Welcome to the publication, “Representations.” This is a project designed to bring the perspectives of a wider variety of groups to the forefront of the anthropology classroom. To celebrate Black History Month, we are covering the accomplishments of 28 Black anthropologists across 28 days. Learn more about our project; read on for the amazing accomplishments of Zeresenay Alemseged.
Paleoanthropologist, Zeresenay Alemseged, is best known for his discovery of “Selam” the world’s oldest and most complete skeleton of a human ancestor. This fossil is about 3.3 million years old and is an Australopithecus afarensis skeleton. Australopithecus afarensis is an early human ancestor who walked upright and possessed facial features that were more robust than modern humans (Warren et al). Alemseged’s discovery is critical to the field of anthropology’s more complete understanding of human biological evolution.
Alemseged is a paleoanthropologist who describes his motivation as, “to find man’s place in nature and explore what makes us human (Alemseged 2017).” Alemsegad’s career has brought him across the world from his native Ethiopia to France, Germany, the United States, and — frequently — back to Ethiopia where he has made historic discoveries.
Alemseged’s discovery of Selam allows all anthropologists to begin to approach that burning question, “What makes us human?” From the fossil remains, we can better understand our biological evolutionary history as the remains of Selam — like the famous “Lucy” skeleton — have angled femurs and pelves that are shorter and more broad (Soluri and Agarwal 2020).
The fossil skeleton discovered by Alemseged included the first-ever hyoid bone of that age which is the first-ever evidence that our 3-million-year-old ancestors may have had a voice box (Nature 2006).
Research surrounding Salem’s remains is ongoing as the fossil contains essential information about our evolutionary history. The specimen is believed to be that of a roughly 2 year and 5 month old child, allowing anthropologists to not only study evolutionary history but, also, the growth patterns of our ancestors (Milman et al 2020). When the braincase is compared to similar shapes across modern humans versus chimpanzees, the shape is more similar to that of a chimpanzee (Gunz et al. 2020). Similarly, the environmental impact on the development of the foot (throughout childhood and development) is an indicator of movement and behavior patterns within species (Milman, et al 2020) and scientists are now able to create animated models that reflect the anatomy of Salem in order to identify how Australopithecus afarensis moved and grew throughout its life.
Alemseged is the founder and leader of the Dikika Research Project which defines itself as “a multidisciplinary endeavor that seeks to address key evolutionary questions pertaining to various aspects of the paleobiology of early hominins (early human ancestors) — as well as their culture and environments over the past ca. 4.0 million years (University of Chicago).” Working in his native Ethiopia, Alemseged seeks to uncover further evidence of our ancestors’ lives and biology.
Zeresenay Alemseged was born in 1969 and began his professional career as a geologist after graduating with a B.Sc. in Geology from Addis Ababa University in 1990 in the capital of Ethiopia. While working as a junior geologist at the National Museum of Ethiopia’s Paleoanthropology Laboratory, Alemseged realized that he had a passion for paleoanthropology. Alemseged pursued his passion and ultimately earned his M.Sc in paleontology at the University of Montpellier II in 1994 and went on to earn his Ph.D. in Paleoanthropology at the University of Paris VI in 1998 (UChicago).
Alemseged has held many prestigious appointments throughout his career including Chair of Anthropology for the California Academy of Sciences, Senior Scientist in the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University based in Tempe, Arizona.
Alemseged, Zeresenay. “The Search for Humanity’s Roots.” TED, www.ted.com/talks/zeresenay_alemseged_the_search_for_humanity_s_roots?language=en#t-51961.
“About the PI.” Alemseged Lab, alemsegedlab.org/about-the-pi/.
Gunz, P., Neubauer, S., Faulk, D., Tafforeau, P., Le Cabec, A., Smith, T.M., Kimbel, W.H., Spoor, F., Alemseged, Z., Australopithecus afarensis endocasts suggest ape-like brain organization and prolonged brain growth. Science Advances. 6: eaaz4729.
Milman, E., Daugherty, J., Alemseged, Z., Brennan, K., Lebowicz, L., Visualization of a Juvenile Australopithecus afarensis Specimen: Implications for Functional Foot Anatomy. Journal of Biocommunications. 43(2).
Shook, Beth, et al. Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology. 2019.
Soluri, K. Elizabeth, and Sabrina Agarwal. Laboratory Manual and Workbook for Biological Anthropology: Engaging with Human Evolution. W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.
“Zeray Alemseged.” California Academy of Sciences, www.calacademy.org/explore-science/zeray-alemseged.
“Zeresenay Alemseged.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 20 Sept. 2006, www.nature.com/articles/7109xiiia.
“Zeresenay Alemseged, PhD.” | Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy | The University of Chicago, oba.bsd.uchicago.edu/faculty/zeresenay-alemseged-phd.
Photo Credit: California Academy of Sciences