Aside from the epic role of Mother Nature, there are no known fore-mothers who contributed directly to human origins and evolutionary science prior to the 20th century. Furthermore, much of the theoretical and philosophical background of the science of human origins and evolution is based in Europe because that is where science as we know it was born. But for Europeans and non-Europeans alike, the quest to discover human origins and to understand human evolution resonates deeply for everyone who has ever wondered about human nature and how humans came to exist. Fossils pique our curiosity and written records, folklore, and the collection of artifacts indicate that people have always been fascinated with the things that crumble out of the earth.
Chinese folk healers still follow the ancient belief that "dragon bones"—the fossils of dinosaurs and other animals—are effective medicines. Decorations on pottery and written records reveal that, for the Classical Greeks and Romans, fossilized bones from the ground evoked questions and helped support beliefs about their own origins. Prominent families traced their pedigrees back to heroes of mythological importance. Fossils of large extinct animals, like ancient elephants, from the Miocene and Pleistocene reaffirmed their beliefs that giants and larger-than-life heroes of myths preceded them.
Today museums around the world display fossils from their particular region and boast that their part of the world is crucial to human origins. This ancient practice was invented by the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), who established the world's first paleon-tological museum. It contained bones of giants and weapons of ancient heroes, all used as propaganda to empower his emerging Roman empire.
But before the first paleontologists and their museums, Plato and Aristotle (6th and 5th centuries BC) had already established the first recorded philosophy on human nature and human origins. They considered humans to be part of the natural world just like other organisms and put them at the top of the "Great Chain of Being." With the spread of Christianity, the chain was adopted into a ladder with God at the top, angels just below him, humans split into ranked racial categories below angels, nonhuman primates under them, mammals, then reptiles, amphibians, and fish, with plants rooted at the bottom, on top of inanimate objects like rocks.
Christian theology dominated the Middle Ages of Western Europe and the world was seen as the product of God's plan. Species were considered fixed and immutable and to appear today as they had always been. Humans were thought to be separate from the natural world around them and were created by God in their present form with language and culture. Biblical creation was assumed to have occurred very recently because of calculations by scholars like Bishop Ussher. He summed up ages of generations of people in the Old Testament and calculated that the creation of the world, recounted in the book of Genesis, occurred in 4004 BC
The scientific revolution of the 17th century was ushered in by Copernicus and Galileo who realized that the world revolves around the sun and not the other way around. The long-held notion that the Earth is flat was also abandoned. Furthermore, explorers increasingly came into contact with people across the oceans and were introduced to their unique cultural traditions and non-Western ways of being humans. The rigid Biblical interpretation of natural history had begun to cause problems for scientists interested in explaining the world around them.
Carl von Linne, better known by his Latinized name Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), took a major step toward the modern state of human origins science when he gave humans a genus and species name just like the he gave reptiles and oak trees. Linnaeus created the binomial method of classifying organisms and called humans Homo (man) sapiens (wise). The Linnaean system of taxonomy is universal today.
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was the first to apply scientific principles (established by Francis Bacon in 1620) to paleontology, specifically to vertebrate paleontology. He realized that catastrophes, like those described in the Old Testament of the Bible, were probably responsible for the extinctions of many of the species that are found as fossils. In Cuvier's theory of "catastrophism," areas that experience mass extinctions are restocked with new forms migrating from neighboring regions.
However, Cuvier never conceived of slow change over deep time, and that was why Charles Lyell's (1797-1875) contribution of "uniformitari-anism" made him the founder of modern geology. Lyell's theory, which stands today, stated that the same fundamental natural processes that happen today (both catastrophic and slow, gradual change) have always been happening in the past and will continue to happen in the future. Thus, the Earth today looks remarkably different from how it appeared millions of years ago because of processes like erosion and volcanism that shape mountains and gorges. Lyell was one of the first to argue that the earth is indeed very old and could not possibly be the mere 6,000 years old as calculated by Bishop Ussher. Darwin read Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830) on his historic voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, and Lyell's emphasis on the ancient age of the earth, deep time, and the gradual, slow nature of geologic processes greatly influenced him.
Before Charles Darwin formed his theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859 with The Origin of Species, fossils of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons had already made giant waves in the scientific community. In 1829, the first Neanderthal remains were discovered at Engis, Belgium, but the child's skull was not recognized as a nonhuman until later. In 1848, at Forbes' Quarry near Gibraltar, an adult Neanderthal cranium was discovered and was also notrecognized at the time. By 1856, an entire Neanderthal skeleton was discovered at the Feldhofer quarry in the Neander Valley, Germany. The Neanderthal as a separate, nonhuman creature—mostly separated by differences in face and skull shape as well as skeletal strength and robusticity—was established in 1864 and named according to its home region: Homo neanderthalensis. Fossils of modern humans had not even been known by the time Neanderthals were settled as prehistoric "cavemen." Finally by 1868 skeletons of fossilized modern humans were discovered at the Cro-Magnon rock-shelter at Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, France, hence the origin of the nickname "Cro-Magnons" for Ice Age or Late Pleistocene modern humans from Europe. The first Cro-Magnons known to science were barely younger than the Neanderthals but had clearly human traits and none of the primitive features seen on the Neanderthal skull and skeleton.
Quite the opposite of the ancient Greeks who erred frequently on the side of interpreting nonhuman fossils to be their ancestors, many of the first scientists to interpret the earliest Neanderthal and Homo erectus remains found in the mid to late 19th century refused to accept their role in human evolution. The so-called logical explanations usually offered for oddly shaped fossils were that they were diseased modern human remains or injured soldiers' remains, rather than they were ancient or extinct humanoids. Conversely, the scientists who did accept the paleontological evidence for human evolution became the very first paleoanthropologists. What's more, these men were no longer accidental tourists of the discipline. That is, they were no longer restricted to contemplating the incredible finds made just outside their hospital or country cottage doors. These men were scholars in human anatomy and set out with the explicit purpose to find ancient human fossils or with the explicit purpose of finding evidence for human evolution.
For instance, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) wrote a book with a title that today might be misinterpreted as an outdoor recreation manual rather than an evolutionary epic: Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863). Huxley was the first scientist to explicitly compare the anatomy of humans and great apes, working under what became his famous charge:
The question of questions for mankind—the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other—is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things. (T.H. Huxley, 1863)
Huxley argued that humans and the African great apes are very closely related, and, in fact, more so than they are to the Asian apes. He hypothesized, therefore, that human ancestry was likely to be found in Africa—a prediction that Darwin later supported in his book The Descent of Man (1871) and that future paleoanthropologists confirmed as well.
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