You're probably familiar with forensic investigation shows like CSI and Bones, where good-looking lab technicians use high-tech equipment to nail down criminals’ identities. But you may not know how far these same techniques can go toward uncovering the origins of the human species.
Whether it's establishing a link between the evolution of man and apes or reconstructing the face of a woman who died 4,000 years ago, applying sciences to the study of human history is as informative as it is entertaining.
If you’re interested in the intersection of sciences and humanities, consider pursuing natural sciences studies. Studying the liberal arts and natural sciences could bring you face to face with humans from ages past, like the iconic fossilized figures detailed below.
Natural Sciences Studies & Evolutionary Ideas: Discovering the ‘Taung Baby’
As you'll learn in natural sciences courses at Shimer, the discovery of evolution was fraught with controversy. Many people did not accept Darwin's evolutionary theory, and even the most willing experts were reluctant to peg the development of the human species at more than 100,000 years old.
This began to change in 1924, with the discovery of a skull in Taung, South Africa by Professor Raymond Dart. The Taung skull (dubbed “Taung Baby”) was very small with a distinct brain shape and relatively short teeth. Shaking up the popular understanding of humanity’s origins, Dart concluded that Taung Baby was part of an intermediate species between apes and humans from between 2 and 3 million years ago (Australopithecus africanus).
Natural sciences students undergo their own evolutions at Shimer (readable here)
Natural Sciences Studies Meets ‘Lucy,’ Icon of the Evolutionary Fossil World
Although at first Dart's theory wasn’t widely accepted, the findings of paleontologists in Africa between 1936 and the 1940s shifted the scientific consensus. It was then when paleontologist Robert Broom found specimens of hominids he called Paranthropus robustus (meaning 'parallel to man'), which evolution skeptics in the natural sciences community couldn’t ignore.
In mid-70s Ethiopia, Broom’s peers in paleontology finally uncovered “Lucy,” one of the most famous fossils of early hominids. A near-complete skeleton at only 3 feet tall, Lucy was the first discovery of the hominid species Australopithecus afarensis. Dated to 3.2 million years ago, Lucy provided conclusive evidence of an ancient hominid presence on Earth.
Broom and his peers went on to find further specimens in Lucy’s native Ethiopia including “Ardi,” an Ardipithecus ramidus skull, “Bodo,” a Homo heidelbergensis skull, and “Daka,” a partial Homo erectus skull.
Technology Taking Natural Sciences Studies Forward with ‘Ava’
The most recent icon of evolutionary history is Ava, a young woman who died 3,700 years ago. Tall and heavy-boned, Ava is an example of the so-called Beaker people who inhabited Europe several millennia ago. A team of archaeologists from the University of Dundee recently completed a facial reconstruction of Ava using complex computer software and clues from her skull about tissue depth and bone structure.
In true natural sciences studies style, Ava gives scientists a glimpse of what human life was like in the Bronze Age. They say the abnormal shape of her skull suggests deliberate binding of her head while she was alive, an intriguing mystery for historians, social scientists, and natural scientists alike.
As a result of their work, we cannot only gain insights about humanity’s past, but also look into the eyes of a person who lived before the invention of writing! Using anthropological formulas to calculate the shape of Ava's missing jaw and unknown eye and hair color, scientists involved have given us perhaps the clearest picture of an ancient face the world has ever seen.
Behind every face is a skull scientists can analyze using sophisticated tools
You could earn your place in this exciting field by sharpening your skills at a small liberal arts college.
Visit Shimer to see what we have to offer.