Questions for “The ultimate genealogical search hunts for our earliest ancestors”

an anthropologist in the field bends over a skeleton being excavated from the ground

Some of our ancestors may have been roaming the planet up to 7 million years ago. Paleoanthropologists have been patiently excavating fossils of those ancient cousins and are attempting to piece together where on the human family tree we all reside.


To accompany feature “The ultimate genealogical search hunts for our earliest ancestors


Before Reading:

1. How long have humans and their direct ancestors walked the Earth?

2. What is the birthplace of humans and their direct ancestors — and how do we know that?

During Reading:

1.  Where did Charles Darwin think the roots of the human family tree were planted? What argument did he give for that place?

2.  Who was Raymond Dart and what “missing link” did he find? Why did he term it a missing link?

3.  What is a hominin? How does it differ from a hominid, according to the story?

4.  When did members of our genus first emerge? By when had our species emerged?

5.  What was the Taung child? What was the name of its species and what did that name mean?

6.  What was the Piltdown Man? Where was its skeleton found and why did this fossil find cause such a stir?

7.  Why did Raymond Dart’s refusal to send the Taung child’s skeleton to England cause an uproar among some paleoanthropologists there?

8.  Who was Robert Broom and what was his training? By 1936, where did he work and what role did Broom play in identifying early evidence of human ancestors?

9.  Who were Louis and Mary Leakey and where did they work? What role did they play in mapping human evolution? Why did they call one of their fossil finds Nutcracker Man?

10. Have scientists found the place where our species was born? What reason does Eleanor Scerri give for that?

After Reading:

1.  Eleanor Scerri argues that more could be known about humankind’s origins if scientists had explored more of ancient Africa. Why? Look at the map of Africa in the story and where major fossil finds have been made. Where would you look next for signs of human ancestors? Explain your choice.

2.  Review the sidebar story “Genetics show humans likely trace back to Africa.” Based on your readings, do you think the most surprising future insights into humankind’s ancestry will come from studying the size and shape of fossil bones (and the tools or debris found with them) or from studies of the genetics of tissue bits associated with such bones and modern humans? Explain your reasoning.