Smithsonian Museum - Human Origins Program

From 2012 to 2016, The William H. Donner Foundation has supported the work of Dr. Rick Potts and the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The mission of Human Origins Program is to advance humanity’s understanding of the origin of our species through cutting-edge scientific investigations and by communicating our findings to scientific and public audiences worldwide. Grants from the William H. Donner Foundation have elevated the Human Origins Program’s ongoing efforts to produce new research findings, with particular focus on East Africa.

Dr. Rick Potts has led the Human Origin Program for more than 30 years. With support of The William H. Donner Foundation and other contributors, his international team of researchers and collaborators use deep Earth drill cores to explore the parallels and connections between environmental change and human origins. By drilling into ancient lake sediments in eastern Africa and other regions, they obtain long climate records in areas once inhabited by early hominins. This approach, coupled with more recent lake and ocean drilling, provides a better understanding for worldwide, regional, and local climate dynamics relevant to the time periods and regions where human evolutionary change took place.

Rick Potts, director of the National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian, surveys an assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya.

Strategically-placed drilling captures the continuous, fine structure of the environmental record that is vitally important in studying questions about changes in Earth’s climate, environment, and geological forces. Using sufficiently high-resolution instrumentation to study the drilled cores reveals short-duration events and processes (e.g., seasonality, interannual change, volcanic episodes, tectonic events) and how they may relate to environmental changes over evolutionary time scales and their potential influence on the evolution of human adaptations.

The William H. Donner Foundation’s support beginning in 2012 helped recover the first sediment drill core and its long environmental record from an early human site at Olorgesailie, Kenya, East Africa. The research performed by the Human Origins team and collaborators demonstrates evidence of strong shifts in evaporation, vegetation, and lake levels between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago. This evidence helps test the idea that an ability to adjust to unstable environmental settings was important in the emergence of cultural capabilities and technological innovations as Homo sapiens evolved.

The Olorgesailie Drilling Project (ODP), under the direction of Rick Potts, is now an international team of 34 scientists and graduate students who have continued their analysis of the long sediment cores. Recovered by drilling in the Koora Basin south of Olorgesailie, the sediment cores total 216 meters of lake, river, and floodplain sediment. Geophysical dating – primarily by the single-crystal argon method and paleomagnetic analysis – provides high-resolution chronology for the core, from 1.1 million to 90,000 years before present. Since 2016, the geophysical dating results have been used to develop a detailed age model, which assigns an estimated age to every centimeter along the depth of the core. This age model provides the basis for understanding climate variations in East Africa with extraordinary precision during the time of the origin of our species.

Potts’s team is undertaking the process of writing up the detailed results of the drill core study, which documents for the first time the precise role of environmental dynamics in the origin of our species. This work funded by the Donner Foundation has set the stage for five other drilling projects at early human sites in eastern Africa – a collaboration that will substantially advance the study of human origins and environmental adaptations over the past 4 million years of our evolutionary history.

A 3-meter-long core is extracted in its plastic liner from the core barrel, which was brought up from the 30- to 33-meter level below ground.

An example of a core segment split in half, allowing detailed study and much discussion by the scientific team, including Anders Noren (top), Kay Behrensmeyer, Bernie Owen, Rick Potts, and Liz Pennisi.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History holds in public trust the global archive of biological, geological, and cultural history. At the Museum’s core is maintaining and preserving this collection in perpetuity and pursuing the critical science research to understand the natural world and our place in it. This knowledge is the foundation for educating the public through exhibitions and outreach programs, training the next generation of science professionals, and collaborations with researchers and organizations around the world.