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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

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    Symposium Questions the Start of Genus “Homo”

    On October 3rd, Professor Richard Leakey convened the third Stony Brook Human Evolution Symposium, which was held in the packed Charles B. Wang Center Theatre. The event was a full day starting from 8:30 in the morning to 5:10 in the evening. It was attended largely by the Stony Brook Anthropology department and graduate students, as well as a great number of visiting professors and scientists.

    This year, the symposium concentrated on a variety of scientific backgrounds to perhaps clarify the earliest beginnings of human evolution, or the start of the genus Homo. Many of the guest lecturers were set out to debunk certain myths or theories existing since the first discovery of hominids were made by Mary Leakey at the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania back in the 1950’s.

    The morning began with the registration of all who were invited to attend or those who bought tickets, which were sold like hotcakes at a trucker stop days before the symposium.’ Any viewers not fortunate to get their hands on a ticket beforehand stuck around to see if there were any ‘ no-shows. Professor Richard Leakey welcomed all who attended and reinstated the goal of obtaining ‘a clearer appreciation and understanding of the major forces and events that shaped the root of the human lineage’ through a multidisciplinary perspective. Leakey is a professor on campus and son of Louis and Mary Leakey, founders and leading pioneers of paleoanthropology. He pointed out the importance of an international cooperative effort in helping to determine the true ‘traces of our lineage’ as modern day Homo sapiens.

    After a brief introduction of upcoming speakers by Professor Fred Grine, Chair of the Anthropology Department here at Stony Brook, the first lecture commenced. Titled ‘Homo habilis – A Premature Discovery: Remembered by One of its Founding Fathers, 42 Years Later,’ it was a presentation based on the findings of the lecturer, Phillip Tobias. Tobias, who along with John Napier and Louis Leakey, discovered and named the species Homo habilis back in the 60’s. A coffee break came and went as quick as a blink of an eye, as participants and viewers met and socialized.

    The next lecture that began was Professor Leakey’s own, titled ‘Early Humans: Of Whom Do We Speak?’ It was an introduction and brief explanation of basic terminology and history that most paleoanthropologists are familiar with. Bernard Wood, professor and scientist at the Smithsonian Institution, gave a lecture on ‘Where does the Genus ‘Homo’ Begin, and How Would We Know?’ He further went into the currently accepted beliefs and the possible chronological order of the rise of the ‘homo’ evolution. A panel discussion between some visiting scientists and professors then took place.

    Lunch was held for all attending the symposium, and was located on the lower level of the Wang Center. Being a catered event, the audience and guests sat down to an array of warm and savory choices of entrees. While networking and conversing on the latest discovery at excavation sites, the calming sound of running water and the good feng shui of the architecture at the Wang center kept all feeling relaxed and comfortable in the setting of rounded tables covered by sparkling clean tablecloths.

    After an hour or so of digesting a delicious meal, the group of participants gathered to hear Professor Grine introduce the last few lecturers for the day. Professor Robert Blumenschine of Rutgers University sauntered onstage coolly to give his lecture on ‘Landscape Perspectives on the Archeology and Palaeoecology of Early Homo in the Paleo-Olduvai Basin.’ His presentation discussed his team’s numerous findings in the Olduvai basin, which Mary Leakey once said was the ‘premier site of evolution.’ His studies on teeth and bone analysis from the hominids found in the Olduvai region lead to several implications of the early hominid lifestyle. There are two possible methods of survival of the hominids, their death rates in relation to their geological location and competition through tool usage.

    Next was Professor Mark Maslin of University College London, who gave his theories of the rise of ‘homo’ in accordance to the drastic climate changes occurring two million years or so ago. He initially discussed current day theories and commonly held beliefs. Rather than accepting or rejecting them, Maslin made an interesting note of how climatic changes and plate tectonics influenced the rise and fall of certain ‘homo’ species. His research of certain fossil lake basins and historical climatic cyclic changes lead him to believe, along with statistical data, wet periods of fluctuating weather patterns lead to rise in brain expansion and teeth development of the ‘homo’ genus. Though he made the point of saying, ‘life is more complicated than that.’

    Another coffee break came and went by quickly, like the fraudulent pop sensations Milli Vanilli. Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, gave a lecture on the tissue and energetics involved in the evolution of ‘homo.’ She went into detail about hominids, most notably females and their biomechanical/biophysical aspects of tissue structures and their daily energy expenditures (including child rearing). The lecture gave a basic view of how diet changes to a carnivorous lifestyle supported a richer body mass, which in turned spurned the expansion of brain size that needed a body with a higher basal metabolic rate. This in turn gave rise to the genus ‘homo.’

    The final lecture was perhaps the most pleasing. Professor Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University approached the stage ready to deliver a presentation that educated as well as entertaining. The lecture was titled ‘Brains, Brawn and the Evolution of Human Endurance Running Capabilities.’ It went into detail the biophysical/mechanical aspects that arose with the genus ‘Homo.’ He, however, concentrated on the athletic ability of the early members of the genus, and their amazing social cooperation on the whole.

    The program ended with a final panel discussion and reception solely for the participating professors and scientists. The event was a sure hit, and was well worth the time and effort put into it. This full day event gave many a chance to ponder over (and perhaps find a solution to) the questions raised by the lecturers over the birth of the genus ‘homo.’

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