Wellesley’s Adam Van Arsdale Counters View Put Forth by N.Y. Times

August 16, 2012

Did humans’ earliest ancestors split into multiple lineages early on, or are all early fossils part of one single lineage? That question is at the center of an ongoing debate in the field of anthropology about the origin and early evolution of our genus, Homo.

The recent discovery of a set of fossils in northern Kenya prompted some scientists to declare the fossils to be “the most compelling evidence yet for multiple lines of evolution in our genus, Homo.” as reported in the New York Times. However, Wellesley’s Adam Van Arsdale, assistant professor of anthropology, is not convinced. On the contrary, Van Arsdale told Scientific American, “I tend to see this new evidence as making it harder to reject the idea of a single evolving lineage."

Van Arsdale, a biological anthropologist who specializes in paleoanthropology, has focused his research on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. Since 2002, he has been involved with excavations at Dmanisi Hominid Archeological site in the Kvemo Kartli region of the country of Georgia.

Van Arsdale explained to Scientific American that the new Kenyan fossils show features in common with Homo erectus fossils from Dmanisi, which link early Homo in Africa to Homo erectus in Georgia. In his view, the newly discovered fossils (called habilis/rudolfensis) and Homo erectus belong to one lineage.

“My initial take on [the habilis/rudolfensis] fossils is that they fill an important gap, drawing connections between two somewhat exceptional specimens and a broader evolutionary picture of change in early Homo,” Van Arsdale wrote on his blog.

Since 2010, Van Arsdale has been the coordinator for the Dmanisi Paleoanthropology Field School, run jointly with the Georgia National Museum. He started taking students to the Field School in 2010 for a Wintersession program.

“The Field School provides students with four weeks of in-the-field instruction in paleoanthropological methods and theory,” Van Arsdale said. “The students work daily at the Lower Paleolithic site of Dmanisi and receive evening lectures from an international faculty.”

In addition to Van Arsdale, professors from the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, the University of North Texas, the University of Zurich, The University of Florence and the Georgia National Museum make up the Field School’s faculty. At Wellesley, Van Arsdale teaches an introductory course in physical anthropology, and courses related to human evolution, human genetics, osteology, and forensic anthropology.

For multiple perspectives on the debate about our early evolution, read “Kenyan Fossils Rekindle Debate over Early Human Diversity” in Scientific American.