Humankind’s earliest, ancient beginnings

Story by Eric Christenson

The human race has roots that run deep dating several million years in the past. However, The Forum speaker Ann Gibbons said a different kind of race is being played out.

“The Human Race: The Quest to Find Our Earliest Ancestors,” is the presentation Gibbons gave to a near-capacity crowd in Schofield Auditorium Wednesday. The main idea prevalent in her speech was the “race” that paleontologists and paleoanthropologists are in to find the earliest evidence of ancient human life still on Earth.

“I liked the idea of a chase between the different teams trying to beat each other to find the earliest members of the human race,” said Gibbons, a science writer whose work has appeared in many acclaimed publications. “You couldn’t make up better specimens or even better characters to write about in fiction.”

Gibbons detailed a compilation of historical findings and paleoanthropological evidence throughout history that hinted towards other hominids, or human ancestors. She outlined everything from early Greek and Christian ideas of ancient life to Darwin’s theories to today’s findings.

Recent notable findings start with Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi, who was discovered in Ethiopia in 1994. Ardi is a near complete female skeleton of an early hominid dating back an estimated 4.4 million years.

Ardi is 1.2 million years older than Australopithecus, or Lucy, discovered in 1974. Lucy was some of the first clear evidence of humans walking straight on two feet.

Gibbons travelled to Africa to cover the work of paleoanthropologist Tim White when White’s team discovered a prehistoric tooth.

“Finding a fossil requires teamwork,” Gibbons said, “and this is the ultimate teamwork.”

In 1994, a Turkish grad student in White’s party discovered the ancient canine tooth that led to the team pulling together an entire skeleton. Unfortunately, the skeleton was extremely brittle and it took White 15 years to excavate the bones. Gibbons explained that it is extremely delicate work.

Eau Claire Assistant Professor of Psychology Brian Woodcock said he came to the event out of pure interest.

“As somebody who thinks about science generally it was interesting to hear about this aspect of science,” Woodcock said. “Trying to know about the past is very important and interesting.”

Senior Aaron Brewster appreciates getting to hear speakers like Gibbons through The Forum.

“I generally try to come to all of (The Forum presentations),” said Brewster, who is on The Forum Committee. “It’s one of the coolest things about UW-Eau Claire.”

Gibbons mentioned that though humans have evolved quite a bit since Lucy and Ardi, there’s still a lot to find out.

“There are many different ways to be human,” Gibbons said, “and (we) are not an intelligent design yet.”