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Paleoanthropology: Making journal research accessible (to high school students)

By Sandra Bornstein

Type of Entry:

  • Unit Outline

Type of activity:

  • Hands on activity
  • Simulation
  • Authentic assessment

Target audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Advanced / AP Biology


Four Associated Activities of this Unit:

  1. The chicken foot reassembly. To establish the difficulties encountered reassembling fossil bones, each student is given a fresh, boiled chicken foot with the challenge that s/he clean the foot of all soft tissues, including cartilage, and reassemble the dried bones to make the original appendage. Students rapidly appreciate how much tissue is usually lost in the process of fossilization. They recognize the need to organize their bones in practical, retrievable ways, and note patterns in bone struct ure.

  2. Analyzing a geological cake. To explore the rules that govern assessment of geological sites, the class is given a layer cake to analyze. Layers are thin, many in number, varied in flavor, separated by colorful layers of icing, and interspersed with various candy "fossils." The task is to establish the chronology of events by which the cake was assembled and to justify each statement with physical evidence. Through discussion of their discovery process, students are able to establish the logical ba sis for geology's uniformitarian rules of superposition, original horizontality, inclusions, and igneous crosscutting. The activity is just goofy enough to be intriguing. Since the formal geologist's logic matches their own detective work, acceptance of the scientific norm, and even its nomenclature, is relatively easy.

  3. Scale drawings of human and non-human primate skulls. To develop a familiarity with primate anatomy students work with four skulls (human, chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan) carefully examining and comparing them. Each student produces full scale d rawings of two skulls, one of them human. Using Gray's Anatomy Coloring Book for reference, the students develop a reasonable familiarity with the major bones of the skull, dentition patterns, and differences between the primates. This activity gives st udents the anatomical terms they need to make sense of the Nature articles.

  4. Primary research articles from Nature. All of the articles concerned Australopithecine or early Homo finds. Reading and responding to difficult texts had been modeled in class at various times during the term, and each student is now encouraged to read, translate, and summarize his or her article before informal, individual meetings to resolve lingering problems. Finally, each student presents the article s/he read to the group. Although all the students find the articles difficult, they are very successful in understanding the essentials of each reported find. As a group, the class is able to recognize the sources of evidence which paleoanthropologists use in their struggle to construct the hominid family tree.


In a one semester human evolution elective, I want my students exposed to original reports of important hominid finds published in Nature. Recognizing that the language of these detailed interpretations can be daunting for the uninitiated, I need first t o establish a substantial background of personal experiences in my students to increase the publications' accessibility. Without active sites in the New York City area to use as direct resources, I decided instead to try working with a series of activit ies analogous to paleoanthropological research. There are three main ideas I want my students to encounter before attempting the Nature articles:

  • Working at a paleoanthropological site requires an almost obsessive concern with where fossils are found, their orientation, and their surroundings;

  • Analysis of sequencing in sedimentary layers follows some very simple, logical rules; and,

  • The placement of new hominid fossils in various parts of our ancestral tree is based not only on radiometric dating, but on a range of ape-to-human anatomical variations.

Each strand has a focusing activity at its center, complemented by readings, exploratory writing, and group discussions. Some of the materials for these labs require advanced preparation by the teacher in the form of shopping and cooking that range in ti me from 30 minutes to about two hours. Activities 1 and 2 can be accomplished in one or two 40 to 45 minute periods, if the goals and procedures have been outlined at the end of the preceding class. Activities 3 and 4 each take about a week. In all cas es, follow up homework for students includes organization and clarification of observations, fifteen minutes writing about the processes they experienced, and self-evaluative critique of their techniques.


I. Lesson/ Activity 1 Chicken foot reassembly

Materials needed:

  • 1 fresh chicken foot per student, boiled approximately 30 minutes
  • egg cartons for sorting bones, Ziplock bags for storage
  • matte board and glue for reassembly


  1. Students select their chicken feet and describe external features.

  2. Disassemble, clean thoroughly, and dry all bones.

  3. Reassemble the skeleton on matte board using white glue. Students critique their own products.

  4. For homework, describe the process, what was learned about animal structure and issues of organization.

  5. Class discussion, "What would you do differently?"

Method of Evaluation/ Assessment:

  • Accuracy of bone orientation and placement.
  • Awareness of errors and uncertainties.
  • Details in written process and self-critique.

Extension/ Reinforcement/ Additional ideas:

  • Reference to "Eyewitness Books: Bird"
  • Examination of fossil imprints.
  • Comparisons with foot bones of other organisms.

