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Modern Human Origins in Natural and Social Context

Significance

The origin of our species has captured the imagination of all thinking people from time immemorial, and is perhaps the most compelling question that humankind has ever asked itself. An accurate appraisal of ‘the nature of human nature’ is more critical now than it ever was on a planet choked with almost 7 billion of us. In order to understand the reasons for, and consequences of, the unparalleled reproductive success of our species, it is of crucial importance to learn how we came to be the way we are, and how we might use that knowledge in the future to mitigate the pernicious effects of a resounding failure to control our own fertility. Modern human origins research addresses these issues. At stake are our ‘roots’ and what it means – biologically, behaviorally, cognitively – to be a modern human. 

Current and future directions

There is a consensus that modern humans arose on the savanna grasslands of east and south Africa at some point after 150,000 years ago, but continuing debate about how we arose and, once we left Africa, how we interacted with other, earlier human populations, themselves the products of range extensions going back to the early Pleistocene. The context of evolution – the changing natural and social environments in which it occurred – is being addressed by a wide range of scientific disciplines, aided by powerful computerized methods like agent-based modeling and geographical information systems. Modern human origins research centers on efforts by molecular biologists, paleoarchaeologists and human paleontologists, coupled with the natural and physical science collaborations required to understand the complex natural and social environments in which we evolved. A generally satisfactory explanation for our origins has so far eluded us, but if one does appear, it must be consistent with the overarching conceptual framework of evolutionary biology, and able to reconcile the results of pattern searches across these diverse intellectual domains.

School strengths

Because evolution is directionless, shaped only by context and history, it is arguable whether or not an understanding of our origins can help us address contemporary problems in the modern world. Although School of Human Evolution and Social Change faculty differ in their specific interests and geographical areas of expertise, those interested in our origins share a commitment to the powerful conceptual frameworks of evolutionary biology, in particular hominoid socioecology and human behavioral ecology. School strengths include inferential logic in the archaeology and human paleontology of ‘deep time’ and applications of GIS-based agent modeling approaches to broad-scale spatial problems and to pre-modern foragers. School archaeologists are leaders in archaeozoology and taphonomic aspects of ancient faunal accumulations, human life history analysis and reconstructions of how diet and social organization affected life histories in both the present and the past.

Key ASU Fieldwork Regions:
Southern Africa; Eastern Africa; Mediterranean Basin

Partnerships

This research theme is closely associated with the Institute for Human Origins, the School of Life Sciences and with other academic units at ASU.

Key school archaeology faculty

Michael Barton, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
Affiliated Faculty, Center for Evolution and Medicine
Curtis Marean, Foundation Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Director, Institute of Human Origins

Other key school faculty

Kim HillProfessor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Evolution and Medicine
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
Faculty Affiliate, Institute of Human Origins

William Kimbel, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Institute of Human Origins

Kaye Reed, President's Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Faculty Affiliate, Institute of Human Origins

Anne Stone, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Center for Bioarchaeological Research
Associate Director, Center for Evolution and Medicine
Faculty Affiliate, Institute of Human Origins & School of Life Sciences

Other key ASU faculty

John Lynch

John Lynch, Principal Lecturer, Barrett, the Honors College

Steven NeubergSteven Neuberg, Foundation Professor, Department of Psychology
Faculty Affiliate, Biosocial Complexity Initiative
Faculty Affiliate, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity