Smithsonian's Human Origins Program

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Wondering about our cover photo? These 4 skulls represent 4 species of early human, all found in East Africa (northern Kenya), which overlapped in time. While we are the only species of human left on earth, our family tree was once diverse. The skulls are (from left to right):

KNM-ER 1813, Homo habilis, about 1.9 million years old
KNM-ER 3733, Homo erectus, about 1.8 million years old
KNM-ER 1470, Homo rudolfensis, about 1.9 million years old
KNM-ER 406, Paranthropus boisei, about 1.7 million years old

Are you an "earlier riser" - do you prefer getting up and going to bed on the earlier side? A recent study led by Vander...
01/09/2024

Are you an "earlier riser" - do you prefer getting up and going to bed on the earlier side? A recent study led by Vanderbilt University's Keila Velazquez-Arcelay and UCSF's John Capra found that genetic material from Neanderthal ancestors may have contributed to this propensity in modern humans.

A new research paper finds that genetic material from Neanderthal ancestors may have contributed to the propensity of some people today to be "early risers," the sort of people who are more comfortable getting up and going to bed earlier.

Three of the top ten discoveries by Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History  scientists in 2023 were led by curre...
01/08/2024

Three of the top ten discoveries by Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History scientists in 2023 were led by current members of the Human Origins Program: Dr. Rick Potts, Dr. Briana Pobiner, and Dr. Thais Pansani! 🎉

Indigenous woolly dogs, ground sloth pendants and more headline-grabbing findings by scientists at the National Museum of Natural History

This is our first weekly Friday Fun reading for 2024! Enjoy this recent LiveScience essay by archaeologist and science w...
01/05/2024

This is our first weekly Friday Fun reading for 2024! Enjoy this recent LiveScience essay by archaeologist and science writer Kristina Killgrove about the oldest fossil evidence for our species, 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴.

What's the oldest fossil evidence humans have for our species?

We're excited to kick off this year's free online Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History HOT Topic events on Thu...
01/04/2024

We're excited to kick off this year's free online Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History HOT Topic events on Thursday, January 18th from 11:30 am - 12:30 pm ET with University of Colorado Boulder's Fernando Villanea, talking about the impact of archaic genetic variants on human pharmacogenes. Preregistration required. https://humanorigins.si.edu/about/events/hot-human-origins-today-topic-archaic-introgression-modern-humans-what-it-can-tell-us-about-archaic

HOT (Human Origins Today) Topic - Archaic Introgression in Modern Humans: What It Can Tell Us About Archaic Humans and About Ourselves [ONLINE] Acknowledgments Events Human Origins Program Team Broader Social Impacts Committee What We Do Members & Member Resources Members Thoughts on Science, Religi...

A recent study led by TU München's Gabriel Castrillon and Valentin Riedl concluded that the human brain evolved to such ...
01/03/2024

A recent study led by TU München's Gabriel Castrillon and Valentin Riedl concluded that the human brain evolved to such advanced levels of cognition not just because we have large brains, nor even just because certain areas of our brain grew disproportionately big, but because – at a cost – the connectivity improved.

The human brain uses up 20% of the energy we consume.

Another great listicle from 2023 - this one from University of Wisconsin-Madison's John Hawks on the top 10 discoveries ...
01/02/2024

Another great listicle from 2023 - this one from University of Wisconsin-Madison's John Hawks on the top 10 discoveries about ancient people from DNA last year.

This year's highlights include ways of finding ancient relatives, how some phenotypes evolved in ancient people, and trace evidence from artifacts.

Kicking off the 2024 new year with one more post about human evolution discoveries in 2023, this time from LiveScience!
01/01/2024

Kicking off the 2024 new year with one more post about human evolution discoveries in 2023, this time from LiveScience!

Findings about our human ancestors continue to surprise us, especially those from 2023.

As 2023 winds down, our last weekly Friday Fun reading of 2023 is this New Scientist essay about archaeological discover...
12/29/2023

As 2023 winds down, our last weekly Friday Fun reading of 2023 is this New Scientist essay about archaeological discoveries in the past year that include evidence of architecture and art beginning earlier than we thought - and data that rewrites our ideas of how much power women had in ancient societies.

In 2023, archaeologists found evidence of architecture and art beginning earlier than we thought, and uncovered data that rewrites our ideas of how much power women had in ancient societies

A recent paper by The Australian National University's Rainer Grün and Natural History Museum, London's Chris Stringer s...
12/28/2023

A recent paper by The Australian National University's Rainer Grün and Natural History Museum, London's Chris Stringer suggests that both finding more fossils and developing better dating techniques to discover the ages of key fossils will help scientists better understand how 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴 and our relatives evolved.

Going back to basics could help to unlock the mysteries of our origins.

A recent study led by 帝京大学 Teikyo University's Akitsugu Konno found that humans may have bred their canine companions to...
12/27/2023

A recent study led by 帝京大学 Teikyo University's Akitsugu Konno found that humans may have bred their canine companions to have darker eyes - because we perceive them as younger and more friendly.

