• Alemseged holds the skull of "Selam," the 3.3 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis child he discovered in Ethiopia
    Alemseged holds the skull of "Selam," the 3.3 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis child he discovered in Ethiopia
  • Zeray Alemseged excavating a rhino fossil at Dikika
    Zeray Alemseged excavating a rhino fossil at Dikika
  • Zeray Alemseged

Zeray Alemseged, PhD
Research Associate

Fossils as Reminders

Zeray Alemseged

Paleoanthropologist Zeray Alemseged is on a never-ending search for the roots of humanity. While exploring his home country of Ethiopia, Alemseged and his team discovered “Selam,” a remarkably complete fossilized skeleton of a 3.3 million-year old Australopithecus afarensis child. Selam provides a wealth of information about our early hominin ancestors—what they looked like, how they aged and behaved—clues Alemseged says are critical to tracing the evolutionary path followed by humanity and deciphering the forces responsible for making modern humans who we are today.

“Time and time again, the fossil record reminds us that we are part of an ever-changing world,” says Alemseged. “My work explores the dynamic between changing environmental landscapes and changes in our own species. As we change the planet at a never-before-seen pace, we’re not simply altering global biodiversity—we are sparking changes in our own biology. Studying our ancestors allows us to reflect upon who we are today, how we got here, and how we impact our non-human relatives.

Tools: Agents of Change

"Selam" skull

Nothing has changed the global environment more dramatically than the advent of tools. In 2010, an international team of scientists led by Alemseged discovered evidence in the Afar region of Ethiopia that A. afarensis was using stone tools and eating meat roughly 3.4 million years ago, pushing the timeframe of human tool use back by nearly one million years. This discovery has helped fill gaps in our understanding of evolution and humans’ peerless ability to modify landscapes.

“Tool use fundamentally altered the way in which our early ancestors interacted with nature, allowing them to eat new types of food and exploit new territories,” says Alemseged. “It also led to tool making—a critical step in our evolutionary path that eventually enabled advanced technologies such as airplanes, MRI machines, and iPhones.”

Forming our Future Legacy

Dikika scapula

As a scientist at a public institution, Alemseged discusses a global ebb and flow—the cyclical changes between early humans and the natural world—to emphasize the importance of understanding our place in nature today. At the heart of his discussions with reporters, fellow scientists, Academy visitors, and world leaders is a call-to-action to create a more sustainable future.

“As part of the animal kingdom, we must raise our children to feel a connection with our past, our present actions, and the rest of the world,” says Alemseged. “Can we do better than our primitive ancestors? We have a stake in sustaining and protecting our community of plants and animals—the global community we’re a part of—for millennia to come.”

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More About Dr. Zeray Alemseged

Academy Research Associate
Department: Anthropology 
Expeditions: 40
Current Expedition: Afar Depression, Ethiopia

Profile Videos:
The “Most Curious” Species
Dikika: Remote, Hostile, and Hot
Evolution of Diet
Our Role in Biodiversity

Related Websites:
Dikika Research Project 

Related Content: 
Human Tool Use, Science Today
What Makes Us Human?PBS
Becoming HumanPBS
African VoicesCNN
The Search for Humanity's RootsTED Talk