The research involves multidisciplinary field and laboratory work conducted in the Woranso-Mille study area of the Afar Depression in Ethiopia. The Woranso-Mille paleoanthropological project is relatively new and has started gathering significant fossil hominid specimens from a time period poorly known previously (3.6-3.8 million years ago). This funding supports collaborative research to be conducted by paleontologists, geologists, geochronologists, and paleoecologists from six institutions in the United States and abroad.
Scientists from each institution will coordinate their efforts to understand early hominid diversity between 3.0 and 4.0 million years ago, early Australopithecus paleobiology, taxonomy, and phylogenetic relationships, and establish their paleoenvironments. These will be attained by conducting detailed comparative analysis of the Woranso-Mille hominids enhanced by the use of High-resolution x-ray computed tomography, and isotope analysis in order to test whether morphological differences observed for the Woranso-Mille hominids correlate to isotopic variation that are indicative of behavioral and physiological differences. The paleontologists will further conduct faunal collection directed towards increasing the sample size of all fossil taxa at the site to increase biostratigraphic control, refine paleoenvironmental context of the associated hominids, and identify additional fossiliferous localities. Geologists of the project will establish a refined stratigraphic context for the fossils collected from all of the designated vertebrate localities in the northern part of the study area, establish refined stratigraphy and chronometric ages (using 40Ar/39Ar dating and magnetostratigraphy) for the vertebrate localities and associated fossils, and determine stratigraphic correlations across vertebrate localities within the study area and other paleontological sites in the region. The scientific results from this study will answer questions related to mid-Pliocene hominid diversity, generate new data on the paleobiology of early hominids and their paleohabitat, and increase understanding of mid-Pliocene African vertebrate evolution.
Broader impacts of this project focus on creating training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.