Pre thinking:

Paleoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged looks for the roots of humanity in Ethiopia’s badlands. Here he talks about finding the oldest skeleton of a humanoid child — and how Africa holds the clues to our humanity. Listen carefully to how he concludes his talk


Who is he:

Born in Axum, Ethiopia, Alemseged is based in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences where is the Director and Curator of the Anthropology department. Prior to this, he was a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. To see more video from Alemseged, visit the video archives of Nature magazine .

Why you should listen:

As a paleoanthropologist Alemseged studies the origins of humanity. Through his Dikika Research Project (DRP) in the Afar desert of Ethiopia, he has discovered the earliest known skeleton of a hominid child, the 3.3-million-year-old bones of Selam, a 3-year-old girl of the species Australopithecus afarensis. She is a member of the same species as Lucy, discovered nearby in 1974.

In studying Selam’s tiny bones, Alemseged is searching for the points at which we humans diverged from apes. For instance, Selam may have had ape-like shoulders, made for climbing trees — but her legs were angled for walking upright. Her young brain, at age 3, was still growing, which implies that she was set to have a long human-style childhood. And in the hyoid bone of her throat, Alemseged sees the beginning of human speech.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Alemseged explains that there was a missing piece in the record of human development until the finding of Selam. What was that?
  2. He makes a critical point about the topography and climate that Selam was found in. What point does he make, and how does it apply to our own society?
  3. How much genetic material do we share with chimpanzees?
  4. He says that we diverged (chimps and humans) from a common ancestor about 7 million years ago. What then does he describe as the job of the paleoanthropologist? How did an x-ray of Selam’s teeth help that job?
  5. Why does he describe the dig site as a game farm for extinct, at least in the region, animals.
  6. What would he like to see for the people of Africa?

Finding the origins of humanity with Zeresenay Alemseged


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