Reconstructing Human Evolutionary History
A major research focus of our laboratory is in reconstructing and interpreting the pattern of human evolutionary history. This pattern, known as phylogeny, describes the evolutionary relationships among hominin species and populations (hominins are humans and their close relatives). A very simple way of thinking about this is that we try to reconstruct the branches of the human family tree and then examine the implications of the branching patterns for understanding other evolutionary questions such as: How, why and when did major human adaptations evolve? What biogeographic processes explain the distribution of hominin populations? To what extent was the pattern of human evolution driven by climate change?
Biomechanics refers to the physics of how anatomical systems work. Biomechanics is an important subset of the broader discipline known as functional morphology, which concerns how and why anatomical structures function to perform particular biological roles. Our lab uses finite element analysis to examine feeding biomechanics in fossil humans and extant primates. Finite element analysis (FEA) is an engineering method that models how objects of complex geometry and material properties respond to load. This approach allows us to integrate data from experimental and comparative biology, morphometrics, imaging, ecology and materials science to test hypotheses about how and why the derived faces, jaws and teeth of early hominins evolved.
A central objective of paleoanthropology is discover more fossil evidence about human evolution. Our lab plays a key role in two major fieldwork projects. Lab members play a key role in excavations at the site of Drimolen in South Africa. This early Pleistocene site dates to about two million years ago and preserves important fossils of two hominin species, Paranthropus robustus and an early member of the genus Homo. Lab members also contribute to excavations at Arma Veirana in Italy. This late Pleistocene and Holocene site preserves archaeological evidence of some of the last Neanderthals to live in Europe, and of modern humans that lived just after the end of the last “Ice Age.”
Evolution of Human Adaptations
Modern humans are characterized by a number of key adaptations, including bipedal locomotion (upright walking on two legs), a large brain, manual dexterity, advanced tool use, and advanced speech and language. Earlier in our evolution, several fossil hominins exhibited massive jaws and teeth that may have been adaptations for feeding on foods that were mechanically challenging to eat. Our lab is committed to searching for innovative ways of testing hypotheses about these adaptations.