Humans may have bred their canine companions to have darker eyes, because we perceive them as younger and more friendly, study finds

A recent study led by UC Berkeley's Laura Simone Lewis found that chimpanzees and bonobos can recognize the faces of the...
12/26/2023

A recent study led by UC Berkeley's Laura Simone Lewis found that chimpanzees and bonobos can recognize the faces of their former acquaintances for over two decades.

The great apes, which are humans' closest living relatives, appeared to recognize photos of their former acquaintances in a study, even decades later

This week's Friday fun reading is an interview with on one of our staff members, Dr. Briana Pobiner, in the Smithsonian'...
12/22/2023

This week's Friday fun reading is an interview with on one of our staff members, Dr. Briana Pobiner, in the Smithsonian's online magazine The Torch as part of their "Eye on Science" series! She talks about her research, her outreach, and how she balances work and life as a scientist mom.

Dec 20 Eye on Science: What did ancient humans eat and why does it matter today? Eye on Science talks to anthropologist Briana Pobiner about human origins, cannibalism and being a champion for women in science. If you could visit any time and place in the past, where and when would you go? Would it....

Today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere - and National Short Girl Appreciation Day! Paleoanthro...
12/21/2023

Today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere - and National Short Girl Appreciation Day! Paleoanthropology's most famous short girl is the 𝘈𝘶𝘴t𝘳𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘱𝘪𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘤𝘶𝘴 𝘢𝘧𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘴 fossil AL 288-1, nicknamed "Lucy", who stood at only around 3.5 feet tall. Learn more about her here:

AL 288-1 Behavior Primate Behavior Footprints Stone Tools Getting Food Carrying & Storing Hearths & Shelters Burial Recording Information Making Clothing Art & Music Human Fossils Species Fossils Mystery Skull Interactive Shanidar 3 - Neanderthal Skeleton 3D Collection Artifacts Fossils Primates Gen...

It's that time of year again - check out this PLOS Sci Comm blog post on the top human evolution discoveries in 2023 by ...
12/20/2023

It's that time of year again - check out this PLOS Sci Comm blog post on the top human evolution discoveries in 2023 by our own Ryan McRae and Briana Pobiner!

By Ryan McRae and Briana Pobiner, edited by Andrew S. Cale In 2023, the field of human evolution benefited from a plethora…

A recent study led by Aarhus Universitet's Rachel Lupien concluded that that the interplay of several cyclical variation...
12/19/2023

A recent study led by Aarhus Universitet's Rachel Lupien concluded that that the interplay of several cyclical variations in Earth's orbit around the sun caused the Sahara to be at its greenest for the past ~4.5 million years about 2.1 million years ago, which coincides with when 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘴 migrated out of Africa. Her team hypothesizes that this climate setting facilitated this migration.

About 6 million years ago, in the deep forests of eastern Africa, something spectacular happened. Chimpanzees, our closest relative in the animal kingdom, evolved in one direction, while our earliest ancestors continued in another.

Ancient humans painted scenes in Indonesian caves more than 45,000 years ago, but their art is disappearing rapidly. Rea...
12/18/2023

Ancient humans painted scenes in Indonesian caves more than 45,000 years ago, but their art is disappearing rapidly. Read this recent immersive article in Nature about how researchers are trying to discover what’s causing the damage and how to stop it — before the murals are gone forever.

Ancient humans painted scenes in Indonesian caves more than 45,000 years ago, but their art is disappearing rapidly. Researchers are trying to discover what’s causing the damage and how to stop it — before the murals are gone forever.

We have another Friday Field school post this week! Today we're highlighting the Koobi Fora Field School. "Since 2012, t...
12/15/2023

We have another Friday Field school post this week! Today we're highlighting the Koobi Fora Field School. "Since 2012, the George Washington University has partnered with the National Museums of Kenya to offer students on-the-ground experience in paleoanthropology at the Koobi Fora Field School (KFFS). Located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, Kenya, KFFS is the world’s premier field research and training program in paleoanthropology. Over the course of the program, students earn credit through lectures, specialized laboratory exercises and one-on-one training with senior scientists on site. They explore remote and dramatic landscapes and search for evidence of hominins going back millions of years. Additionally, students benefit from the interaction with their international peers, which can broaden their worldview and enhance their future working relationships." Applications are due Feb 25, 2024.

Since 2012, GW has partnered with the National Museums of Kenya to offer students on-the-ground experience in paleoanthropology at the Koobi Fora Field School.

A new study led by UCL, University of London's Aida Gomez-Robles found that contrary to our current understanding, the b...
12/14/2023

A new study led by UCL, University of London's Aida Gomez-Robles found that contrary to our current understanding, the brains of human newborns aren't significantly less developed compared to other primate species, but appear so because so much brain development happens after birth. They determined that humans are born with brains at a development level that's typical for similar primate species, but because human brains grow so much larger and more complex than other species after birth, it gives the false impression that human newborns are underdeveloped, or "altricial."

Contrary to current understanding, the brains of human newborns aren't significantly less developed compared to other primate species, but appear so because so much brain development happens after birth, finds a new study led by University College London researchers.

