Story of humans

Story of humans

Neanderthal huntersNeanderthal huntersHumans first evolved from ape-like creatures in Africa. The first hominids (human-like beings) probably appeared over five million years ago. These early kinds are known as Australopithecines. Many later kinds of hominids, including the ancestors of modern humans, evolved in Africa. The first hominids to leave Africa, called Homo erectus, reached Central Asia about 1.8 million years ago. Modern humans, whose scientific name is Homo sapiens, did not appear until relatively recently: about 200,000 years ago.

Aegyptopithecus, the earliest-known primate Aegyptopithecus, the earliest-known primate

Ape ancestor

Humans, apes and monkeys are all descended from a single ancestor. This may have been Aegyptopithecus, or “Egyptian Ape”, which was just 40 centimetres (16 inches) long. It lived in Egypt about 35 million years ago, climbing through the trees on all fours. Of all the descendants of this tiny mammal, only humans and their human-like ancestors developed bipedalism, the ability to walk upright and on two feet.

Australopithecus afarensis Australopithecus afarensis


The first evidence of human-like creatures, or hominids, dates back 7 million years. The earliest known hominids were Sahelanthropus tchadensis, which walked on two legs and lived 7–6 million years ago in north-central Africa.

Remains of later ape-like creatures, called Australopithecines (“southern apes”), have been found in various parts of northeastern Africa. There are now thought to be four different species, all of whom lived between 3.8 and 2.9 million years ago in what is known as the Horn of Africa. Australopithecines walked upright and were between 1 and 1.5 metres (3–5 feet) tall with long arms and short legs. They had a small brain in a low-browed skull. Australopithecines are believed to be the direct ancestors of modern humans.

The fossil skeleton of LucyThe fossil skeleton of Lucy


The skeleton of one Australopithecine species, found at Hadar in Ethiopia in 1974, was nicknamed “Lucy” (although it was later found to be a male). Scientists could tell that Lucy, although it had a chimpanzee-like posture, stood upright and walked on two feet—the distinguishing feature of a hominid. It was dated as 3.2 million years old, and given the scientific name Australopithecus afarensis.

Fossil Laetoli footprintsFossil Laetoli footprints

Laetoli footprints

Fossilized footprints in volcanic sediments were discovered at Laetoli, Tanzania, East Africa, in 1976 by the British archaeologist Mary Leakey. They were made around 3.7 million years ago by apemen, probably Australopithecus afarensis (although this has been much debated), no more than 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall. Discovered with the footprints—made by three individuals—were the remains of skeletons belonging to other hominids and animals. Laetoli lies 45 kilometres south of the Olduvai Gorge, the place where remains of many prehistoric humans have been discovered.


Homo habilisHomo habilis

Homo habilis

Bipedalism allowed hominids to develop in an important way that was different from other mammals: they could use their hands for other tasks. By about 2.5 million years ago, Homo habilis (“handy man”) had appeared in Africa. It probably evolved from a kind of Australopithecine. It was, so far as we know, the first true human, although it still looked ape-like. Homo habilis could use simple stone tools, rather than its teeth or its bare hands, to kill and skin animals for food. The tools were made by striking one stone against another to make a sharp edge. These early tools were so simple that they look like naturally chipped stones.Homo habilis using tools to carve a carcassHomo habilis using tools to carve a carcass
The skull of Homo ergasterThe skull of Homo ergaster

Homo ergaster

Chewing raw meat must have been hard work, but it was thousands of years before early humans discovered how to soften their food by cooking it. Early humans may have discovered fire by seeing how lightning sometimes set bushes alight.

A more intelligent species of human, Homo ergaster ("work person"), first appeared in Africa between about 1.9 and 1.8 million years ago. Taller, leaner and able to move more quickly across open grassland, Homo ergaster learned to hunt larger animals with sharper weapons. It may have been the first kind of human to use fire to cook food.

Homo erectus

Descendants, close relatives—or possibly even identical—to Homo ergaster, Homo erectus humans were tall (about the same size as modern humans) and powerfully built. Their name means "upright man".Homo erectus drive a pack of lions away.Homo erectus drive a pack of lions away.They travelled north and east to other continents from around 1.8 million years ago. They were the first hominids to leave the African continent. They probably went in search of new hunting grounds now that meat had become an important part of their diet. Bones of Homo erectus have been found in Java, China and Central Asia. Homo erectus had protruding jaws and thick brow ridges, but lived in groups and cooked food over a fire.

A model of an adult female Homo erectusA model of an adult female Homo erectus

The life of
Homo erectus

Homo erectus males went out hunting while the females gathered plant food and looked after their young. Bones found at the site of one of their camps in China show that they hunted and killed elephants, rhinoceros, horses, bison, water buffalo, camels, wild boar and antelopes. The hunters could not have overcome large animals like these with simple weapons unless they had larger and more cunning brains than their ancestors. Homo erectus may even have been capable of simple speech, although they still had the heavy jaws they once needed for chewing raw meat.

The hunter-gatherering Homo erectus were always on the move. At night, they slept in caves or built simple shelters from branches and skins. The females collected firewood so that they could light a fire to keep themselves warm and cook their food. The males made stone tools, including the hand-axe, which could be used for cutting up meat.

A Homo erectus group sets up camp for the night.A Homo erectus group sets up camp for the night.

Heidelbergs cook food outside their cave.Heidelbergs cook food outside their cave.


By about 1 million to 700,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis (known as “Heidelbergs”) were living in Europe. They had probably evolved from Homo ergaster in Africa, possibly around 1.3 million years ago. The Ice Ages had begun, so these humans were forced to learn how to survive a period of rapid climate change. Heidelbergs had much more brain power than their ancestors. As well as gathering fruits and nuts to eat, Heidelbergs hunted large animals, tracking them and ambushing them with stealth and cunning. They worked together as a team, and were probably able to talk—although perhaps not quite as fluently as modern humans do.

