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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Palaeoanthropology and the Evolutionary Place of Humans in Nature


Palaeoanthropology, the study of the fossil evidence for human evolution, remains a highly contested field. New discoveries are continuously being used to promote alternative models as well as to propose new candidates for our ultimate ancestor. The fossil evidence has increased over the years, and has been supplemented (and often challenged) by molecular data drawn from living people and the great apes. As recently as the 1980s, palaeoanthropologists proposed that human roots stretched back into the Middle Miocene, between 17 and 8 million years ago. Then the earliest true hominids or human ancestors became the South African australopithecines, who are less than 5 million years old. Now there appears to be a tremendous variety of early humans at all stages of their evolution. Along with this new research on the basal hominids has been a renewed interest about what it means to be Homo sapiens . Molecular and fossil data shows that Africa was also our homeland, and that all people today are descended from a small founder population in existence there between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago.

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