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Innovation and Environmental Disruption during the Origin of Homo Sapiens
By Dr. Richard Potts
May 3, 6:30 p.m.
Join paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Potts, Founder of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who presents Innovation and Environmental Disruption during the Origin of Homo Sapiens on May 3.
In studies published in 2018 in the journal Science, Dr. Potts and his research team working at the site of Olorgesailie, Kenya, proposed that environmental turmoil in the form of geological faulting and rapidly changing climate likely drove early humans in East Africa to develop stone tool innovations, exchange between distant groups, and the use of coloring material by 320,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. These milestones in technological, ecological, and social evolution coincided with the oldest ages for fossils attributed to Homo sapiens in Africa. A central finding of the research is that large quantities of obsidian, valuable for its sharp edges, were carried from multiple directions of at least 15–55 miles straight-line distance, and involved far longer travel in the rugged terrain of the Kenya rift valley. In hunter-gatherer societies, such long-distance movement of resources typically involves social networks that are crucial for survival in unpredictable environments. In a follow-up study of a drill core obtained from Olorgesailie, Potts’s team has now shown that dramatic variations in fresh water, vegetation, and landscapes took place during this critical transition in human behavior and may reflect the origin of adaptability in our species.
About our speaker:
Paleoanthropologist Richard Potts, PhD, founded and directs the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. In partnership with the National Museums of Kenya, Potts leads ongoing excavations at the Olorgesailie and Homa Peninsula field sites in Kenya. After receiving his PhD in biological anthropology at Harvard University in 1982, he taught at Yale University before joining the Smithsonian in 1985. Potts’s research investigates Earth’s environmental dynamics and the processes that have led to human evolutionary adaptations. His ideas about the influence of environmental instability on human evolution have stimulated new studies in Earth sciences, paleontology, and computational biology. He is the curator of the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins and of the exhibit Exploring Human Origins, which has been traveling across the United States since 2015. Potts is author of the exhibit companion book What Does It Mean To Be Human?