Thursday, January 10, 2013

First Footsteps and People of the Stone Age

People of the Stone Age

First Footsteps
Imagine digging through layers of rocks and sand to find out about people and places of the past. That is what scientists do to help us learn about the world's prehistory. Prehistory is history that happened before the invention of writing. To find out about prehistory experts must look at evidence, or proof, rather than written words. They must search for clues to piece together the puzzle of the distant past.

Fossil Finds
Many different kinds of scientists work to uncover facts about the past. Together, they find out how, where, and when early people lived. Among these detectives of the past are archaeologists and paleoanthropologists. Archaeologists locate and study the things left behind by people. Paleoanthropologists study the ancestors of modern people. They carefully look at fossils (FAH»suhlz), or remains of once-living things.

For more than 100 years, people have been searching for the fossils of early human ancestors, or hominids. In 1896 Eugene Dubois (dyoo»BWAH), a Dutch surgeon, dug beneath a river in Indonesia in southeastern Asia. He uncovered what he believed to be the remains of a human ancestor.

He named his find Homo erectus, meaning "human who stands upright." Other scientists laughed at Dubois's claims. However, in 1927 another hominid was found near Beijing, China.

At about the same time, a South African scientist named Raymond Dart found a still earlier human ancestor in his home country. He had unearthed fossils of an australopithecine (aw • stray • loh • PIH • thuh • syn). Later,more australopithecine fossils were found in southern Africa. Then, in 1959 Louis and Mary Leakey found australopithecine fossils at Olduvai (OHL«duh»vy) Gorge in Tanzania (tan»zuh»NEE»uh), eastern Africa.

Soon after these discoveries, the Leakeys found other early hominid fossils. One of these hominids appeared to have been round-headed and smallboned. Louis Leakey believed this hominid to be a direct ancestor of modern humans.

He named it Homo habilis (HAH»buh»lis), a Latin term meaning "handy person." He gave it this name because he also found stone tools nearby.

Louis and Mary Leakey's son Richard continued his parents' work. He has found dozens of hominid fossils while searching at Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Among these are remains of Homo habilis from about 2.5 million years ago, the time when toolmaking began.

Other scientists have also made astonishing finds. Near the Awash (AH»wahsh) River in Ethiopia, paleoanthropologist Don Johanson unearthed a 3-million- year-old australopithecine. Johanson and his team nicknamed their find "Lucy."

"I just can't believe it!" Johanson cried out upon making his 1974 discovery of Lucy. He was surprised to find almost half of an ancient skeleton. Usually paleoanthropologists are not that fortunate. Often they find just a small piece of ancient life, such as a jawbone or part of an arm bone, as they excavate a site. Excavate means to uncover by digging.

In 1994 University of California scientist Tim White revealed that, while excavating in Ethiopia, he had found an even earlier australopithecine than Johanson's. This African hominid may have walked the Earth as much as 4.5 million years ago.

(Review) How have Don Johanson and the Leakeys contributed to the search for early hominids?

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