It’s Thanksgiving. Your mom and dad are debating the art of properly basting a turkey, while grandma is showing you and the rest of the grandkids your family tree. By now, you’ve noticed how long and complicated your tree is. Along with parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, there are second cousins, great aunts, great grand nieces, etc. And, while you may have never known these people directly, all are in some way related to your family and yourself. But what about the family tree that extends beyond your ancestral family tree?
Almost everyone has been the “new kid” at some point in their life. And, we can probably all agree that whether it was in a new school, neighborhood, on a sports team, etc., being the new kid meant everyone was interested in you. But, why are we so interesting as the new kid? As someone who is unknown to a group, the new kid enkindles curiosity, which encourages others to better understand them so they can be comfortably classified into a form of the taxonomic system. Likewise, every few years a new hominin fossil typically emerges, and the rush to classify this “new kid” begins among paleoanthropologists. Recently, the discovery of Homo naledi (H. naledi) has led researchers to attempt to classify and place it within the context of our lineage.
Todays the day you clean out your closet! As you dive in, ready to both mentally and physically declutter your life, you stop. “Do I really have that many shoes?!”. Yes, yes, you do. You have shoes for work, working out, summer, winter and many more. But why? Why are shoes so important? Our earliest ancestors never wore them, and they did just fine. Shoes protect our feet, sure, but just as importantly they are like many other stylized items we place on our bodies to symbolize and define who we are as individuals. And, our society has predetermined specific characteristics to identify the types of styles we see today. If I wear running shoes, I could be seen as active and sporty, while wearing leather loafers might make me seem serious and studious, etc. But, what about specific characteristics that differentiate us from other organisms? What about traits that define us as innately human?
Imagine you could blast back to the past. Where would you go? Who would you be? With the advent of time traveling fantasy novels, renaissance fairs and historical movies, it’s easy to get a taste of history. So, in that spirit, let’s travel back to an era far, far away to the land of Africa during the late Miocene!
So, you’re at the dentist office. While sitting in the waiting room, you pick up one of the many magazines. On the cover, is a title heralding a new dietary trend; the Paleo Diet. It may read “Eat like a Caveman” or “Paleo diet 101”. We see such titles everywhere as the paleo diet has gained enormous popularity in the western world. Often boasting staggering, stupendous, incredible health benefits, the paleo diet attempts to return us to the food our early ancestors consumed. However, many of the paleo diets we see in books and magazines are only loosely based on actual hominin diets. But, how are these paleo diets compiled when the generation they refer to has been gone for a few million years? Well, paleoanthropologists have been able to delve into the hominin diet by observing dental adaptations left behind by our early ancestors, documenting and cataloging information on early hominin diet.
Remember that vacation you took when you were with your squad? They looked good, you looked good, the weather was perfect and the selfies on fleek. Everyone has moments they remember fondly and wish they could go back to. And, like everyone else, paleoanthropologists wish they could go back in time, too…Just a couple of million years more!
Sitting on a park bench one day, you notice a Great Dane and Chihuahua happily sniffing and circling each other in mutual greeting. Staring, you notice how different they are and wonder how it is even possible that they are still part of the same species. This difference you see is known as ‘variation’.