November 18, 2017

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The Good News from Millions of Years Ago | Consider the Source

Marc 2This has been an unprecedented year in the study of human evolution—made even more spectacular by the ways in which technology allows us to share the excitement of recent discoveries in our schools. When you finish reading this column, you can create 3-D replicas of anthropologists’ latest finds, sign up for updates from the scientists that are breaking new ground, and demonstrate to every student in your school—the artist, the computer fan, the outdoor-explorer, the scientist, the historian, and the writer—that they too can play a thrilling part in this grand moment.

I’ve written before about the discovery of Homo naledi and the doors that this find is opening, including a new understanding of the evolution of modern humans, while at the same time, raising questions about whether behaviors that we thought defined modern humans may have begun with ancient ancestors. The scientists involved in that extraordinary find in South Africa, as well as the very famous Leakey family, members of whom continue to make key discoveries in East Africa, have set out to share their work as widely as possible. Anyone can now use a 3-D printer to create replicas of recently unearthed fossils. (Follow these links for the Homo naledi fossils and the Leakey site at AfricanFossils.org.)

I have shown fossil replicas of Australopithecus sediba during many school visits; young people love seeing and touching them, and comparing the skull and hand of this hominid with their own. The replicas make the discovery so real; now, that vivid, tactile artifact of human ancestry can be shared in our libraries and classrooms. The work of artists who have reconstructed the faces of these possibly human ancestors is fascinating and will grab the attention of those interested in human anatomy, the computer artists, and our hands-on learners. Telling the stories of the cave explorers who led us to Homo naledi brings in the adventurers. All of these students will want to keep up with the latest revelations by following Lee Berger and John Hawks on Twitter.

And then we get to DNA. Have you been following the radical news that is coming from the recovery and analysis of DNA from bodies and fossils? In the past, when scientists tried to figure out, for example, who came to Europe when, they focused on the styles of pottery, weapons, or beads, and tried to trace the evolution of languages. But now scientists can look at the DNA recovered from ancient burial sites and compare it to that of current populations. With this DNA, they have learned so much more, including how the advent of agriculture may have altered our DNA thousands of years ago. Similarly, so much of the thinking on race is based on making distinctions between peoples. DNA collected from ancient peoples now suggests that the story of human migration (thus, DNA flow) goes way, way back, and around the world. I am proud to say that Dr. Berger and I wrote about this population flow in The Skull in the Rock (National Geographic, 2012).

Of course, some parents, school boards, and educators are concerned about sharing information about evolution because of their own creationist views or their fears of protests from advocates of those positions. Several recent Pew Research Center polls show the greatest shift in views on evolution—toward an acceptance of a scientific view—is occurring in young people. As Rachel E. Gross explains in a 2014 article in Slate, “73 percent of American adults younger than 30 expressed some sort of belief in evolution, a jump from 61 percent in 2009, the first year in which the question was asked.” Of course, faith belongs entirely to the individual. But science is the purview of the school library.

Students interested in human migration, in chemistry and DNA, and in deep history, have very recent, exciting new areas to explore, and we are on the verge of learning so much more. We are opening the door to our deep, deep past—and welcoming young people into the adventure of discovery. What a perfect subject for displays in a school library.

 

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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