History Alive! The Ancient World
Enrichment Essay

Unit 1: Early Humans and the Rise of Civilization
Chapter 2: Early Hominids
Piecing Together the Story of Early Hominids
Have you ever put together a jigsaw puzzle? You start with a picture that shows what the completed puzzle will look like. Then you fit the pieces together until they make up that picture.

Suppose, though, that you didn’t have a picture to work with, but only the pieces? Even worse, what if most of the pieces were missing? How hard would the puzzle be then?

That’s the situation facing scientists who study early hominids. These scientists are trying to understand how and when early hominids developed. The puzzle pieces they work with are bits of bone that are millions of years old. Scientists know that they have only some of the pieces. Each new find gives them another clue to work with.

Gradually, the overall shape of the picture becomes a bit clearer. For instance, scientists today agree that hominids first appeared in Africa. But only 60 years ago, even this much of the picture was unclear. It took many finds to convince scientists that Africa was the birthplace of early hominids.

Each of these finds was the result of hard, patient work. You read about several of these discoveries in Chapter 2 of History Alive! The Ancient World. Here you will learn about some other important pieces of the hominid puzzle—and the people who found them.


The Taung Child

In 1924, an anthropologist named Raymond Dart examined an ancient skull that had been found in a quarry in Taung, South Africa. The skull belonged to a young, apelike creature. It became known as the Taung Child. Dart gave the fossil a more scientific name: Australopithecus africanus. This name is Latin for “southern ape from Africa.”

The Taung Child was the first Australopithecus fossil ever found. It is 2 to 3 million years old. Dart was thrilled by the discovery. He thought it showed that the earliest hominids appeared in Africa. Other scientists disagreed. At that time, many of them believed that hominids first appeared in Asia. Over the next 20 years, a Scottish anthropologist, Robert Broom, collected more and more Australopithecus fossils in Africa. By the 1940s, most scientists had to agree that Dart was right.


"Nutcracker Man”

Far to the north, Mary Leakey found more puzzle pieces at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. Mary and her husband, Louis, had spent 30 years searching the gorge for hominid remains. In 1959, Mary found hundreds of bits of bone. When she pieced them together, they made up the skull of a previously unknown type of hominid. The fossil was nicknamed Nutcracker Man for its large jaw. Today it is called Australopithecus boisei. It is more than 1.7 million years old.

More evidence was found by Mary and Louis’s son, Richard Leakey. Richard found his first fossil when he was just six years old—a part of an extinct pig. As a young man, he began leading expeditions in East Africa.

Richard made many important finds, including skulls and other bones of Homo habilis and Homo erectus. In 1970, he found another Nutcracker Man fossil.

Richard’s most famous discovery came in 1984, near Lake Turkana in Kenya. Most hominid fossils are small parts of the body. The new find was a nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton. Known as the Turkana Boy, it is about 1.6 million years old.

Richard’s wife, Meave, has also hunted fossils in Africa. Among her finds are still more species of early hominids. Richard and Meave’s daughter, Louise, has worked with Meave on field expeditions, continuing the proud Leakey tradition.


Footprints at Laetoli

Mary Leakey made many finds during her long career. The one that excited her the most was a truly fantastic discovery: hominid footprints more than 3.5 million years old!

Mary’s team spotted the footprints in 1976 at Laetoli. This site is about 30 miles south of Olduvai Gorge. The footprints were found in a layer of volcanic ash. Apparently, a volcano erupted shortly after the footprints were made. When the ash hardened, it preserved the footprints.

Besides being amazingly old, the footprints were important for another reason. The creatures that made them had walked upright on two feet. The footprints were even older than the famous fossil nicknamed Lucy. They showed that hominids were walking upright at a very early date.


A Truly Ancient Hominid

Tim White, an American anthropologist, helped excavate the Laetoli footprints. He also worked with Donald Johanson, who found Lucy. White’s own teams have made a number of other finds. One of them pushed hominid history even farther back in time.

In 1994, White was working in Ethiopia. An African member of his team discovered hominid fossils that proved to be 4.4 million years old. The fossils had a very ancient combination of apelike and humanlike features.

White and his co-workers called the new species Ardipithecus ramidus. The word ramid means “root” in the Afar language of Ethiopia. The researchers thought that the fossil was very close to the root of the hominid family tree.

These discoveries, and many more like them, are helping scientists to piece together the story of early hominids. Scientists often argue about exactly how the pieces fit together and what the big picture looks like. Meanwhile, they keep on looking. They know that there are many more pieces of the puzzle scattered around Africa, waiting to be found.


Enrichment Activity

Create a cover for an issue of Dig It! magazine that highlights the discoveries of scientists studying early hominids. Your cover must include

an imaginative subtitle.
attractive visuals of three discoveries made by scientists studying early hominids.
brief captions that describe each discovery and explain why it is important to the study of early hominids.
writing that is free of grammar and spelling mistakes.
other colorful and creative touches.

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