Welcome to Hominid Hunting

Smithsonian’s newest blog tracks the latest developments in the field of human evolution

Skeletons of Australopithecus sediba
Skeletons of Australopithecus sediba (left and right) compared to Lucy (center), or Australopithecus afarensis Image courtesy of Wikicommons

I’m going to start this blog with what may seem like a blasphemous claim: Dinosaurs are not the coolest creatures of prehistory (sorry, Dinosaur Tracking). Hominids are. Most people don’t know this. The subject of human evolution is rarely taught in schools, and unlike dinosaur bones, you can’t find hominids in any given natural history museum.

It’s hard to put into words why I’m so fascinated by ancient hominids, but I think it’s similar to wanting to learn about how my parents met or what my grandparents were doing during World War II or why my great-grandparents left the “old country.” By knowing their history, I better understand who they are and where I came from. Studying the hominid fossil record is like that but on a grand scale.

And now is an exciting time to study human evolution. Every new fossil discovery—and now genetic breakthrough—has the potential to rewrite our understanding of the origins of our species. That’s not an exaggeration.

Within just the past few years, several major finds have sent the field of paleoanthropology into a tizzy. In 2009, the unveiling of Ardi (the culmination of 15 years of largely secretive work) forced paleoanthropologists to rethink what the earliest hominid was like—possibly something quite different from the classic image of a largely chimp-like being. In 2010, the decoding of the Neanderthal genome revealed we—Homo sapiens—had interbred with our Neanderthal cousins, something many researchers had previously thought impossible. And just last month, new work on the recently discovered Australopithecus sediba challenged traditional ideas on the transition to own genus, Homo.

In such a fast-paced field, it’s hard to keep up with the latest finds and theories. Hominid Hunting is here to help. But we’ll do more than just keep track of current thinking. Paleoanthropology is a field very conscious of its history: Previous thinkers and past debates are still relevant today—and sometimes, old ideas are rekindled in new ways. Therefore, from time to time we’ll also visit human evolution’s not-so-distant past.

As you read Hominid Hunting, I hope I can convince you of hominids’ superiority over dinosaurs—or at least why they’re worthy of your attention.

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