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Something So Magnificent

An evolutionary anthropology class can shift a whole world view

Elyana Riddick, a political science major, registered for an intro to evolutionary anthropology class only because she needed a natural science course to fulfill her requirements.
Instead, the class shifted her view of the world.
“What’s been most interesting about this course is getting to understand and really know how much it took for us to get here,” said Riddick, a sophomore. “Even simple things as walking and talking have taken millions and millions of years for us to develop, and I think it’s just something so magnificent.”
The students begin the semester learning to differentiate between broad mammal groups like felids and canids. This gives them the tools to examine fossil casts and bone specimens from species up to 4.5 million old in class, comparing the physical characteristics of the early hominins that could have given rise to humans: Homo naledi, Homo erectus, and Australopithecus afarensis (the first hominin fossil collection to become a household name -- Lucy). 

Students compare two human skulls, looking at them from the bottom of the jaw
“One thing that’s really exciting and special about this class is we are teaching students how to make comparisons and derive their own ideas about human evolution through comparative anatomy,” said teaching assistant Caroline Shearer, an Evolutionary Anthropology Ph.D. student. “We provide skulls and other elements from morphology and allow students to make the conclusions about differences… and kind of give them a little bit of that excitement of making these discoveries themselves.”
The class is taught by Joshua Linder, associate research professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology.  Shearer and her fellow teaching assistant Ph.D. students Becca Cook and Gabi Venable lead the class discussions.
“I definitely have a newfound gratefulness for this crazy thing we call life,” Riddick said. “It’s been a really fun journey, and I’m so, so glad I took this course.”

PhD student Caroline Shearer shows the top of a skull to undergraduates sitting at a table covered with human skulls from different time periods