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Events mark 30th anniversary of ASU's scientific look into human origins

sand skull
April 09, 2012

Over the past year, ASU’s Institute of Human Origins has been marking 30 years as an organization dedicated to its mission of research and discovery of the causes of human evolutionary change over deep time.

Two final events will culminate the year’s festivities: a gala dinner at the Phoenix Zoo on April 26, featuring institute founding director Donald Johanson as featured speaker, and a symposium, titled Human Origins at the Edge of Discovery, on April 27, at Neeb Hall on the ASU Tempe campus.

The gala dinner – Out of Africa: A 30-Year Journey of Research and Discovery – is a fundraising event for the institute and will welcome guests at the zoo’s Orangutan Pavilion for the cocktail hour. Institute scientists will be on hand to talk about primates and early human ancestors with the zoo’s orangutan family just on the other side of the exhibit window. Dinner will be “safari-style” lakeside under the stars with the zoo’s African veldt close by. Johanson, famed anthropologist and ASU professor, will speak abut his 30-plus years as a scientist and international traveler.

The next day, the institute will host Human Origins at the Edge of Discovery, which will feature international experts in anthropology. Three invited speakers include Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropolgy at Oxford University, whose work focuses on the evolution of sociality – social and behavioral decision-making and cognitive underpinnings of social behavior.

Dunbar has become known by social media circles for "Dunbar's number" – his idea that 150 is the maximum number of friendships that the human mind is capable of handling.

Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute, Germany, has dedicated much of his career to the study of the biological and cultural evolution of Neanderthals and to the origin of modern humans. And finally, Michael Ruse, a philosophy of biology professor at Florida State University, is well-known for his work on the creationism/evolution controversy, and was a key witness for the plaintiff in McLean vs. Arkansas, in which the federal judge ruled that the state’s “creation science” law was unconstitutional.

Additional speakers and panel members are comprised of ASU faculty and leading scientists from U.S. universities who have had a strong connection to institute science for many years. The symposium is free and open to the public. The symposium is sponsored by the institute and cosponsored by the ASU Origins Project and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Celebratory events began with a year-long lecture series featuring seven internationally known experts in paleoanthropology, a reunion of Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey on the stage of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City last spring, a museum exhibition in ASU’s Museum of Anthropology that broke previous attendance records, and finally a trip to Ethiopia by Johanson and members of the institute’s board of directors.

The Ethiopia trip highlighted a visit to the site where “Lucy,” the 3.2 million fossil skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, was discovered by Johanson in 1974. Last fall, the institute sponsored an essay competition, “Letters to Lucy,” which asked students from third through 12th grades to answer the question, “What makes us human and why?” Winning students from three academic levels have been chosen, and Johanson is set to visit the three schools – elementary, middle school and high school – to talk about human origins and why science education is so important.

The schools are Phoenix’s own ASU Preparatory Academy (elementary level); Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California (middle school); and Central Bucks High School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The winning essays can be read through the institute’s public outreach website at

Gala dinner table sponsorships and tickets are still available at More information about the symposium and speakers are available at