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The Missing Link


M. Elizabeth Strasser
Department of Anthropology
Sacramento State


The setting for this case study is a paleontological dig in East Africa, where “Sam,” an American undergraduate student, has unearthed part of what appears to be an ancestral human skull. Students read the case story and then, in the lab, they examine a number of primate skulls and are asked to make up a phylogeny based on their observations. The is case study is designed for a lower division, general education laboratory course that accompanies a lecture course in physical (biological) anthropology.


  • Gain knowledge of skull anatomy.
  • Understand the functions of skull components.
  • Understand the relationship between the morphology of teeth and diet.
  • Appreciate the relationship between skull anatomy and mode of locomotion.
  • Recognize some differences between apes and humans.


Missing link; human anatomy; human evolution; fossils; hominid; hominin; Paranthropus boisei; Australopithecus boisei; Kenya; East Africa

Topical Areas


Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Anthropology  |   Evolutionary Biology  |   Paleontology  |   Anatomy  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Teaching notes are intended to help teachers select and adopt a case. They typically include a summary of the case, teaching objectives, information about the intended audience, details about how the case may be taught, and a list of references and resources.


Christine Lesh
Winters Mill High School
Westminster, MD
I would love to use this case with my honors anatomy students, however, we cannot afford the skulls other than the few modern human ones. Do you have a website or document that would match as closely as possible the luxury of having all those skulls. I was hoping if I had multiple views of the skulls, I might be able to replicate the activity with our modern human skulls and the pictures of the other skulls. Thanks!

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY

This is an excellent question. We are hoping that other instructors who have used this case and have suggestions will comment here.

In the meantime, we have compiled a list below of websites with 3D fossils and artifacts related to human evolution that may be useful, but bringing them into the classroom and relating them to this specific case may require creative solutions:

  • The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's Human Evolution Evidence Collection
  • 3D Hominid Skulls Interactive, Natural History Museum, London
  • Human Evolution: The Fossil Evidence in 3D

Angela Dixon
St. Luke's Episcopal School
Mobile, AL
We have the same problem. I have one plastic model in my classroom. I did find a nearby university with a medical department that allows other institutions to check out human skeletons. I used one of these when we were studying skulls and differences between males and females. I used the skeleton for a month, but I am sure that if you need more than one skull you would have to turn it in earlier. Hope that helps.

Kathleen Baka
Kent State University-Geauga Campus
Burton, Ohio
There is an excellent web site out of Indiana University that has lessons with pictures of skulls. The one titled "Hominid Skulls Lab" provides drawings, photos, and a place to order skulls. I am sending the URL for web site rather than the lesson because it is much more comprehensive: Also, if you have a natural history museum nearby, they may skulls you can borrow. Ours does.

Justine Mcloughlin
Science Department
Sandwich High School
Sandwich, Massachusetts
Although I know it isn't as interesting as working with real skulls, I used an activity developed by Nova with my AP students last year that I think accomplished many of the same goals as the case study described here. It involved the analysis of data regarding a number of different fossils and allowed the students to experience some of the same frustrations that scientists face in trying to work with partial skeletons. It would definitely be an appropriate level for honors anatomy. The activity is called "Bones of Contention."