Paleoanthropology: Object Of Study, History, Methods

The paleoanthropology is a branch of natural science that is responsible for the study of human evolution, from the study of fossils. It emerges from major disciplines such as physical anthropology and paleobiology.

Its name refers to the words of Greek origin “paleos” or ancient, “anthropos” or human being and “logo” or knowledge. This science is also known as human paleontology.

By De No machine-readable author provided. 1997 assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 (

Geology, paleoecology, biology, and even genetics are closely related to paleoanthropology. All combine to be able to analyze hominid fossil records and fully understand the development of the human species.

Bone records, marks or prints of hands or feet, diverse territories, tools or instruments, as well as clothing and organic waste are also studied in this science.

Article index

  • one


    • 1.1

      Ancient time

    • 1.2

      Middle Ages

    • 1.3

      17th and 18th century

    • 1.4

      19th and 20th century

  • two

    Influential characters

  • 3


  • 4



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Ancient time

The existence of this biological science dates back to the time of Ancient Greece, when the philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon wrote the first texts about the finding of fossils of mollusks and vegetables in Syracuse and Malta.

However, at that time there were two different visions of analyzing reality and, with it, what affected the fossil remains. While the Pythagorean school focused on the biological nature of these elements, Plato’s viewed them as random events or “games of nature.”

Middle Ages

Platonic ideas, combined with the Aristotelian system of thought, were in force well into the Middle Ages. Only with the arrival of the Renaissance and men of science such as Leonardo Da Vinci, the study of fossils began to be considered, understanding their organic origin.

Just entered the sixteenth century, the naturalist Konrad von Gesner carried out what would be the first scientific work that succeeded in separating biological fossils into a category independent of minerals and gems. Von Gesner’s work also relied on detailed illustrations.

17th and 18th century

In the 17th century, the Italian naturalists Girolano and Fabio Colonna (father and son respectively) managed to establish the biological origin of the fossils reliably.

Following this trend, the Englishman Robert Hooke (considered one of the most influential men in modern science) manages for the first time to explain the biological origin of fossils. Thanks to the use of the microscope, he manages to make 50 observations collected in the book Micrographía (1665). In this work, the word and the concept of cell would be introduced in history for the first time.

With the arrival of encyclopedic ideas in the era of the Enlightenment, Georges Louis Leclerc in his work Historia natural, general y particular published between 1749 and 1788, proposes the separation of the study of the evolution of man from other organisms.

Leclerc describes the main concepts necessary for the emergence of paleontology. In addition, it manages to develop an evolutionary theory (the first), while also demonstrating the notion of “extinction.”

19th and 20th century

Despite the advances, during part of the 19th century to the 20th century there would be a divorce of paleontology with the rest of the biological sciences. After the revolution brought about by Darwin’s work The Origin of Species , the emergence of genetics would relegate paleontology, considered a simple descriptive science.

It is just entering the modern era, when the work of scientist George Gaylord Simpson manages to reconcile genetics, paleontology and the theory of natural selection.

Influential characters

By World Travel & Tourism Council – Richard Leakey, Politician, Paleoanthropologist, Conservationist, University Professor & Founder of the Turkana Basin Institute, CC BY 2.0 (

While all these events were taking place, paleoanthropology quietly developed in parallel. The official birth of this field of study is marked in 1856 with the discovery of the first human fossil: the Neanderthal man ( Homo neanderthalensis ).

The discovery happened thanks to Johann Carl Fuhlrott (1803 – 1877), a German zoologist who was working in a nearby quarry. After studying the skeletal remains, the scientist proposed that they belonged to a human species similar to ours but slightly different.

This contradicted the ideas of the Bible, so Fuhlrott was fiercely attacked by many sectors of society. It was not until the development of Darwinian theory that his ideas would be valued. In fact, today he is considered the father of this discipline.

François Thomas Dubois (1858 – 1940) was a renowned Dutch anatomist who cultivated a passion for natural history from a young age. His dedication to this subject led him to become a professor at the University of Amsterdam, although his greatest academic milestone was the discovery of Homo erectus in 1891.

In 1894, Dubois would make a literary publication where he would develop a description of his fossils, explaining that it was a half human and half ape.

Finally, Richard Leaky (1944) is probably the most influential paleoanthropologist of our time. Born in Kenya, he is famous for having found a site where he was able to discover fossil remains of more than 160 hominids. Much of these events took place in parts of East Africa.


By Neil Adam Smith – Smith, NA 2010. Taxonomic revision and phylogenetic analysis of the flightless Mancallinae (Aves, Pan-Alcidae) Zookeys 91: 1–116 doi: 10.3897 / zookeys.91.709, CC BY 3.0 (https: // commons.

Paleoanthropology, in order to understand the origin and functioning of the various fossils, must make use of certain study methodologies that contribute to this end. Restoring fossils and understanding what role or what they served in life can be done in multiple ways, but there are some fundamental methods that consist of:

– Biological actuality: this concept is based on the idea that a fossil was previously a living organism, which is governed by the laws, notions and functionalities of current biology. That is, to understand the past, one starts from the knowledge that one has from the present.

– Anatomical comparison: it is used to understand an organic part, finding similarities and differences with others already registered and studied.

– Organic correlation: it is a scientific postulate that maintains that all parts of a living being complement each other and work together.

– Functional morphology: in addition to studying the form, it also focuses on the function of certain pieces. It is about associating the role in the organism with the shape of the fossil.

– Stratigraphic superposition: this law, or axiom, holds that the way in which debris or sediments accumulate is stratified (by layers). This means that the earliest remains are found in deeper regions of the Earth, in order of antiquity.


  1. Winfried Henke, HC, Tattersall, I., & Hardt, T. (2007). Handbook of Paleoanthropology.
  2. Puech, P. (nd). Paleoanthropology: our understanding of human evolutionary history.
  3. Zavala Olalde, JC (nd). Does paleoanthropology generate a complete answer to what is the human being?
  5. Vera Cortés, JR, JL, Fernández Torres. (sf). Hominid evolution and explanatory trends in paleoanthropology: current status.

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