Heidelberg hammer head and hand-axeHeidelberg hammer head and hand-axeHeidelbergs used their brains to invent better tools than previous humans. They used stone tools to cut up the carcasses of the animals they had killed. With their carefully crafted tools, spears and superior intelligence, Heidelbergs were expert hunters. This hammer head, for example, was carved from the antler of a giant deer by a Heidelberg human. Clearly a treasured possession, it was used to make hand-axes from flints.

A dead Heidelberg man is thrown into a burial pit.A dead Heidelberg man is thrown into a burial pit.

The Pit of Bones

A site that has provided a great deal of evidence about early humans is La Sima de los Huesos (the Pit of Bones) in northern Spain. Here the remains of at least 30 humans, dating to 400,000 years ago, have been found at the bottom of a 15-metre (50-foot) shaft. DNA testing has confirmed that the humans were Heidelbergs. It is possible that their dead bodies were thrown into the pit by their relatives: the first evidence of humans taking steps to bury their dead.

Neanderthal (left) and modern human comparedNeanderthal (left) and modern human compared


Some time between 600,000 and 350,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis had evolved into a new kind of human: Homo neanderthalensis (or Neanderthal). It was named after the German valley where Neanderthal fossil bones were found in 1856. Neanderthals had short, muscular bodies with particularly powerful arm and leg muscles. Males stood up to 1.7 metres (5 foot 6 inches) tall and females about 1.6 metres (5 foot 1 inch) tall. Their heads had low foreheads, thick browridges and wide noses. Their brains were, on average, actually larger than those of modern humans. They were almost certainly capable of speech.

Neanderthals tools and pendantsNeanderthals tools and pendantsFar from being the brutish, unintelligent forerunner of modern humans, Neanderthals were skilled hunters living in social, caring groups. They adapted to life in the cold climates of the Ice Ages and made many cleverly designed tools and hunting weapons. These blades, chipped from flakes of rock, were crafted so that they fitted snugly into the hand. Teeth from elk and wolves were worn as pendants.

Neanderthal life and death

A Neanderthal burial ceremonyA Neanderthal burial ceremonyThe Neanderthals lived hard, dangerous lives spent hunting large animals that shared their Ice Age environment. Many of their bones that have been discovered show evidence of serious injury. The crippled members of the group were fed and cared for by the others. As far as we know, they were the first type of human to hold religious ceremonies and to bury their dead with possessions for the afterlife.

A reconstructed face of Homo floresiensisA reconstructed face of Homo floresiensis

The "hobbit"

The remains of a small human were discovered in 2003 on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Nicknamed the "hobbit" after the book by J.R.R. Tolkein, Homo floresiensis measured only just over 1 metre tall (3 foot 6 inches). Its bones were dated to possibly just 12,000 years ago, meaning it may well have lived alongside modern humans on Flores. Some scientists have suggested that it was a kind of pygmy modern human (or a modern human with a disorder such as dwarfism or Down's syndrome), but most evidence points to Homo floresiensis and Homo sapiens being two separate species. Apart from being much shorter, the specimen resembles Homo erectus, which was known to have been living in Southeast Asia, and of which it may have been a descendant.

Neanderthals meeting Homo sapiensNeanderthals meeting Homo sapiens

Modern humans

Homo sapiens ("wise man")—modern humans—probably originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and later travelled from there to other parts of the world. They were, like the Neanderthals, probably descended from Homo heidelbergensis. Discoveries of bones, tools and weapons in Africa all provide evidence that modern humans emerged in that continent. They no longer had the jutting brows and large jaws of earlier types of human, but high foreheads and bony chins. Their brains were larger than any of their ancestors, apart from the Neanderthals.

The peopling of the world

About 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to spread around the globe. They reached Australia 55,000 years ago, and Europe about 40,000 years ago. Within 10,000–15,000 years of their arrival in Europe, all the Neanderthals had died out, probably because modern humans were better able to find food and shelter than they were.Modern humans and their camp, 20,000 years agoModern humans and their camp, 20,000 years agoModern humans arrived in North America between 35,000 and 15,000 years ago. They crossed from Asia at a time when the Bering Sea, which divides the two continents, was dry land. They then spread through the Americas, reaching the southern tip of South America 11,000 years ago.

ConsultantChris Jarvis

See also in Prehistoric

See also in Life

Many scientists now suspect that Homo ergaster and Homo erectus are actually the African (ergaster) and Asian (erectus) populations of the same species—Homo erectus.

The most complete skeleton of Homo ergaster was discovered at Lake Turkana, Kenya in 1984. Scientists called the 1.6-million-year-old specimen, a juvenile, "Turkana Boy".

The first Neanderthal bones were discovered in 1829 in Belgium—the cranium (part of the skull) of a small child. They were not identified as Neanderthal until 1936.

Neanderthals' brains were probably larger than those of modern humans.

Excavations of a Neanderthal skeleton showed it was buried with flower petals. This suggested that some kind of burial ceremony may have taken place.

Studies show that the genes of modern humans and Neanderthals are at least 99.5% identical.

Approximately 4% of the DNA of non-African modern humans is shared with Neanderthals, suggesting that interbreeding between the two species must have taken place (Neanderthals did not live in Africa).

In March 2008, in the remote Denisova Cave in Siberia, scientists discovered the bones of a female who lived about 40,000 years ago. Studies showed she was neither Neanderthal nor modern human. These new types of human are called Denisovans.

Homo erectus lived until at least about 300,000 years ago, although some populations may have survived on Indonesian islands until about 143,000 years ago—or even more recently.

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