Initiative Abstract

Molecular studies have clarified relationships among modern mammals, including primates. Chimpanzees are known to be humanity’s closest living relatives. The origin and evolution of Hominidae (the family comprising human ancestors and close relatives subsequent to their shared common ancestry with African apes) is a fundamental scientific problem. The last century of human evolutionary research already reveals multiple species of ancestors, close relatives, and descendants that existed during the last four million years (Ma).

During the last decade an unprecedented phase of discovery of still older hominid forms deepened this record into the 5-7 Ma time frame, already identified by molecular studies as central to hominid origins. Such discoveries have fueled intensified laboratory and field research into hominid origins, across the eastern hemisphere. Crucial contextual evidence for understanding the origins of Hominidae is afforded by paleobiological finds in both Eurasian and African sediments. This avalanche of new and increasingly diverse data has overwhelmed the abilities of researchers and research teams to compare, integrate, and disseminate their results. Science now stands on the threshold of revealing the paleobiology of the ancestral hominid source. The Revealing Hominid Origins Initiative (RHOI) presented to the NSF-HOMINID program is specifically structured to take full advantage of this unique opportunity. The initiative is focussed on the crucial 5-7 Ma interval when Hominidae originated. The activities it supports will broadly effect concepts of humanity’s place in nature.

This initiative, interdisciplinary and international, constitutes a sustained effort designed to illuminate the origin and earliest evolution of Hominidae. It is explicitly collaborative and involves ongoing research in 13 countries, among over 50 scientists. The varied disciplines represented in the effort are commensurate with advances in methodologies and technologies bearing directly on human evolutionary studies within the context of evolutionary biology and the natural sciences. The proposal requests funding to activate and accelerate research; to facilitate analyses; to enhance interdisciplinary activities; to build infrastructure; and to speed the dissemination of data. The initiative thus encompasses, complements, and extends individual research projects already supported by NSF and other agencies. Simultaneously, it greatly extends human origins research in scope and scale. The initiative is designed to improve both field and laboratory studies by promoting exploration and discovery, by integrating research using proposed analytical working groups, by enhancing paleoanthropological infrastructure, and by creating innovative and integrative mechanisms for data sharing.


Initiative Summary

The Revealing Hominid Origins Initiative (RHOI) supports the collection, curation, and study of original fossil material. 33 paleontological projects in 15 countries are formally affiliated:

  • Active projects: projects conducting active fieldwork at African upper Miocene (5-7Myr) localities.
  • Contextual projects: projects conducting active fieldwork in geographic or temporal contexts that inform studies of upper Miocene hominid evolution.
  • Curatorial projects: organizational, preservational, and analytical efforts involving fossil collections from sites where fieldwork is currently inactive.
  • Exploration projects: efforts aimed at discovering new fossil-bearing deposits of upper Miocene age.
  • Infrastructure projects: efforts aimed at developing infrastructure in museums, outreach organizations, and research centers that have programs directly related to upper Miocene paleontological research.

The RHOI's purpose is to generate and disseminate new knowledge about human origins through the support of these projects. To accomplish this, the Initiative includes an Informatics component and supports the ongoing work of Analytical Working Groups.


This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant no. BCS-0321893
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation