Zeray Alemseged is a paleoanthropologist. He hunts for fossils of early humans and their predecessors in Ethiopia. On one trip, he discovered the nearly complete skeleton of a 2½-year-old girl who died about 3 million years ago. The fossil, which he named Selam, is the oldest ever found of a child. We talked to Alemseged about what we can learn from our species’ ancestors.

Q: Why do you study our human ancestors?

A: Paleoanthropologists try to find fossils that help us figure out how humans became the widespread species we are today. 

Q: How did you and your team find Selam?

A: One afternoon, in rocky hills in Ethiopia, we noticed something shiny sticking out of the dirt. It was a cheekbone. I could tell that it belonged to a child human ancestor. It took five years to find the rest of the skeleton. She has a face similar to that of chimpanzees. But her hip bone was humanlike. That tells us she was adapted to walk upright, like we do.

Q: What fascinates you most about your work?

A: People have different eye shapes or skin colors, but it only takes a moment of reflection on our common ancestors found in Africa to realize that we are all the same.