Associated Smithsonian Expert: Briana L Pobiner, Ph.D.

Briana Pobiner stops to pose for a picture while working in Africa.

Image Courtesy Dr. Briana Pobiner

Dr. Briana Pobiner is an anthropologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where her research centers on the evolution of human diet (with a focus on meat-eating), but has included topics as diverse as cannibalism in the Cook Islands and chimpanzee carnivory. Despite not being into science in high school, a wonderful college professor at Bryn Mawr College, where she designed her own major in Evolutionary Studies, ignited the spark of her passion for studying the origin of humanity. She went on to get an M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Rutgers University. Some of her favorite field moments include falling asleep in a tent in the Serengeti in Tanzania while listening to the distant whoops of hyenas, watching a pride of lions eat a zebra carcass on the Kenyan equator, and discovering fossil animal bones in Kenya that were last touched, butchered, and eaten by one of her 1.5 million year old ancestors. Along with her scientific research she manages the Human Origins Program's public programs, website content, social media, and volunteer content training.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

Make Field Book Cover

Image of STS 5

Create your own field book and fill it with images and object from Q?rius! When you create a field book, you can put this image on its cover.

or Sign up




Add a comment

Be the first to leave a comment!

Australopithecus africanus. Reconstruction based on STS 5
Photo by John Gurche (artist) and Chip Clark (photographer), Smithsonian Institution

Australopithecus africanus

Australopithecus africanus existed between 3.3 and 2.1 million years ago in parts of southern Africa. This species is similar to Australopithecus afarensis in that it has both ape-like and human-like characteristics, lived both in trees and on the ground, had a mostly vegetarian diet, and was able to walk bipedally and stand on two legs. However, unlike Au. afarensis, Au. africanus had a more rounded cranium, larger braincase, and smaller teeth. This species was first discovered in 1924 when Raymond Dart uncovered the famous "Taung Child" fossil; this was the first fossil of an early human ever found in Africa. Au. africanus is currently the oldest known early human from southern Africa, so its origins remain a mystery.


Adaptation of Human Ancestors

Evolution occurs when a species adapts and changes over time through descent with modification. This is based on selective pressures within their environment. Human evolution is no different. Early humans walked on four legs, ate mostly plants, and had small brains. Over millions of years, they adapted to take advantage of the world around them. For example, they began to walk upright on two legs, became predators and skilled hunters, and developed large brains that allowed for sophisticated communication, a higher degree of forethought and planning, complex social interactions, and other traits that define them as a species. Often these adaptations were in response to a change in their environment, such as temperature change in the beginning or ending of an ice age or when a new species of predator moved into the area. Like all species, modern humans continue to change today and further adapt to their environment.


Humans as Primates

Humans are part of a large taxonomic group known as Primates that falls within the phylogenic class that contains all mammals, Mammalia. This group includes our closest living relatives, the great apes, as well as living monkeys, and all extinct early human and non-human primate species. Because we are related, humans and non-human primates share many anatomical and behavioral characteristics. For example, our hands and feet have five digits, we have large brains relative to other mammals, and we have binocular vision in which our eyes face forward on the front of our skulls. Also, some non-human primates can communicate with symbols, occasionally use tools, walk on two legs for short distances, and have complex social interactions. By studying non-human primates, researchers can learn about the ancestry of modern humans and more about the lives of early human ancestors.