Professor Beverly Saylor leads interdisciplinary global group applying state-of-the art technology to answer ancient questions

A Case Western Reserve researcher is leading an interdisciplinary global team that will use state-of-the-art technology to tackle an ancient question: How did ecological factors affect the evolution of our ancestors millions of years ago?

The possible answers so intrigued the W. M. Keck Foundation that it awarded Armington Professor Beverly Saylor and her colleagues a $1.2 million grant to explore them.

The funds will support a systematic, integrated investigation into why two nearby fossil study areas in the Afar region of Ethiopia—Hadar and Woranso-Mille—reveal distinct records of the human genus’ early predecessors.

Case Western Reserve has long had strong ties to both locations. Hadar is best known for the discovery and dating of Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton, by researchers then at CWRU and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH). Over the next four decades, scientists found hundreds more fossils of Lucy’s species at Hadar—but no other hominin species that might have lived at the same time.

About 30 miles north of Hadar, Woranso-Mille has been a research site for about 15 years. Saylor has led research on the geology of the area since the project’s inception. She has seen Woranso-Mille yield ample fossils from not only Lucy’s species, but at least two others—including one whose foot appears to have been adapted to tree climbing. Some existed contemporaneously, and in close proximity.

“The differences in diversity of hominin species in neighboring but distinct geological landscapes,” Saylor said, “provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand the ecological characteristics that influence hominin diversity and evolution.”

Seizing that opportunity involves engaging some 30 scientists whose expertise ranges from geology and paleoanthropology to geochronology and paleoclimate—to name a few.

Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a curator at CMNH until joining Arizona State University (ASU) this year, has directed the Woranso-Mille site since its inception. He will continue in that leadership role there and serve as a co-principal investigator on this project.

ASU’s Kaye Reed and the University of Michigan’s Naomi Levin also are co-principal investigators on the project. Other institutions represented include Addis Ababa University, Aix Marseille University, University of Barcelona, Berkeley Geochronology Center, Ohio University, and the University of Southern California.

Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Afar Regional Government will be facilitating local permits for this research.

Over the next three years, the team will gather samples and data from both Hadar and Woranso-Mille to gain a more granular understanding of the two sites as they stood millions of years earlier.

Levin, for example, will lead efforts to characterize the distribution of plant and water resources across the two landscapes.

“We will use a powerful combination of data from soil morphology and bulk geochemistry, high-precision isotope analyses, organic geochemistry,” Levin said, “and the latest techniques in paleobotany to reconstruct paleohydrology, paleovegetation, and paleoclimate.”

Meanwhile, Reed will lead the reconstruction of past habitats using vertebrate fossils.

“This is the first time we have the opportunity to compare the paleoecology of unique fauna and hominins from adjacent areas in the same time period,” Reed explained, “and it will give us a level of detail that will enable us to explore why there were different species living close together but were non overlapping.”

Haile-Selassie, meanwhile, will coordinate the work of comparing these findings with analyses of the thousands of vertebrate fossils from the two sites to assess links between habitat and mammal diversity, including among hominins.

“This multidisciplinary integration of physical, chemical, and biological evidence will enable us to assess differences in the ecology of closely related early human ancestors and provide insight into the origins of our own genus,” he said.

Finally, Saylor will lead the team’s mapping and dating of sedimentary and volcanic rock units to compare the ancient physical landscapes of the two areas and place them relative to volcanoes, faults, major drainage systems, and other features of the area’s tectonically rifted landscape.

To bring all the data together, Saylor and CWRU’s Jeffrey Yarus will direct the application of cutting-edge geostatistical techniques to illustrate the spatial distribution of fossils, habitats, and landscape features.

If successful, this project will reveal the spatial context of hominin diversity records, one of the greatest challenges to understanding human evolution and a fundamental question of biodiversity. 

“This project builds on decades of field studies, laboratory analyses, and museum work,” Saylor said. “This collaboration—and the advanced techniques and technology involved—provides an extraordinary opportunity to advance our understanding of our collective history as humans on this planet.”

This research grant is only the second Case Western Reserve has received from the W. M. Keck Foundation in the university’s history. The W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company. One of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations, the W. M. Keck Foundation supports outstanding science, engineering and medical research. The Foundation also supports undergraduate education and maintains a program within Southern California to support arts and culture, education, health and community service projects.