La Chapelle-aux-Saints

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.

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Homo neanderthalensis, adult male. Reconstruction based on Shanidar 1
Photo by John Gurche (artist) and Chip Clark (photographer), Smithsonian Institution

Homo neanderthalensis

Homo neanderthalensis first appeared about 200,000 years ago in Europe and existed until about 28,000 years ago. This was roughly the same time that Homo sapiens were living in Africa. It is believed that Homo neanderthalensis are descendants of the Homo heidelbergensis populations that were living in Europe prior to this time. Unlike Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis individuals had large brow ridges (the area above the eyes), larger and more protruding noses and faces, and were generally more compact to survive life in colder climates. Like H. sapiens, they had large or larger brains and used specialized tools, and there is some evidence that they created art and participated in symbolic or ritualistic behavior. There is evidence for occasional interbreeding between individuals of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens; as a result, many modern humans living today have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.


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.

Smithsonian researchers analyze data found while uncovering human remains.
Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Studying Human Bones

By studying human bones, physical and forensic anthropologists can learn a number of things about events of the past and the present, and the people who experienced them. The condition of bones, the location they are found in, and items they are found with can inform researchers about burial practices and the circumstances leading to disposal of the remains. The bones themselves can tell researchers how old a person was, how tall they may have been, if they were a man or a woman, and what role they played in their society. Information on diet and activities in life can be found in bones by looking at their composition. Researchers can also learn about diseases that leave marks in bones and how they affect individuals and populations through time. Bones can sometimes tell researchers how a person died and this information may help law enforcement agencies solve modern forensic cases.