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1: Introduction to Paleoanthropology

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    • 1.1: Paleoanthropology
      Paleoanthropology, a subdiscipline of anthropology, is the study of extinct primates. While the majority of researchers doing this kind of work are anthropologists, paleontologists (within the discipline of geology) may also study fossil primates. The primary method used by paleoanthropologists is the analysis of fossil remains. However, they increasingly rely on other scientific disciplines to gain a better understanding of the environmental forces that played a role in our evolution.
    • 1.2: Primate Classification
      There are two means by which scientists classify organisms, classic taxonomy and cladistics. Paleoanthropologists are trained in evolutionary theory, and both biologists and paleontologists rely principally upon cladistics. There is definite utility in using a combination of both systems, that is, the binomial nomenclature (genus and species) of classic taxonomy combined with the cladistic arrangement of species in terms of shared characteristics.
    • 1.3: Primate Evolution
      While we have no primate fossil material prior to the Eocene Epoch, the first primates are thought to have evolved prior to the Paleocene Epoch (66–56 mya), possibly as far back as 90 mya, during the Late Cretaceous Period. With the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, many terrestrial niches became available and predation pressures were somewhat relaxed.
    • 1.4: Primate Social Organization
      Most primates live in groups. The best explanation for why animals form groups and endure the costs of feeding competition is to minimize the risk of predation. Grouping patterns are tied to diet and the defensibility of resources. Females are out to maximize resources for themselves and their offspring, so as to maximize their reproductive success. If a species eats grass or leaves, it does not make sense to defend those resources.
    • 1.5: What is a Hominim
      We are hominins, as are all those bipedal apes that came before us. Hominin species have evolved through time, some of which we are descended from and some that are side branches in our tribal tree!

    Thumbnail: Primate skulls provided courtesy of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. (CC BY 2.5; K. N'Diaye. Evolutionary History of a Gene Controlling Brain Size. PLoS Biol 2(5): e134. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020134).