Paleoanthropology

What do paleoanthropologists do?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Anthropology is the study of human beings and their origins, and paleontology is the study of prehistoric life. Paleoanthropologists, then, essentially combine the two disciplines to study ancient hominid evidence -- bones, footprints, etc. -- in an effort to understand the evolutionary ascent of man.

    The discipline is frequently ascribed the late-19th century for its beginnings, particularly with the discovery of "Neanderthal Man" in Germany and the later publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Both helped sparked the search for man's evolutionary origins, and in that search the sub-discipline of paleoanthropology was born.

    Today's paleoanthropologists spend much of their time doing research in the field, excavating finds they hope will be important, and analyzing their findings and data in a laboratory setting. Typically, when finds warrant it, scientists in the field will publish papers on their work. They also spend a great deal of time teaching in college and university settings as well as conferring with colleagues in the field to pore over research, share thoughts and brainstorm new research ideas [source: Becoming Human].

    The efforts of paleoanthropologists have led to some truly groundbreaking finds as the 1974. For example, there was the discovery of a 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis specimen in Ethiopia -- you might know the ancient hominid by her nickname: "Lucy." In 1891, the so-called "Java Man" was discovered on Indonesia's Java island -- about 700,000 years old. Thirty-eight years later, "Peking Man" was discovered as part of a series of finds beginning in 1929. And in 1984, the nearly complete skeleton of "Turkana Boy" -- probably about 11 to 12 years old -- was found in Kenya. It was the most complete specimen of Homo erectus and was about 1.6 million years old [source: Talk Origins]. Finds such as these help paleoanthropologists piece together the long evolutionary story that culminates with us -- modern man.

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