Ethiopia is known throughout the world for its antiquities, ranging from historic sites such as Gondar and Lalibela, to much older, prehistoric sites such as those found in the Afar and lower Omo regions. Most of the past happened before written historical records were made, so most of human existence was, in fact, prehistoric.
The study of the prehistoric human past is called “paleoanthropology.” Anthropology itself refers to the study of human beings. Paleoanthropology is the study of human ancestors in the distant past. Since we cannot travel back in time to observe these ancestors, scientists must use other kinds of evidence to understand what happened.
Today, paleoanthropologists study all aspects of the human past. They pay particular attention to the biological and cultural dimensions of human ancestors. To study these dimensions, paleoanthropologists rely on evidence in the form of artifacts, fossilized bones of ancestors, and the contexts in which these specimens are found. This is very difficult work. In general, the older something is (in geological terms), the greater the chance that the forces of nature have destroyed it. For this reason, most evidence from the prehistoric past has disappeared. Paleoanthropologists actively search for traces of the past that have not disappeared, and they work to infer what happened by using these clues.
There are three basic sciences that contribute the most data to paleoanthropology, archaeology, geology, and paleontology. Archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists work closely together in paleoanthropological research, each contributing vital information necessary to understand human origins and evolution.
Before the invention of metal tools, human ancestors made and used stone tools. Archaeologists study these artifacts, and their contexts, in efforts to understand how human ancestors lived, behaved, and died in the past.
Geology is the study of the earth. Geologists study the processes that produce sedimentary deposits and contribute to studies of prehistoric environments. Geologists also assist in identifying the places where the fossils and artifacts needed for paleoanthropology might occur. After these antiquities are found, geologists are responsible for dating them and interpreting what the ancient landscapes were like.
Paleontology is the study of fossils. Fossils are traces of past life, ranging from bones of tiny mammals and birds, to footprints left by dinosaurs or even early humans in lithified mud or volcanic ash. In this sense, paleontologists are biologists of the past, trying to both catch a glimpse of ancient worlds understanding how today's world was structured by its deep past.
The third science comprising modern paleoanthropology is archaeology. Before the invention of metals, most early human ancestors made and used stone tools. Archaeologists study these artifacts, and their contexts, in their efforts to understand how human ancestors lived and behaved and died in the distant past. Archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists work closely together in paleoanthropological research, each contributing vital information necessary to understand human origins and evolution.