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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Human Evolution Symposium

    This past Tuesday, many of the world’s leading anthropologists and human evolution scholars convened in the Charles Wang center to discuss the topic for this year’s Human Evolution Symposium, ‘Diversity in Australopithecus: Tracking the Earliest Bipeds.’ Each fall semester for the past four years, Richard Leakey, Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook, has lead discussions and workshops on the latest findings in the field of anthropology.

    The research presented this year comes out of the Turkana Basin Institute. Located in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia, this region contains fossil records from human ancestors approximately 5 million years ago, and from other organisms dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. The Institute is chaired by Richard Leakey and supported by Stony Brook University. President Kenny will appoint a board of trustees to direct the Institute, which is based primarily in Turkana and Stony Brook, but also affiliated with the University of Utah, the University of London, the Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, the U.S. International University in Nairobi, and the National Geographic Society. Stony Brook has already supplied 1.4 million dollars to the Turkana Basin Institute and currently has three postdoctoral students and four graduate fellows doing research in the basin. Australopithecus, an ancestor to today’s humans, is thought to have lived between 4.2 and 1.5 million years ago.

    First published in 1925, the name Australopithecus refers to the genus of one of the earliest hominids. However, because of the adaptations and climate changes that occurred over this large time span, it is possible that not all of the organisms currently categorized under Australopithecus do actually belong to the genus. Dr. Leakey presented the problem as a puzzle. Many fossils of various human ancestors have been found and anthropologists must decide which came first, or if they coexisted. Evolution did not occur in a linear method as is commonly depicted by the image of a crouching ape transforming into a walking Neanderthal.

    As organisms evolve and change, they branch off into several different species. Those best suited for their environment survive and can develop into other things. Geographically separated organisms can adapt differently, leaving scientists with the difficult task of deciding both when and where an organism lived. Leakey believes it is important to question assumptions and be willing to revise previous work in order to account for new facts that are discovered.

    During the day’s first panel discussion, the debate centered around what should be considered Australopithecus and what is the importance of names. Frederick Grine, Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook, presented the belief that there is too much diversity in the hominids to lump all of Australopithecus together into one group.

    Others on the panel pointed out that names are used to convey messages, and although the organisms may not be true members of the genus Australopithecus, such a title provides characteristics around which discussions can be structured. The day’s speakers addressed several topics, including the diets of Australopithecus, the ecology of the environment in which they lived, and the way they were able to walk.

    Dr. William Kimbel of Arizona State University addressed the lineage of Australopithecus, particularly the difficulty encountered with organizing such a small sample size into a lineage.

    Ronald Clarke, paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, described the excavation of many of the fossils at the Turkana Basin Institute and what can be seen from their structure. The success of the symposium was described by President Kenny to be its ability to ‘reinvigorate and re-excite the public’ about human evolution. The oversold symposium brought together a wide variety of people. In addition to the representatives sent by several higher education institutions, the symposium attracted many high school teachers, Long Island residents, and students. All hoped to learn ‘where we came from,’ as it was described by the symposium’s youngest attendant, Jacob Hamer, age 11. The event also serves Stony Brook as a way to gain more national recognition for its research. Alumnus John Nolan believes that it ‘shows that the level of respect [for the University] has grown.’

    Many of the anthropological experts at the Symposium were Stony Brook faculty and with its new partnership with the Turkana Basin Institute, Stony Brook will be on the forefront of human evolution research.

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