A History of Research and Discovery

A History of Research and Discovery

The Institute of Human Origins is a research center in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, with faculty embedded within ASU’s transdisciplinary School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Human origins across many disciplines

Founded in 1981 by Donald Johanson as a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit, IHO blended high-profile field and analytical research on the early human fossil record with public outreach programs promoting the scientists as the best interpreter of their research for the public. With strategic guidance and operational funding from a dedicated lay Board of Directors and in the wake of important fossil discoveries in eastern Africa (at Hadar and Olduvai Gorge), IHO quickly attained international leadership status in the field of paleoanthropology.

Move to ASU

With its move to ASU in 1997, IHO added to its mission the training of the next generation of human origins scientists in the intellectually enriching environment of a major public metropolitan research university with a nationally ranked anthropology program.

In 2005, the Department of Anthropology at ASU was succeeded by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, a transdisciplinary unit that fuses social and natural science research on the interactions among human biology, cultures, and societies from the distant past to the present day. Within SHESC, IHO faculty anchor an Evolutionary Anthropology research and training focus.

Continuing excellence

In November 2009, Professor Donald Johanson stepped aside as IHO Director to become Founding Director. Professor William Kimbel was appointed Director of IHO and Professor Curtis Marean became Associate Director. During Kimbel's tenure, IHO's research expanded from a core of traditional archaeology, geology, paleoanthropology, and zooarcheaology research to include genetic inquiry, primatology, and the emergence of human uniqueness. IHO researchers grew from six to 18 researchers, creating a synergy for understanding "how we became human" outside of traditional academic and scientific silos.

Welcoming a new director

Beginning July 1, 2021, IHO welcomed a new director, Yohannes Haile-Selassie PhD. Haile-Selassie is one of the world's foremost experts in paleoanthropology, known for major fossil discoveries in the African Rift Valley and extensive scholarship in human origins. 

The original IHO Board of Directors, formed in 1981, evolved into the IHO Research Council and Executive Board  in 2016 and continues to play a central role in IHO’s success. The Executive Board provides a guiding hand on strategic planning and, along with the Research Council, advances IHO’s goals with financial support of operations and initiatives that lie outside of the university’s sphere of funding. Critically, the Research Council and Executive Board help IHO reach a wide lay community of supporters who are dedicated to promoting the work of IHO scientists.

In 2022, IHO moved to its new headquarters in the Walton Center for Planetary Health. Unfortunately, that is also the year that former IHO director William Kimbel passed away. An endowment in his name was established—the Bill Kimbel Impact Fund—to support an annual lecture and in the future, to support graduate students in the field.

Lucy 50

In 2024, IHO is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of "Lucy" with events in April, a monthly lecture series that is posted on IHO's YouTube channel, and a final event with Donald Johanson in conversation with New York Times science writer and author Carl Zimmer, on November 14, 2024. Learn more about the "Lucy 50" at the website.