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Solving the puzzle
of our human origins
October 2018 volume 2.3
Our featured stories each highlight how important and unique human cooperation is to the success of our species—whether it is researching how our ancestors adapted to a changeable climate, understanding how culture is transmitted from one person to another, or connecting with others through friendship. We each stand on the evolutionary shoulders of our ancestors as a link in a chain.
IHO Founding Director Don Johanson says that humans are a curious animal, perhaps the most curious of all. And that curiosity, through shared efforts, has led us to find answers to the most pressing problems of our past, present, and future.
Articles highlighting news, partnerships, and research
Drilling into the climate-human evolutionary connection
The Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP) comprises a multinational research effort, including researchers from Arizona State University and more than 20 other institutions, which will help scientists better understand the dynamics that link climatic and evolutionary histories. Six drilling sites in Kenya and Ethiopia were chosen to collect deep earth cores to understand climate fluctuations at terrestrial sites close to areas where major collections of human evolution fossil evidence have been found.
Analysis of drilled cores from Lake Magadi, Kenya, documents for the first time an increasing drying or aridification of the region since around 575,000 years ago, with evidence that this long-term drying trend was interrupted by many wet-dry cycles.
Why and when did humans begin to rely on culturally transmitted information? Does culture allow humans to adapt to a wide range of ecological habitats? Is culture responsible for why humans cooperate with genetically unrelated individuals? How do genes and culture affect each other’s evolution?
These are the questions that researchers in the field of cultural evolution seek to answer.
Cultural evolution is the study of how and why culture changes over time. The core idea is that cultural change shares fundamental similarities with genetic evolution.
Within the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC), a cadre of scholars has united under the research group Adaptation, Behavior, Culture, and Society (ABCS), which is piecing together the diverse ways that humans and nonhuman primates cooperate and accumulate culture. These researchers are also part of the Institute of Human Origins research group.
Because of this group, ASU has become a leader in the world for researching culture from an evolutionary perspective and hosted hundreds of researchers from a myriad of fields during October for the second annual Cultural Evolution Society global conference.
There is no phenomenon like friendship in baboons, but there are some similarities. Surprisingly, baboon relationships may be healthier for them than human friendship is for people. And while both baboons and humans help each other, it takes different forms.
“It’s not relaxing to be a baboon,” Silk said. “They’re constantly afraid of various things.”
Baboons are stressed pretty much most of the time. They’re about the size of an average dog, and everything around them wants to kill them. Males beat females, and females beat younger females.
“I wouldn’t claim that there is a phenomenon exactly like friendship in baboons,” Silk said. “But nonetheless I do think there’s a real connection here. It just works a little differently. I actually think the parallels are quite meaningful.”
Friday, November 9, 2018
5:30 to 8:30 pm
New York City
This will be the fifth year that IHO has hosted one of the preeminent human origins science events in New York City. This event continues to grow in size, so for last and this year, the event is at the storied and beautiful Metropolitan Club across from Central Park.
This year's lecture will be given by IHO alumna Jessica Thompson PhD, who is currently an Assistant Professor at Emory University. She and IHO Associate Director Curtis Marean have provocative new ideas about how the earliest human ancestors began consuming fats from animal brains and bones, changing the direction of human evolution.
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Aquarium of the Pacific
Long Beach, California
Scientific evidence suggests that the origin population of all modern humans resided in the southern African sub-region, perhaps in a coastal context. The oldest evidence for coastal resource use comes from Pinnacle Point on the south coast of South Africa, where a scientific team has been conducting research on these original coastal people for nearly twenty years. IHO Associate Director Curtis W. Marean
will discuss ancient humans’ reliance on seafood and how human evolution may have been impacted by struggles over this resource.
Over the next few months, look for IHO Founding Director Don Johanson to answer some often asked questions about the discovery of "Lucy" and subsequent research on her species—Australopithecus afarensis. These terrific videos will be posted on IHO's YouTube channel and the
"Dr. Anthropology" Facebook page. If you have not "liked" or "followed" these great resources, what are you waiting for?
An intriguing study suggests that bonobos, among the closest relatives to humans, are surprisingly willing to hand over food to a pal. But they didn't share tools. The discovery adds a new wrinkle to scientists’ efforts to understand the evolutionary origins of people’s unusual propensity to help others.
In the wild, sharing of food by chimps typically happens after a rare hunt, and the “sharing” of meat often involves the passive tolerance of theft or simply giving in to relentless begging and harassment by others.
In contrast, the bonobos voluntarily handed over nuts that were solidly in their possession.
“If we found out that chimps are more likely to exchange tools than bonobos are, then I don't know what we’d think,” says Silk, noting that chimps may have a different understanding about the value of tools, simply because they use them more.
Sharing is a much bigger part of life in humans than it is for these other apes, Silk adds; but researchers don’t yet know if the difference is simply quantitative or whether humans approach sharing and helping in a fundamentally different way. Young children demonstrate a surprising willingness to share, says Silk—though that may come as a surprise to parents who constantly have to remind their kids to do so.
“Children are very generous,” insists Silk, who has studied sharing behavior, not just in chimps but also in young kids.
“Compared to chimpanzees,” she says, “your children are saints.”
For the fourth year in a row, Arizona State University has been named the most innovative school in the nation, recognizing a mindset of innovation across the institution which has led to a culture of groundbreaking research and partnerships, as well as its commitment to helping students thrive in college and beyond.
U.S. News and World Report has named ASU as the most innovative university all four years the category has existed. The widely publicized annual rankings by the magazine, which compares more than 1,500 institutions on a variety of metrics
An investment in the Institute of Human Origins helps to fund student scholarships, support research in laboratories and field sites, and meet the growing needs of our researchers and students. Please help us continue the search!