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Biological anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy likens his life to the television show House. But unlike the medical drama’s main character, who pieces together his patients’ symptoms to diagnose them, Lovejoy has no living source of tell-tale signs. His only clues are human bones, and his mystery is our evolution. Drawing on a deep understanding of human anatomy, Lovejoy has helped reconstruct and analyze two of the earliest and most famous human ancestors, Lucy (Australopithecus) and Ardi (Ardipithecus). In particular, his work has traced the development of upright walking. By connecting the dots between that key physical change and shifts in social behavior and reproductive success, he overturned accepted theories of how humans got their two-legged gait. Lovejoy has also used his expertise to interpret crime scenes and victims’ remains, pioneering new techniques for determining sex, age and other characteristics of the human skeleton. Lovejoy is a professor of anthropology at Ohio’s Kent State University, where he has taught for over 40 years. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007.
Lovejoy recalls the twist of fate that lured him into biological anthropology: he joins a friend on an archaeological excavation one summer, finds human remains and becomes enthralled with the stories bones can tell. He meets an orthopedic surgeon and a biomechanical engineer who inspire him to focus on hips and knees, which later informs his work on Lucy. Lovejoy describes his work on Ardi, a 4.4 million-year-old hominid skeleton, as the highlight of his career. Ardi gives scientists a sense of how and when some fundamentally human traits—including smaller canine teeth and walking-friendly hips, knees and feet—evolved that they didn’t have before, Lovejoy explains. The trends these early bones betray have convinced Lovejoy that humans began to walk upright as a kind of sexual strategy. That is, females became less interested in males who aggressively competed with other males (and therefore needed large canine teeth) and more interested in males who could gather and provide lots of food (by walking greater distances). Lovejoy suggests that solving the puzzle of human evolution will require interdisciplinary, integrative thinking, and urges would-be scientists to embrace it.
Last Updated: 01-14-2011
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.