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Department of Archaeology


The Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer Inaugural Lecture 2022

Professor Zeresenay Alemseged, (University of Chicago)

The changing face of Australopithecus and human origins in Africa

Monday 21st November, 5.30pm, McCrum Lecture Theatre (,0.118128,18

In person attendance encouraged.  Alternatively, 
Zoom registration link:



One hundred fifty years ago, Darwin prophesied that our earliest ancestor would be found in Africa based on morphological and biogeographic argument and without the benefit of genetic and fossil evidence. Today, DNA studies show that the Homo/Pan lineages separated around 7 million years ago and human fossil ancestors that are older that 2 million years are exclusively African. A plethora of hominin species occupied the continent from around 7 million years ago up until the emergence of our species some 300,000 years ago. One of these earliest hominin genera, which is believed to have been ancestral to our genus Homo is Australopithecus. This genus which was first described in 1925 based on South African fossils and subsequently found in several corners of the continent, was for long characterized as a small brained, non stone tool using, bipedal creature with largely ape like behavior and cranial morphology. This portrayal has however significantly changed over the past decades owing to the proliferation of fossil discoveries as well as the application of novel data collection and analytical methods in paleoanthropology. In this presentation, I will show that Australopithecus practiced arboreality while being bipedal on the ground, used stone tools to consume animal resources, and possessed some human like behavioral attributes including the presence of childhood. These new findings support the notion that the long-lived and cosmopolitan species Australopithecus afarensis was ancestral to multiple species including early Homo, which ultimately gave rise to Homo sapiens.  



Professor Zeray Alemseged is a paleoanthropologist in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. His research interests include human evolution and the exploration of the factors that shaped the evolution of humans and extinct ancestral species.

Prof. Alemseged undertakes extensive fieldwork and employs cutting-edge imaging techniques to investigate the evolutionary process and mechanisms that led to the emergence of Homo sapiens. He explores both the biological and cultural transformations that occurred over the past 6 millions years since humans diverged from the apes.



Recent Distinguished speakers:

  • 2021: Professor Theresa Singleton (Syracuse University) - The worlds that enslaved created or forced to endure. Balancing archaeological narratives of slavery
  • 2019: Dr Joanne Pillsbury (Metropolitan Museum of Art) - The Golden Road. Materials, Value and Exchange in the Ancient Americas