2008 Nobel Conference

Who Were the First Humans?
Nobel Conference XLIV, October 7–8, 2008

Study of the first humans, where they came from and how they lived, has long been the sphere of knowledge attributed to archaeologists and paleoanthropologists. During the last couple of decades, however, biologists, climatologists, geneticists, mathematicians, and psychologists, among others, have been adding to the scientific database. Using new techniques and state-of-the-art technologies, they have both aided the painstaking work of extracting skeletal remains and artifacts from ancient sites around the world and bolstered the physical findings.

Together, these scientists have produced a host of exciting, far-reaching discoveries. While they are still debating the exact relationships among the species of hominids, the genus from which modern humans arose, they are getting closer and closer to finding the very first of our kind with research that is rewriting our history and informing us in dramatic ways.

Through study of mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes, for example, molecular biologists and geneticists have traced the birth of modern humans to Africa around 200,000 years ago. They created art and musical instruments, buried their dead, learned to make tools, invented languages, and ventured out. From Africa, they headed to Asia, Europe, and across the seas to the Americas.

For tens of thousands of years, our forebears coexisted with Neanderthals, who, it turns out, were "wired" with the same language gene. While the Neanderthals headed for extinction in the forests, however, scientists recently found humans headed for the beach. Our ancient ancestors discovered the "basket" of food along Africa's coastlines and expanded their hunting and gathering skills from woolly mammoths and berries to seals and shellfish at least 167,000 years ago. Learning to harvest marine resources, in fact, just may have enabled them to survive the last ice age, as well as make it to the Americas. Perhaps the most thought provoking "find" is how the research has been consistently showing that for all our physical and genetic differences, we are more alike than anyone imagined—and the implications of that are nothing less than profound.

We invite you to be with us for Nobel Conference® 44, scheduled for October 7 and 8, 2008, when we will consider the full range of recent evidence about the first modern humans and what we may stand to learn from them about surviving the global challenges we face as a species today.

Timothy Robinson
Director, Nobel Conference
Chair, Nobel Conference 2008