A field experience in understanding human origins

by Jeremy B. Karnowski

29 October 2013

Over the summer, two of our cognitive science students pursuing the anthropogeny specialization had the opportunity to visit Ethiopia and Tanzania as part of the CARTA program. Jeremy Karnowski, a fourth year student working with Ed Hutchins, reports here on the trip.

The Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA) is focused on understanding human origins: "How did we get here?" and "Where did we come from?" For the last three years, CARTA has arranged a field course to Ethiopia and Tanzania to provide a very thorough introduction to all of the major traditional lines of research into human origins - paleoarchaeology, primatology, and study of hunter-gatherers.

Visiting the National Museum in Addis Ababa and Olduvai Gorge simultaneously delivered two opposing concepts: that there are so few known skeletal remains that form the backbone of our knowledge of human origins and that there is a vast untapped resource of skeletal remains that have yet to be uncovered. The visit also elucidated the process through which we investigate various sources of our origins. We have historically focused on uncovering hominins (members of the tribe of Homininae) that are directly our ancestors while ignoring other branches. We have made huge efforts to understand the parts of the bones that we believe are most directly relevant to our origins, such as pieces that demonstrate our bipedality or our large cranial capacity. We have unearthed an extremely large collection of tools that characterize our species as one that works with its environment to better itself.

Engaging with the Hadzabe, an ethnic group living in Tanzania, made it very clear that hominins were well adapted to live in a multitude of different environments. Given that our ancestors slowly became more adapted to the landscapes in which the Hadzabe live (as well as places like the Serengeti), following them around and seeing how they easily meet their dietary needs provides a possible view into how our early ancestors may have existed within their environments. Their modern social structure and tools, however, made it obvious that very important factors of a successful species will remain hidden from the fossil record. The fact that Americans and Hadzabe could come together and still have a common thread of how we interact with and think about the world, while still being so different, highlighted the importance of the social component of H. sapiens.

Finally, our trips to Gombe Stream National Park and the Ugalla Primate Project provided a way to make comparisons between primate species, including chimpanzees, baboons, red-tails, colobus monkeys, and humans. Given that a large component that makes us human is behavioral, something you can't really capture through fossils, making an extensive study of primates gives us a way to determine which behavioral patterns are uniquely human and which are possible precursors. These two sites also provide a methodological contrast, with the former having used provisioning (providing food) as a way to habituate the chimpanzees and the latter seeking to habituate through exposure only. They also provide contrasting landscapes, with Gombe being a rich lush forest, and Ugalla being characterized as a landscape with more savannah-like qualities (and perhaps giving insights into our primate ancestors becoming adapted to a non-forested landscape).

While Cognitive Science has often taught us to focus on studying human intelligence and behavior in a tightly controlled laboratory setting, this field course visited research sites that provided contrasting data collection practices. In the field, researchers use a wealth of avenues to gather data on what makes humans unique (including aspects of cognition), focusing on things typically left out of traditional Cognitive Science studies: skeletal remains, hunting competition, movements across space and time, artifact creation, and social structure. In order to fully understand human cognition, we have to take into account these insights about human uniqueness.

For more information on CARTA, its mission, and how to get involved, please visit http://carta.anthropogeny.org/.

Related tags: anthropogeny, CARTA, field experience, primates, Tanzania