SCU researcher’s groundbreaking study into human evolution
FOR Southern Cross University senior researcher Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau, crawling through the dank, dark tunnels in caves below South Africa and China is tough at best, deeply unsettling at worst.
The rewards, however, offer a glimpse into both our past and future as a species.
"I am trying to understand human evolution," he said.
"That's the core of my work.
"Basically where, when and how humans have become what we are."
As the head of the Geoarchaeology and Archaeometry Research Group, Dr Joannes-Boyau said humanity was constantly evolving.
For example, he said our jaws were reducing in size, noticeable in how wisdom teeth were now defunct in many individuals.
But it is in our social structures that we can find the most insight into what we will become.
Last year Dr Joannes-Boyau, who is helping to pioneer fossil dating for this type of analysis, led a research team in the discovery of a long-lasting mother-infant bonds in Australopithecus africanus and, ultimately, a critical rethink about the social organisation amongst our earliest ancestors.
"When you ask people what makes us human they will cite a lot of stuff such as art and culture, but really we are looking at the mechanics of what makes us so different to the other species and how we got there," he said.
"And one of the main things is our physiological adaptation and a big part of that is social structure and a big part of social structure is lactation.
"It is the strongest bond between an individual - the mother and the infant bond is massive.
"Before industrialisation there was no other way to survive without breastfeeding."
Dr Joannes-Boyau and the team were able to deduce their findings by studying fossilised teeth and analysing trace elements and metals found in the fossils, as well as the isotope ratio in the bones, to unveil previous unknown migratory patterns.
He hopes the recently awarded $580,000 Australian Research Council grant and subsequent purchase of more specialised machinery will mean their research will continue to shed light on some of the secrets buried deep within the earth and held deep within our ancestors' bones.