Evolution is the concept that all living organisms descended from a common ancestor. Living organisms adapt to changes in their environment and, in turn, create new species, over time. The study of evolution is complex, incorporating many disciplines, to shape conclusive theories. Physical anthropologies use of the fossil record and archeologists examination of artifacts, play key roles in understanding and furthering the theory of evolution.
Physical anthropology studies the biology of humans, and primates, to learn more about human evolution. Comparing the modern human skeleton with ancient remains is one way to visualize the path of descent. Charles Darwin worried that the theory of evolution would not be supported by enough physical evidence and “was too dependent on random” events (Park, 2008). Today, the fossil record continues to grow, showing the epic that has unfolded for over four billion years (Gore, 2009).
The fossil record can be considered a scientific wonder. Fossils are rare. The survival of a fossil depends on several factors. Should a fossil be formed it must survive a battering of changes in environment and condition such as volcanic eruption, heavy rains, and rising or falling sea levels. Should the fossil survive it must then be found, documented, excavated, examined and preserved (Gore, 2009). This is hardly a simple process.
Physical anthropologists focus, most specifically, on human and primate related fossils. Dating these fossils using the discovery sites placement in the strata of the earth, or in comparing to other fossils found, helps in theorizing and further understanding evolution. The “fossil remains of a particular group of organisms show change or descent through modification (Park, 2008). Much like frames of a movie, each fossil tells a bit of the story of life on Earth. The frames support the idea that there have been changes in the earth and its inhabitants over time and all living things are related.
Some fossil finds can change previously believed theories of evolution. For instance, a new primate fossil found in Saudi Arabia suggests “[homo sapiens] lineage may have diverged from…monkey relatives later than previously thought. (Choi, 2010).” The remains were compared with other known hominid related species and shares several features. This fossil will help to better shape the picture of hominoid lineage by providing new clues. It will bring us one step closer to figuring out our ultimate family tree. This partial skull found in Saudi Arabia is believed to be “29 million to 28 million years old” and be from a primate who appeared just before the split from Old World monkeys (Choi, 2010). Changing the time period of hominid split gives way to the ability to take a look at the environmental changes taking place at that time. Such finds are a perfect example of the ever refining theory of evolution.
Much like physical anthropologist, archeologists study the remains of the past. Where physical anthropologists focus on the biology of the human species, archeologist are interested in the cultures of the human species. More specifically archeologists use artifacts, remnants of past peoples, to learn about ancient people and theorize about ancient cultures. Artifacts can be a variety of things, ranging from tools, art, pottery and houses to religious systems and government practices (Park, 2008). Learning about why cultures existed as they did in the past, what changed these cultures and why some culture ceased to exist may give clues to the diversity of today’s cultures.
Artifacts, like fossils, are not easy to come by. Finding an archeological site can be obvious, such as in the case of Stonehenge in England or the pueblos of New Mexico. On rare occasions, new construction or a farmer plowing a field, may turn up evidence of an important archeological site. Most often archeologists must hunt for a site. To do so requires a great deal of research, planning and research. In choosing an area to survey as a possible archeological site, a time period and the lands environment at that time, must be taken into account. The earth has had some major changes in its lifetime. From there, the question is, based on what the condition of the time were, what would be an adequate place for ancient peoples to frequent (Park, 2008).
Once a site is selected, test pits are dug, to see if there are remnants of the past in the area. For test sites and full scale excavation, all steps are recorded with especially detailed documentation made for artifacts found. Documentation of an archeological dig should be precise enough to allow for a site to be, essentially, put back together just as it was found. Any artifacts found in an archeological dig must be dated. There are many ways to date an artifact. The often heard of, carbon dating, can only date up to 60,000 years from the present. Anything older is often either compared to other artifacts and/r fossils to get a relative age. For an absolute age, with a small margin of error, dating methods that test the soil, rock and surrounding material are used (Park, 2008).
Aside from the tools, pottery and material artifacts found are the major testaments to a powerful aspect of past and present cultures, religion. Ancient ceremonial sites, religious temples and burial site can say a great deal about a civilization. An example of a major cultural testament, made by ancient peoples, for reason we are still trying to determine is Stonehenge, in Salisbury Plain, England.
The structure is about 5000 years old with time of construction believed to have lasted about 1400 years. There are theories that Stonehenge was, at one time, an astronomical observatory. The most widely accepted theory focuses on it being a religiously important, ceremonial site (Griebel, n.d.). While we may never know for sure what its purpose is, we are able to learn from the structure.
The recent discovery of “the foundations of a second circular structure only a few hundred meters from” Stonehenge, gives further evidence to it having religious importance, at one time (Satter, 2010). There are many, possibly ceremonial monuments scattered across the area surrounding Stonehenge. Bluehenge, a small prehistoric circle of stones on the bank of River Anon, was discovered last year. Theory stands that Bluehenge, which was built with bluestones, may have been the “starting point of a processional walk that began at the river and ended at Stonehenge (Satter, 2010).” There was a body of a small child found in the 1970s in nearby Woodhenge, a monument made up of six rings made by wooden posts, enclosed by an embankment. The skull was split and from this it is suspected that human sacrifice may have been practiced (Satter, 2010). One could also wonder if the child’s placement in the monument was as memorial, rather than sacrifice. Neither theory has been proven or disproven. This is the essence of archeology.
Ultimately, the theory of evolution contains so many complex pieces, it must be studied from a variety of angles, to form a concise picture of the origins of life. Physical anthropology focuses on the biology of the human species and its close relatives, primates. Archeology focuses on recreating and attempting to understand the cultures of the past. Both fields use scientific methods of searching, finding, excavating and thoroughly documenting pieces of the past buried within the earth. While physical anthropologists may find more information in a bone, but archeologists may prefer the burial plots itself, both aspects are required to understand our origins, as a species and a planet.
Choi, Charles Q. (2010, July). New Species Changes Ideas on When Humans, Monkeys Split.
Gore, Pamela J. W. (2009, August). The Fossil Record.
Griebel, Ron. (n.d.) Stonehenge.
Park, Michael Allen. Introducing Anthropology: An Integrated Approach, Fourth Edition. 2008. The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Satter, Raphael G. (2010, July). Another ceremonial monument found near Stonehenge.