A series of publications by researchers with the Allen Institute recently revealed detailed cellular maps of the entire ...
12/13/2023

A series of publications by researchers with the Allen Institute recently revealed detailed cellular maps of the entire human brain, as well as comparisons with brains of other primates, which provide clues about what makes our brains unique.

Collectively, the studies represent the most comprehensive analysis of the whole human brain to date, profiling over one million cells and 100 brain regions with extreme precision to reveal cell types, properties, and genetic expression.

A new article led by Universite Aix Marseille's Katherine Bryant proposes that fermenting food may have triggered the ma...
12/12/2023

A new article led by Universite Aix Marseille's Katherine Bryant proposes that fermenting food may have triggered the major increase in brain size in our evolutionary lineage over time. ancestors' brains.

Researchers propose that a taste for fermented morsels may have triggered a surprising jump in the growth rate of our ancestors' brains.

A recent study led by Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna's Rita Sorrentino sheds new light on the complex evol...
12/11/2023

A recent study led by Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna's Rita Sorrentino sheds new light on the complex evolution of our feet: "one of the most complex masterpieces of evolution, a work of art in biomechanics".

An extensive study, published in Communications Biology, sheds new light on the complex evolution of our feet.

This week's Friday fun reading is a recent piece from The Guardian contemplating the demise of early human species who o...
12/08/2023

This week's Friday fun reading is a recent piece from The Guardian contemplating the demise of early human species who our own species, 𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘰 𝘴𝘢𝘱𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴, once shared the planet with - and possible reasons why we survived while they went extinct.

At least nine hominin species once roamed the Earth, so what became of our vanished ancestors?

A recent study led by Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen's Mario Mata-González documented evidence at Ghar-e Boof, Iran...
12/06/2023

A recent study led by Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen's Mario Mata-González documented evidence at Ghar-e Boof, Iran dated to about 81,000 to 45,000 years ago demonstrating that early humans of the Middle Paleolithic had a more varied diet than previously assumed - including tortoises, carnivores, and birds.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (SHEP) at the University of Tübingen show that early humans of the Middle Paleolithic had a more varied diet than previously assumed.

Check out this September Discover Magazine article about when the first ancient humans started using boats for transport...
12/05/2023

Check out this September Discover Magazine article about when the first ancient humans started using boats for transportation.

Researchers have long debated when the first ancient human stared using boats for transportation. Learn what they've found and why there's a debate.

Members of our team are in Yuma, Arizona this week for programs associated with the opening of our traveling library exh...
12/04/2023

Members of our team are in Yuma, Arizona this week for programs associated with the opening of our traveling library exhibit "Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human?" today at the Yuma County Library District!

The traveling exhibition Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human? will be on display at the Main Library December 4,…

This week we have another Friday field school post! Today we're highlighting the University of Arkansas Tanzania - Ecolo...
12/01/2023

This week we have another Friday field school post! Today we're highlighting the University of Arkansas Tanzania - Ecology, Evolution, and Peoples of East Africa summer program. "Learn Biology, Anthropology, and Geology -- all in the most incredible backdrop in the world, the Great African Rift Valley." The priority deadline is today; the overall deadline is February 1, 2024.

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Join us for our last Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History free online HOT (Human Origins Today) Topic of 2023 ...
11/30/2023

Join us for our last Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History free online HOT (Human Origins Today) Topic of 2023 on Thursday December 14 from 11:30 am - 12:30 pm ET! Wits - University of the Witwatersrand Origins Centre Museum's Tammy Hodgskiss will talk about how ochre and mineral pigments were used by people in the past. Preregistration required.

HOT (Human Origins Today) Topic - A Colorful Path: What the Ancient Pigment Ochre Tells Us About the Modern Human Mind [ONLINE] Acknowledgments Events Human Origins Program Team Broader Social Impacts Committee What We Do Members & Member Resources Members Thoughts on Science, Religion & Human Origi...

A recent study by Leibniz-Gemeinschaft's Liran Samuni and Harvard University's Martin Surbeck concluded that like humans...
11/29/2023

A recent study by Leibniz-Gemeinschaft's Liran Samuni and Harvard University's Martin Surbeck concluded that like humans, some bonobos cooperate with members of other social groups, even when they don’t receive immediate benefits in return. This finding may offer insights into the evolutionary history of cooperation among humans.

We might not be the only primates to display helpful behavior toward members of a different social group, a new study suggests

A recent study led by Université de Liège's Justin Coppe investigated more than 300 previously known flint artifacts fou...
11/28/2023

A recent study led by Université de Liège's Justin Coppe investigated more than 300 previously known flint artifacts found at the Maisières-Canal archaeological site in southern Belgium and dated to between 28,000 and 31,000 years ago, and documented that 17 of them have minuscule fractures that indicate they were points for projectiles of some type. This study pushes back the dates for the use of spear-throwers in Europe by more than 10,000 years.

The researchers say their study pushes back the dates for the use of spear-throwers in Europe by more than 10,000 years.

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