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Grades 6-8
Zeresenay "Zeray" Alemseged, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer , is a paleoanthropologist. What’s that? The simple answer is that a paleoanthropologist is a person who studies the origins of humans through fossils and artifacts. However, the field of paleoanthropology is highly complex, with each related discipline influencing and furthering each of the others. Many disciplines of science contribute to the study of early human life. In this lesson, students consider how Dr. Alemseged chose paleoanthropology as his career as they learn more about the multifaceted field itself. Students learn about individual fields of science and how those fields complement each other in the ongoing study of human origins.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, social studies, science
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 6: "How culture and experience influence people’s perceptions of places and regions"
Standard 14: "How human actions modify the physical environment"
Standard 15: "How physical systems affect human systems"
Standard 17: "How to apply geography to interpret the past"
Three to four hours

Materials Required:
Students will
  • learn about the life and work of Zeray Alemseged;
  • explain how Alemseged's cultural and life experiences influenced his career choice and locations of study;
  • explore different aspects of paleoanthropology through online resources including an interactive documentary; and
  • identify relationships between various aspects of paleoanthropology and how gathering information about each aspect (e.g., anatomy, culture, climate) can help scientists understand more about each of the others.
Geographic Skills:
Asking Geographic Questions
Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Show students a map of Africa . Point out the country of Ethiopia and ask students what they know about this country. Take several answers and/or explain to students that this region is one of the best-known for the study of human origins—the history of hominid evolution over the past several million years. Explain to students that the study of human origins is highly complex.

Direct students to National Geographic: Outpost and PBS: Evolution Library for information about how and where different hominid species have been discovered, and are being studied, throughout Africa and the world.

(They needn't take notes as they will visit the site(s) in depth later in the lesson.)

Activity 1:
Introduce students to Zeray Alemseged by having them read a profile of his life and work .

Ask for students' reactions to the information they read about Alemseged. Why did he choose his field of study? What is one primary reason for his travels back and forth from Germany to Ethiopia today? Ask students to identify ways in which they think Alemseged's early life and education influenced his choice of career.

If your technology supports it, show students the documentary on the Institute of Human Origins' Becoming Human website ( Macromedia Flash Player required), a project to which Alemseged contributed while studying at the Arizona State University. Invite students to listen to the documentary and explore some of the related exhibits and resources.

Activity 2:
Ask students if any of them have ever considered a career in paleoanthropology. Write the following terms on the board: archaeology, geography, geology, environment, ecology, and culture. Explain to students that each of those fields of study can and usually does play a part in anthropological study, or the study of human beings. Then, explain that paleo, meaning "early," appends itself to anthropology to define the study of human origins, and that each of these fields—along with many others—is equally important in learning theories about where and how humans originated.

Have students read the article, National Geographic News: Climate Change Killed Neandertals, Study Says to look for evidence of more than one science discipline (geography, geology, archaeology, environmental studies, paleoclimatology, and psychology) working together to find answers.

Activity 3:
Have students spend time researching one of the fields of study mentioned in the article. Challenge them to find out more about what a scientist in the field of geology, archaeology, paleoclimatology, paleoecology, geography, or another field, does to find answers. Some sites to get students started are:

NOAA: Paleoclimatology
The Dig: Adventures in Archaeology
American Museum of Natural History: Ology
USGS: Fossils, Rocks, and Time
Association of American Geographers: Using Geography and GIS: Geographers at Work (especially profile of Bonnie Kranzer)

Activity 4:
Explain to students that in all of the fields of study, there are three basic elements that must come together to make sense of available information: collecting evidence, analyzing evidence, and interpreting evidence.

Have students work in pairs (or groups of three if necessary) to spend time exploring the resources below looking for examples of the ways in which people in the fields they just researched might contribute to the research. In some cases scientific fields will be listed directly in the materials. Challenge student groups to think about ways in which scientists in the fields not directly mentioned might also contribute to the study.

Students should review available resources, such as those listed below—especially the Becoming Human documentary narrative and images—and study the resources related to the fields they have selected. Then, they should prepare a brief oral presentation giving an overview of how their chosen scientific fields complement, or could complement, each other in this type of research.

National Geographic: Outpost
Becoming Human ( Macromedia Flash Player required)
Boston Museum of Science: Human Evolution—Interpreting the Evidence
PBS: Evolution Library—Human Evolution
National Geographic News: Oldest Human Fossils Identified

(Note: An entire semester could be spent studying the content available in these resources. Depending on the time you have to devote to these activities, focus students' attention accordingly. Some focus questions to help students in each area are provided below:)

  • Collecting Evidence
    1. What is the definition of hominid ? Why are people interested in learning more about hominids?
    2. Where were the Lucy fossils found? What is the significance of this discovery?
    3. What does Afarensis mean? Why are the Afar people important to the field of paleoanthropology?
    4. Refer to Becoming Human ( Macromedia Flash Player required). Visit the Evidence section: Related Exhibit #3, “Explore a dig.” What geographic tools and techniques do paleoscientists use to help find and keep track of specimens in the field?

  • Analyzing Evidence
    1. What non-human animal is the closest relative of Homo sapiens ? What does it mean to say that we are "related?"
    2. Where is Laetoli? How did a confluence of events help preserve these clues to the past?
      1. Students may refer to the PBS Riddle of the Bones site, showing the locations of Hadar and Laetoli. To navigate through the shockwave site, click “Are they all the same species,” then “Learn more,” then click map image for larger view.
      2. For more information about the significance of this discovery, direct students to the PBS Evolution Library's Laetoli Footprints .
    3. How do scientists think that bipedalism evolved? How does the examination of fossils help us understand it? How does knowing more about climate change, social behavior, and other aspects of the environment contribute to that understanding?
    4. What is provenience ? How does studying fossils within their specific contexts help us make connections between the fossils and the culture of the species from which they come?
    5. Refer to Becoming Human ( Macromedia Flash Player required). Visit the Evidence section: Related Exhibit #6, "Context Clues." How important is it for scientists and geographers to track the specific locations and associations of fossils and artifacts?

  • Interpreting Evidence
    1. Where were Neanderthal fossils first discovered? Why is our stereotypical imagining of a Neanderthal ( Homo neanderthalensis ), or "caveman," insufficient to understand the species?
    2. How did physical geography (specifically, topography and climate) affect the spatial distribution and evolution of H. neanderthalensis ?
    3. Refer to Becoming Human ( Macromedia Flash Player required). Visit the Lineages Section: Related Exhibit #8: “Modern Humans Populate the Globe”: How does the “Out of Africa” theory contrast with the “multiregional” theory?
    4. How does the study of anatomy help us understand the development and use of tools by ancient hominids? How does studying anatomy and artifacts together help us understand human evolution?
Activity 5:
Have student groups select one project or discovery from the resources they've examined and create a poster or multimedia display that provides information about the topic and shows the ways in which the fields of science they studied actually comprise the field of paleoanthropology. Students should present projects to the class through oral or visual presentation. Each member of the group should participate in some way. After each presentation, have the rest of the class provide feedback to the group.

Have students discuss the importance of paleoanthropology. Why would someone make this field their life's work? Ask for volunteers to share the two areas of study they find of most interest and summarize the ways in which those two areas depend upon each other.
Suggested Student Assessment:
Student presentations and displays should reflect an understanding of the resources and projects studied, with a focus on the interconnectedness of topics in the field of paleoanthropology.
Extending the Lesson:
Related Links: