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ASU institute receives single-largest investment in human origins research

IHO skull image
September 16, 2014

One of the most fundamental and compelling issues in science is the search for the origins of our species.

Thanks to a $4.9 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins (IHO), university scientists will undertake a multifaceted, transdisciplinary collaborative research project that seeks to increase our understanding of the process of “how we became human.”

The Templeton-funded projects range from studies of the first use of tools by early humans to the emergence of large-scale cooperation in modern societies.

The grant, the largest of its type for human origins research, will support 11 linked projects with a focus on where, when and how unique human capacities for cognition, culture and cooperation emerged. Together, they will help explain how humans have evolved in environmental, technological and social contexts to become the dominant species on Earth.

A $200,000 supplement to support K-12 educational outreach in human origins is included in the grant.

“This is an exciting opportunity to advance the critical research being conducted by the Institute of Human Origins,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “The institute has a long-term commitment to strategically important explorations that pay off in streams of meaningful discoveries. The Templeton Foundation support will enable the institute to build upon its impressive trajectory and our knowledge of our origins. We look forward to significant outcomes that can be shared with our peers, with society and with those who will be tomorrow’s discoverers.”

“We are thrilled to partner with the John Templeton Foundation on this major research initiative,” said William Kimbel, director of IHO, who coordinated the two-year application process. “The Templeton Foundation’s focus on ‘big questions’ that unite disparate scientific disciplines fits perfectly with how IHO scientists approach the study of human origins at ASU. It is truly a transformative moment in IHO’s 33-year history.”

Under the thematic umbrella of “The Evolutionary Foundations of Human Uniqueness,” the Templeton Foundation grant will support projects directed by nine IHO-affiliated scientists in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. More than 50 external collaborators, postdoctoral scholars and ASU graduate students will be involved in the projects, which span field work, analytical studies and theoretical research in Africa, Europe, South America, Oceania and the United States.

The IHO research team comprises Robert Boyd, Christopher Campisano, Kim Hill, William Kimbel, Curtis Marean, Sarah Mathew, Kaye Reed, Gary Schwartz and Joan Silk. Outreach activities will be spearheaded by IHO founding director Donald Johanson.

With Templeton Foundation support, IHO will develop its award-winning website as the premier resource for innovative teaching and learning about human origins in primary- and secondary-school grades. A series of research workshops and a culminating public symposium are also part of the grant.

“We are gratified that the John Templeton Foundation recognizes IHO’s tradition of excellence in linking the results of scientific research to the education of young people about our origins,” noted Johanson. “Now, thanks to the Foundation’s investment, we’ll dramatically expand our reach into the science classroom.”

Included in the grant is more than $400,000 for a state-of-the-art 2- and 3-D imaging lab for analysis of fossils and artifacts, which will become a permanent facility at ASU, open to other researchers on campus and to non-ASU scientists and students collaborating with IHO researchers on longer-term projects.

"ASU has so many extraordinary scholars in human origins that our investment is equivalent to making nearly a dozen grants in the field,” said Paul Wason, vice president of Life Sciences and Genetics at the Templeton Foundation. “In this case, the project leaders will closely coordinate their work, bringing a ‘whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ benefit to the research.

“IHO has impressive experience in public outreach, and the quality of their research on the theme of human uniqueness has the potential for real impact on young people,” Wason said.

The Institute for Human Origins and the School of Human Evolution and Social Changes are research units in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences