Modern human behavior, ranging from tool use to cooking to agriculture to industrial food processing, has allowed us colonize virtually every environment on earth – and even parts of outer space. Our love of grains and tubers has increased the number of our starch-digesting genes, and our taste for dairy has genetically altered at least 10% of the human population to do something no other mammal can do – digest milk after weaning. We have turned grassy weeds into corn, cyanide laced seeds into almonds, and bitter flowers into broccoli. And we are not alone - we also carry within us trillions of microbes that we feed with the indigestible, fibrous parts of our diets, and they in turn make our vitamins, protect us from food poisoning and food allergies, and modulate our metabolism. Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged will present data from isotopic studies and examine the evidence for the first major expansion of the hominin diet, millions of years ago, to include more grasses and animals. This adaptation was the precursor that made future expansion possible. Dr. Christina Warinner will then explore more recent changes in human diet, from 50,000 years ago to the present, and discuss how these changes have fundamentally affected human biology, ecology, and societies.
Dr. Zeray Alemseged
Paleoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged studies the origins of humanity. Through his Dikika Research Project (DRP) in the Afar desert of Ethiopia, he has discovered the earliest known skeleton of a hominid child, the 3.3-million-year-old bones of Selam, a 3-year-old girl of the species Australopithecus afarensis. She is a member of the same species as Lucy, discovered nearby in 1974.
In studying Selam's tiny bones, Alemseged is searching for the points at which we humans diverged from apes. For instance, Selam may have had ape-like shoulders, made for climbing trees -- but her legs were angled for walking upright. Her young brain, at age 3, was still growing, which implies that she was set to have a long human-style childhood. And in the hyoid bone of her throat, Alemseged sees the beginning of human speech.
Born in Axum, Ethiopia, Alemseged is based in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences where is is the Director and Curator of the Anthropology department. Prior to this, he was a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. To see more video from Alemseged, visit the video archives of Nature.
I am a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and a Research Affiliate of the Molecular Research Group at the University of Zurich’s Centre for Evolutionary Medicine. I received my Ph.D. from the Anthropology Department at Harvard University in 2010. I am currently working on multiple biomedical projects involving archaeogenetic and paleoproteomic research. I was recently named a 2012 TED Fellow and my research has been featured in Wired UK, the UK Observer, CNN.com, and Fox News.