In 1998, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger teamed up with National Geographic to create a blog about his team's search for humanity's origins in Africa. The site (or, at least, parts of it) is still live.

NatGeo called its venture "National Geographic Outpost," and described it as "an Internet bridge between scientists and explorers in the field and curious minds in homes and classrooms around the world. We invite our audience to be active participants—through questions and suggestions—rather than passive observers."

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Most of Berger's page's links lead to 404s, but the site's framework is still standing. If you're into Internet history, or curious about some of the earliest forays into science blogging, it's definitely worth a quick look. Be sure to click through, past the introduction page, to "Enter Outpost."

Wrote Berger, at the time:

I invite you to join my colleagues, my teams, and me in the search for human origins through e–mails, dispatches, special reports, photographs, and more.

My teams and I are in Botswana searching for fossils that could be keys to humankind's past. Along the way I hope to give you a perspective on human evolution, one going back almost four million years and sweeping right up to the origin of our species.

Here's an early lesson plan, designed for kids between 5 and 9 years old:

Introduction to Evolution

Introduce your students to the concept of evolution with a simple simulation, using animals that students can make from construction paper. You will need approximately six red birds that can fly, approximately six red birds that can't fly, approximately six green birds that can fly, a fox, and an eagle. Designate a few tall classroom props to serve as green "trees." Explain that if the animals live in a forest, the birds that can fly can escape into the trees, while the fox will eat the others. The eagle can eat any bird because it can go into the trees or onto the forest floor. Let the students act this out with their animals.

Eventually only the flying birds will be left to reproduce, and their offspring will likely be flying birds too. There can be small variations in offspring, however, so maybe a few of these red birds will have green baby birds that can hide in the trees. The eagle will then eat the red birds but miss the green birds. Eventually, most birds will be green instead of red. Explain that in a similar way, new types of animal populations—even people—can develop over long periods of time. Show students pictures of some early hominids, including Australopithecus africanus, and ask what factors allowed these species to evolve into Homo sapiens. (You'll find appropriate pictures in the February 1997 and August 1998 issues of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.)

Classifying Species

Have students look at pictures of chimpanzees and gorillas at the Electronic Zoo (http://netvet.wustl.edu/primates.htm) and renderings of Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus afarensis in the August 1998 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Ask students to compare these other species with humans. What can people do that the others can't? What can the others do that people can't? How are we similar; how are we different?

Now compare humans to another type of mammal, such as a dog, cat, or horse. How are we similar to and different from this animal? What about a bird, reptile, or insect?

Give each student an index card bearing the name of an animal. (If time permits, students might draw their animals on the cards.) Have a variety of insects, birds, reptiles, nonprimate mammals, nonhuman primates, and human beings.

Gather the class around a large piece of poster board, a rug, or a table. Ask students to place their index cards in an order that represents the similarities between animals. The most "primitive" animals (insects) might be at the top, followed by species that have progressively more in common with people. Let students discuss where animals should be placed. Explain to the class that certain scientists have a similar job and must try to figure out the similarities and differences between all types of animals, including animals that have been extinct for a long time. In that case, they have to classify animals based on fossils, which is much more difficult.

Writing Quizzes About Early Humans

Have students read about early humans at The Life and Times of Early Man (http://members.aol.com/Donnpages/Earl…) and write quizzes asking other students about this topic. Have them exchange quizzes and go back to the site for answers.

Here's another lesson plan for grades 5–8, and another for grades 9–12.

H/t Lee Berger