fossil evidence for the contemporaneous presence of more than one human ancestor species during the mid-Pliocene (3.4 million years ago) and Ledi-Geraru, where fossil evidence for the earliest occurrence of our genus at 2.8 million years ago was discovered, are good examples in this regard. Unfortunately, there seems to be reduced effort in survey and exploration to locate new paleontological sites, which when coupled with the serious decline in funding for field-based human origins research seen in the last decade, will have adverse effects on human origins research. In order to alleviate these effects, there should be a consensus among all stakeholders—federal and private funding agencies, scientists and students—that human origins research cannot happen without the fossils that come from fieldwork, Therefore, if we want to fully understand our evolutionary history, especially how we became who we are today and where we are going, continued paleoanthropological fieldwork is of paramount importance.