Paleoanthropologist explores roots of evolution

Prof. Zeray Alemseged blends high-tech imaging, field research in landmark discovery

In 2000 Zeresenay (Zeray) Alemseged unearthed a 3.3 million-year-old, nearly complete skeleton of a 2½ year-old girl in Dikika, Ethiopia. In the years that followed, the paleoanthropologist and fellow researchers slowly chipped away the sandstone surrounding the delicate fossil, using advanced imaging tools to analyze its structure.

Alemseged first revealed the Australopithecus afarensis fossil, known as “Selam,” to the world in a landmark publication in Nature in 2006. At the time, he was a senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, before moving to the California Academy of Sciences two years later.

In the fall of 2016, Alemseged left the California coast to join the University of Chicago faculty, where he quickly made international news. This past May, Alemseged co-authored a landmark study about “Selam,” which showed portions of the human spine that enable efficient walking motions were established millions of years earlier than previously thought.

The study, which Alemseged said shed new light on “one of the hallmarks of human evolution,” is the kind of impactful research that adds to UChicago’s storied reputation in paleontology—one that includes some of the most famous names in the field, both present and past.

“The study of human evolution here has very deep roots,” said Alemseged, the Donald N. Pritzker Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy. “Continuing that legacy and thinking into the future is exciting, but when you leverage that with the ability to work with some of the brightest students in the world, the opportunity to collaborate with them is one of the great legacies a scientist could have.”

Branches on evolutionary tree of life

Alemseged filled a niche in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy as its resident paleoanthropologist, studying human origins and the environmental context of human evolution. The other senior researchers on the faculty occupy key branches on the evolutionary tree of life. Prof. Michael Coates, studies the origins of early vertebrates and fish. Prof. Neil Shubin studies the first tetrapods and their transition to land. Prof. Paul Sereno covers dinosaurs and the emergence of flight, and Prof. Zhe-Xi Luo, studies the origins of mammals.

Alemseged extends this expertise to the species that dominates our planet today, with a new breed of research that combines high-tech imaging analysis of fossils with traditional geology and fieldwork. Using these tools, he explores the milestone events in human evolution since our split from the apes. 

“He’s a top-notch scientist who can use geology, biology and the latest technology in his work, and has a very good sense of public outreach,” said Sereno. “I’m so happy he chose to come here, putting UChicago at the cutting edge of the newest research in human evolution.”

Alemseged returns to his native Ethiopia every year for several months to continue work in the Afar, a paleoanthropological hotspot, collaborating with researchers from across the globe, including the National Museum of Ethiopia, where the fossils are prepared and curated.

“You can say that one-half of my lab is back there,” he said. “What I enjoy the most is the quiet moments that I have in my lab in the process of making the little incremental discoveries that, when combined, will allow me to tackle questions pertaining to those milestone events.”