Our evening course on Human Evolution started again in January. The course has been running for four years now and it still attracts between 50-70 students each year. Human evolution is an interesting subject and the many new findings during the past decades add considerable new and exciting knowledge.
We usually start with a general background, a historical overview and the early apes. The third lecture deals with the first hominids, i.e. with those that might have been bipedal, such as Sahelanthropus tschadenis, Ororrin tugenensis and Ardipithecus ramidus, and with those that were bipedal, i.e. the Australopithecines. It is fascinating that so much new knowledge has been made available within the last 20 years and that so many amazing finds have been made. But it is also fascinating to read about the discoverers, how they argue and fight for their findings and how they defend the interpretation of their fossils. It seems to be a really tough scientific business and I am only too glad that I focus on lake sediments from Asia for my research and not on early (possible bipedal) hominids!
Searching the Internet for Human Evolution or Human Origin is like browsing the desert sand for hominid finds – few pages are good and informative, many are plain rubbish, some are carefully disguised creationist pages, and many just provide second-hand information, subjective views and stupid comments. My absolute favorite page is that of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History which provides objective and detailed information on Human Evolution and Human Origins. Other sites with interesting information are: The Institute of Human Origin and The Natural History Museum in London. Wikipedia also has quite some information on the three bipedal competitors Sahelanthropus, Orrorin and Ardipithecus. Finally, if you are able to speak French, the site about Sahelanthropus tschadensis or Toumaï as he is commonly called, gives quite a lot of background information, but is of course biased towards the view and interpretation of its discoverers.
Other lectures will discuss the many unknowns at the transition – or gap is actually a better word for it – between Australopithecines and Homo habilis, and will give some background to Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus/ergaster. The final lectures will deal with Homo heidelbergensis and the Neanderthals, and with the transition to Homo sapiens.
We will also have two guest lecturers, Denise Leesch from Neuchâtel University in Switzerland and Sahra Talamo from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, and we will round up the course with an excursion to Les Eyzies in France.