Research

Our core strength lies in field and lab research on key questions and time periods in the emergence of humankind

The Institute of Human Origins is one of the world’s leading centers for research, education, and public outreach on the scientific mission to understand what it means to be human. Now in its fourth decade of research and discovery, the institute remains at the forefront of the creation of knowledge about our origins.

  • Where do we come from?
  • What are the key attributes of our biology and culture that set us apart from other species?
  • How does the deep past inform us about our complex relationship to a changeable planet?

In the field and in the lab, scientists at the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) are closing in on answers to these and other questions about our past. The goal of human origins research is to understand the natural processes by which we became human. It is a broad, trans-disciplinary endeavor that unites research on the evolutionary biology, behavior, and culture of our extinct ancestors and living populations of humans and our primate cousins.

IHO has attracted engaged, high-achieving scientists working on key questions across an array of perspectives in time periods that represent more than six million years of human evolutionary history.

Strategically Moving Science Forward

We envision IHO as the preeminent research organization in the design of novel connections among perspectives, methodologies, and tools bearing on human origins science. IHO has initiated an ambitious plan to expand its research mission and build on the strengths of its core initiatives to bridge traditional disciplines bearing on two key questions:

Evolutionary Foundations of Human Uniqueness
What attributes make our species unique, and how did they arise through evolutionary and cultural processes?
The origins of human cognition spans biological and cultural realms and offers a path to unite insights from the fossil and archaeological records with lessons from research on culture, cognition, and genetics of contemporary human hunter-gatherers and other primates. The goal is to explain the processes leading to the emergence of the uniquely human attributes of technology, social learning, cooperation, and language and assess their indelible impacts on the planet.

Human Adaptations to a Changeable Planet
How do records of the deep past inform us about our species’ complex relationship to changing global and local environments?
To comprehensively address the central issues in human evolution, there must be broad integration of social and earth science research on how human populations adapt to changes in environments and landscapes—the key to understanding major evolutionary and cultural innovations spanning at least six million years, such as bipedal locomotion, large brains, tool making, hunting, language, art, and social institutions.

Focus Areas

Beach view of South Africa field site
A major trans-disciplinary project on the south coast of South Africa is producing an unprecedentedly complete record of late Pleistocene (120,000 to 60,000 years ago) environmental and archaeological data bearing on the origin and early behavioral evolution of modern humans.
A white woman and african child reach out to grasp each other's hands
In 2014, IHO began an ambitious research program funded by the John Templeton Foundation—a collaborative inquiry into the evolutionary foundations of human uniqueness. The $4.9 million, three-year grant, the largest of its type for human origins research, supported 11 linked investigations of where, when, and how unique human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation emerged.
High resolution scan of items found at Pondoland dig site
Cutting-edge analytical studies of social, ecological, and life-history adaptations among living primates and humans link the present to fossil and archaeological records and help create comprehensive explanations for events in human evolution.
Paleolakebed drill rig
Drilled long-cores from five ancient East African lake beds will show how environmental change impacted availability of critical resources to human ancestors over the lat four million years. Field and lab work seek to reconstruct the ecology of fossil animal communities to provide insights on the adaptations of early hominin populations across ancient landscapes.
Field site at Hadar, Ethiopia
Ongoing IHO field work at Hadar, Ethiopia, as well as other African sites, addresses the evolution and ecology of Australopithecus (3.0–3.4 million years ago) and the origin of Homo and stone-tool making (2.3 million years ago).