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Keywords:

  • Paleoanthropology;
  • Early hominids;
  • Australopithecus;
  • Homo habilis;
  • Plio-Pleistocene

Abstract

Understanding of the early stages of hominid evolution prior to 1925 was based primarily on comparative morphological evidence derived from extant primates. With the publication of Australopithecus by Dart in 1925 and subsequent research in South Africa, new possibilities for empirical assessment of early hominid evolutionary history were opened. It was Gregory's work, with Hellman, reported at the first meeting of the AAPA in 1930, that convinced many workers of the hominid status of Australopithecus. The debunking of Eoanthropus as a Pliocene hominid, far from having a totally negative effect, showed that cranial expansion had occurred after bipedalism in hominid evolution, demonstrated that chemical dating had come of age, and in a broader sense, had underlined that phylogenetic hypotheses are falsifiable by recourse to the evidence. The input of biological sciences into early hominid studies, as exemplified by Washburn's “new physical anthropology,” reduced taxonomic diversity and focused attention on paleoecology and behavior. The development of the multidisciplinary approach to field research, pioneered by L. Leakey and brought to fruition by Howell, was of fundamental importance in accurately dating and understanding the context of early hominids. Archaeology, primatology, comparative and functional morphology, and morphometrics have contributed substantially in recent years to a fuller understanding of early hominid evolution.

American granting agencies have heavily supported early hominid research but patterns of funding have not kept pace with the change from research based largely on individualistic enterprise to multidisciplinary research projects.

Future early hominid research, if funding is available, will likely be directed toward investigating temporal and geographic gaps now known in the fossil record and in more rigorous and multidisciplinary investigations of early hominid behavior.