When 15 of the world’s leading anthropologists came to Santa Barbara on the eve of Earth Day for a splendid Symposium on Human Origins, the ideas flew fast and furious, to the delight of hundreds of attendees who caught panels and keynote talks at Fleischmann Auditorium and the Marjorie Luke Theatre.

Inspired by Charles Darwin’s bicentennial year, Karl Hutterer, director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, assembled provocative experts as famous as Donald “Lucy” Johanson (Institute of Human Origins), Ian Tattersall (anthropology curator at the American Museum of Natural History), and the Smithsonian’s Bernard Wood; as cutting edge as Curtis Marean, Bill Kimbell, and W.T. Fitch; as local as UCSB’s Michael Gazzaniga and the museum’s own Dr. John Johnson.

As science is not so much an immutable set of precise rules as a never-ending set of questions, it wasn’t surprising that panelists articulately disagreed with each other in several key areas.

Precisely when did pre-humans split off from other simian relatives? Why? How can we tell? How many hominids were actually our immediate predecessors, and how many others moved down evolutionary blind alleys?

Does Haeckel’s famous “Evolutionary Tree,” which we learned about in school, still apply? Are Lamarck’s theories of transferred adaptation relevant again?

Why did the Neanderthals, with stronger bodies, larger brains, and longer duration as the top hominid species in Europe (and parts of Asia), vanish so quickly around the same time Homo sapiens began arriving from Africa? If Neanderthal may have had red hair, blue eyes, and possibly the ability to speak and to use tools, what happened to them? Is it realistic to suppose that the two species interbred, a popular idea in sci-fi novels and movies?

Can all Homo sapiens really be traced back to an original group of as few as 600 members living around large South African coastal caves 120,000 years ago? And why and how did Homo sapiens learn to talk?

One thing that became clear over 10 hours of spirited discussion and debate was how much we’ve learned about human origins in the last few decades-and are still learning-and how much contemporary thinking is based on increasingly interdisciplinary analysis of so few sites and so few actual semi-intact fossil remains. One panelist noted in passing, “There are at least a hundred good dinosaur fossils – although they died out 65 million years ago – for each really good hominid specimen we have to work with from only four- or five-million years ago. That makes it hard. No wonder we don’t all agree.”

Audience enthusiasm at the symposium was so strong that there’s already talk about doing a follow-up in two years. For those who can’t wait, a DVD of the proceedings will be made available by the museum.


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