II. Lesson/ Activity 2 Analyzing a geological cake.

Materials needed:

  • cake made from alternated thin layers of different flavored cake, icing of different colors, with "sequences" of candy fossils interspersed
  • paper plates, clear straws, plastic knives, paper towels


  1. Students examine whole cake and note their observations and inferences.

  2. Take "core sample" with clear straw. Draw and describe core.

  3. Cut section of cake for each student who examine and describe freshly exposed surfaces, carefully "excavating" candy fossils.

  4. Finally, layers are removed one at a time and all contents and relationships are described.

  5. For homework, each student recreates a list of the chronological events carried out in the assembly of this cake, including the sequence of candy fossils, connecting each inference with the physical evidence to support it.

  6. Class discussion of logic of inferences, connecting students' reasoning to geologists' uniformitarianism rules of sequencing: superposition, original horizontality, crosscutting relation of igneous intrusions, inclusions, fossil assemblages, etc..

  7. Discussion of Leakey and Johanson experiences from their prefaces.

Method of Evaluation/ Assessment:

  • Accuracy of cake chronology and candy sequencing.

  • Clear connection between inference and evidence.

  • Awareness of errors and uncertainties.

  • Details in written process and self-critique.

  • Connections to Leakey and Johanson descriptions of actual sites.

Extension/ Reinforcement/ Additional ideas:

  • Reading Richard Leakey "The Origin of Humankind," preface.

  • Reading Donald Johanson "Lucy: the beginnings of humankind," prologue.

  • View Discovery Channel's "Ape-Man."

  • Review Adrienne Zihlman Human Evolution Coloring Book, sections 1-4 (geological eras) and 92 (fossil formation).

  • Visit to Central Park to examine rock formations.

  • Visit to Museum of Natural History NYS geology exhibit.

III. Lesson/ Activity: 3 Scale drawings of human and non-human primate skulls.

Materials needed:

  • plastic casts of human male and female, chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan
  • calipers
  • graph paper
  • drawing paper
  • pencils
  • Gray's Anatomy Coloring Book


  1. Examine all four skulls in detail, noting similarities and differences in size and structure.

  2. Each student picks two skulls to draw. Frontal and side views are minimum requirements, but many students choose to draw the lower jaw separately showing dental surfaces.

  3. Label major bones.

Method of Evaluation/ Assessment:

  • Effort.
  • Depth and accuracy of comparisons.
  • Clarity and accuracy of labels.

Extension/ Reinforcement/ Additional ideas:

  • Availability of non-primate, real bone skulls for comparison.
  • Read and discuss "Evolution Comes to Life," Ian Tattersall. Scientific American, August 1992, 80-87.

IV. Lesson/ Activity 4 Primary research articles from Nature.

Materials needed:

  • Articles from Nature representing original finds from branches of the hominid "family tree." There are many available, but these are a good beginning:

  • "Australopithecus ramidus, a new species of early hominid from Aramis, Ethiopia." T.D. White, et al. 371: 306-312. 22 September 1994.

  • "New four-million-year-old hominid species from Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya." M.G. Leakey, et al. 376: 565-571. 17 August 1995.

  • "New finds at the Swartkrans Australopithecine Site." C.K. Brain. 225: 1112-1119. 21 March 1970.

  • "Plio-Pleistocene hominid discoveries in Hadar, Ethiopia." D.C. Johanson, et al. 260: 293-297. 25 March 1976.

  • "The first skull and other new discoveries of Australopithecus afarensis at Hadar, Ethiopia." W.H. Kimbel, et al. 368: 449-451. 31 March 1994.

  • "Pliocene footprints in the Laetolil Beds at Laetoli, northern Tanzania." M.D. Leakey, et al. 278: 317-323. 22 March 1979.

  • "Australopithecus africanus: The man-ape of South Africa." R.A. Dart. 115: 195-199. 7 February 1925.

  • "2.5-Myr Australopithecus boisei from west of Lake Turkana, Kenya." A. Walker, et al. 322: 517-522. 7 August 1986.

  • "New partial skeleton of Homo habilis from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania" D.C. Johanson, et al. 327: 205-209, 21 May 1987.

  • "Early Homo erectus skeleton from west Lake Turkana, Kenya." F. Brown, et al. 316: 788-791. 29 August 1985.


  1. Group pre-write and then discussion on the question "What do you think of when you imagine our earliest human-like ancestors?"

  2. Read and discuss chapter 7 On Becoming Human by Tanner. Examine Human Evolution Coloring Book, by Adrienne Zihlman, sections on ape-human comparisons.

  3. Each student is assigned one Nature article to read, summarize, and present to the class. Focus is on the physical conditions of the site, the nature of the fossil finds, and their significance in reconstructing the hominid family tree.

Method of Evaluation/ Assessment:

A written summary and oral presentation of the article. Accuracy of article summary, interpretation of significance, and answers to questions.

Extension/ Reinforcement/ Additional ideas:

Visit to human evolution exhibit, American Museum of Natural History.

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