Institute of Human Origins celebrates 30 years of research, discovery
“We are the only species on earth to possess the ability to explore, discover and speculate about its own past.”
Written in a newsletter nearly 30 years ago by Donald Johanson, founding director of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins, this idea sparked Johanson’s lifelong study of anthropology, which he sealed in the history of science in 1974 as the founder of the 3.14 million year-old fossil bones of Australopithecus afarensis, popularly known as “Lucy.”
The 30-year history of the Institute of Human Origins has its foundation in Johanson’s earnest pursuit to understand the evolutionary process by which we became human. The institute’s future continues that mission as the leading research organization in the United States devoted to the science of human origins.
The Institute of Human Origins was founded as a nonprofit in Berkeley, California, in March 1981 as an independent human evolution think tank to implement, according to its mission, a “multidisciplinary strategy to discover and interpret the evidence for human evolution.”
Early in its formation, Johanson and fellow institute scientists knew that only by combining their individual expertise in biology, geology, anthropology and geography could new knowledge be gleaned from the research sites and fossils searching for answers to our origins. The institute moved to Arizona State University in 1996, bringing Johanson, the institute’s current director, William Kimbel, and professor Kaye Reed to faculty positions with the Department of Anthropology. The institute is now a research center in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
To celebrate the institute’s anniversary theme, “Becoming Human: 30 Years of Research and Discovery,” a full year of events has been planned to bring renowned scientists and experts in human origins to the ASU campus for a series of lectures; a fall 2011 exhibition in the Museum of Anthropology; an essay competition – “Letters to Lucy” – for elementary, middle and high school students; and a final symposium and gala in April 2012.
The first two lectures beginning spring semester 2011 are “Primates and Human Origins” with William McGrew from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, UK, on Thursday, March 24, and “Climate and Human Evolution” with Peter deMenocal, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, on April 29.
Additional lecture series speakers include Terry Harrison, Center for the Study of Human Origins, New York University, discussing the “Earliest Humans” (September 8); Leslie Aiello, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc, on the “Origin of Genus Homo” (October 6); David Braun, Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town on the “Origins of Technology” (December 1); Katerina Harvati, University of Tübingen on “Neandertals Revisited” (February 23, 2012); and Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum of London on the “Origins of Modern Humans” (March 22, 2012).
The culminating symposium in April 2012 will explore topics on the future of human origins research. Both top international scientists and institute faculty, including Johanson, Kimbel, Reed, and Associate Director Curtis Marean and professors Gary Schwartz, Mark Spencer and Chris Campisano, will participate in the one-day symposium that will close with a gala fundraising dinner with Founding Director Don Johanson as its keynote speaker.
In addition to the on-campus events, a special trip is being organized for January 2012 to travel to Ethiopia, where a small group of adventurers will be led by Professor Johanson to visit sites of interest across the country. While there, the travelers will visit a working field school where institute director Bill Kimbel will be leading a group of ASU undergraduate students for six weeks at a site in Hadar close to where the fossil bones of the “Lucy” skeleton were found in 1974. The Hadar project is the longest running paleoanthropology field program in the Ethiopian rift valley, now spanning more than 38 years.
From the beginning, the institute’s board of directors—individuals with a burning interest in human origins from science, academia, business and other arenas—has been a key component in the institute’s funding and support structure. Their participation and commitment to the institute over the years have been key to the success of its research program and international reputation in the study of human origins. The current board is comprised of twenty members (external to ASU), several of whom have been with the institute since 1981.
For more information about the institute’s 30th anniversary events and sponsorships, go to iho.asu.edu/30th.