By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

Listen to scientific pioneers discuss the development of our species. ... Click through detailed timelines on the fossil quest. ... Explore glossaries about our earliest ancestors, complete with virtual 3-D skulls. This isn’t your father’s anthropology: The Internet has brought a new dimension to the quest to understand human origins.

The latest to unveil a multimedia-rich Web site is one of the earliest and most respected organizations in the field: the Leakey Foundation, established in 1968 to support the work of anthropologist Louis Leakey.

Over the course of decades, Leakey and his wife, Mary, discovered a succession of fossils traced to the forebears of modern humans in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge. Today, new generations of Leakeys are carrying on the work of investigating hominid origins in Africa, and the foundation has also branched out to fund a wide spectrum of primate research, including Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees and the late Dian Fossey’s studies of mountain gorillas.

Another golden age
Many see the 1960s and 1970s as the golden age of paleoanthropology — the study of human evolution. But Bob Lasher, executive director of the Leakey Foundation, says a string of recent discoveries is opening up whole new vistas that can now be shared more fully with the public via the Internet.

Data: The rise and fall of Earth's species “There’s a whole new generation that’s in their 20s and 30s that missed that amazing time in the ’60s and ’70s, but actually they have a front-row seat on it right now,” Lasher told MSNBC.com.

“This year’s been phenomenal, and if we can be an interpretive source and centralize some of the information and provide some informative analysis of these events, I think it might be helpful to getting a new group of people excited about the topic.”

The foundation’s retooled Web site provides an extensive illustrated glossary of anthropological terms, a detailed rundown of the expeditions being supported, and a timeline on primate research going back to 1847. Perhaps the most precious gems are files of archival photographs and audio going back to the golden age, including scientists’ recollections of what Lasher calls their “eureka moments.” You can listen to entire lectures delivered by Goodall, Fossey, Mary and Meave Leakey, and Donald Johanson, discoverer of the 3 million-year-old hominid fossil known as “Lucy.”

Up the evolutionary chain
Johanson, a professor at Arizona State University and director of the Institute of Human Origins, is also one of the key people behind another full-featured Web site on paleoanthropology, titled “Becoming Human.”

Like the Leakey Foundation site, “Becoming Human” relies heavily on Flash plug-ins to deliver sound and animation. It’s even further up the broadband evolutionary chain: You’ll need a high-speed connection and 64 megs of computer RAM, for example, to watch a multichapter Flash documentary on the human-origins quest, narrated by Johanson.

There are other high-tech goodies, as well: a virtual tour of a dig, allowing you to move around the landscape and hear different researchers’ perspectives on their work; clickable “exhibits” and glossaries that explain subjects ranging from the scientific method to carbon dating techniques; and a compendium of hominid species, illustrated by pictures of fossils that can be twisted for a 360-degree view.

The evolution debate
On the other end of the whizbang scale is the Talk.Origins Archive, the Web-based library for the talk.origins newsgroup. You won’t need a cable modem or a DSL connection to read years’ worth of briefings on evolutionary topics, interact via a feedback forum, sample scores of links related to evolution and creationism, or even read the full text of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”

In the evolution vs. creationism debate, Talk.Origins and the other sites mentioned so far definitely lean toward Darwin — but just to give the other side its due, there are plenty of Web sites that state the case for creationism. One of the sites, titled “Creation Science,” provides arguments against the theory of evolution as well as links to other creationist resources.

You can look forward to more anthropological action on the Web, with PBS planning a rich site to coincide with its fall documentary series titled “Evolution.” The public TV network intends to provide educational resources that will help bring the quest for human origins into classrooms around the country.

In the future, Lasher says, the Leakey Foundation will expand upon its “Ask the Scientist” feature, which lets you send your questions for consideration by experts in the field. Researchers will be able to send reports back from the field, have them posted on the Leakey Foundation site and interact with the public via the Internet.

“What the Internet offers us is, for the first time, to have a technological crossroads for the meeting of the science and the interested lay public, and that’s what this site in this first iteration proposes to do,” he said. “It brings these two communities together in a really dynamic way. That, to me, hearkens back to that moment in the lecture hall when Louis Leakey asked these provocative questions and said, ‘We just don’t know enough now.’ And people around him said, ‘Let’s go after it — let’s see how we can facilitate that.’”

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