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Early Human Timelines

Updated on April 16, 2012
Art is inextricably linked with the human condition. From Australopithecines to Homo sapiens, the Cueva Manos is a piece of art 6 million years in the making
Art is inextricably linked with the human condition. From Australopithecines to Homo sapiens, the Cueva Manos is a piece of art 6 million years in the making | Source

When Did Humans Evolve?

With more than 7 billion members spread across the entire globe, the species Homo sapiens is one of the most successful species on the planet. Humans branched from the chimps around 6 million years ago and are now the only surviving member of an extensive human family tree. It was not always like this; until relatively recently Homo sapiens was one of several human species that roamed the Earth. Fossil evidence suggests that there are more than 20 hominids that make up the human family tree.

If we know that we are one of many human species this raises the question: What makes a human? We can recognise the earliest human remains due to several distinguishing features:

  • Large brain
  • Lightweight, bipedal skeleton
  • Skull with short base and high braincase
  • Small brow ridge
  • Chin on lower jaw

Whilst this allows us to distinguish the onset of anatomically modern humans, it requires more detailed palaeontology to distinguish the two greatest features of modern humans - culture and language.

Human Evolution - The Homo Genus

Name
Meaning
Date Range
Homo habilis
Handy Man
2.5 - 1.4 MYA
Homo ergaster
Working Man
1.7 - 1.5 MYA
Homo erectus
Upright Man
1.9M - 143,000 years ago
Homo heidelbergensis
Heidelberg Man
700,000-200,000 years ago
Homo neanderthalensis
Man from the Neander Valley
200,000-28,000 years ago
Homo floresiensis
Flores Man
95,000-17,000 years ago
Homo sapiens
Knowing Man
195,000 years ago - present
We have been the sole member of the Homo genus for a relatively short length of time

When Did Humans Start Walking Upright? Australophicines

The evolution of an upright posture is one of the two key dividing lines between humans and apes. Bipedalism has many advantages:

  • Hands are left free to hold tools and reach fruit hanging from the ground
  • Predators can be spotted from much further away
  • Exposure to the sun is reduced
  • Boosts motility - particularly over long distances

Australopithecines were the first early humans to start walking upright. This early species of hominid first evolved around 4 million years ago and lived on the African Savannah - possibly due to climate change forcing them out of the forests in the search for food and water. With a brain size only 400-500 cubic centimetres, Australopithecines were still quite ape-like in appearance, and also showed a high level of sexual dimorphism - males could be twice the size of females. This was the first step on the road to humanity.

When Did Humans First Start Using Tools? Homo habilis

Homo habilis was the first human ancestor to habitually use tools - hence its name, 'Handy Man.' Equipped with a much larger brain than Australopithecines (around 600cm3), 'Handy Man' used tools to break bones and extract the nutrient-rich marrow. The tools were made of sharp stone flakes (Oldowan tools). Homo habilis crucially also had weakened jaw muscles - a mutation though to clear the way for rapid brain evolution. Other primates have strong jaw muscles that exert force across the entire skull - constraining its potential growth. Large brains need huge amounts of energy - as brain size increases we see cultural changes such as transition to eating meat, seafood entering the diet and the invention of cooking

The Evolution of Man

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A reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis the progenitor of the Homo genus. The brain is around 35% that of modern humans - showing that bipedalism pre-dates the evolution of big brains.Homo habilis had a brain capacity around 50% larger than Australopithecus. This increased brain volume allowed 'Handy Man' to develop stone tools.Homo erectus is the most 'human' looking of the species thus far, but still possesses a strong brow ridge and a brain capacity of only around 900 cubic centimetres Homo neanderthalensis actually possessed a larger brain at adulthood than Homo sapiens and were much stronger.1. Gorilla 2. Australopithecine 3. Homo Erectus 4. Homo neanderthalensis 5. Steinheim Skull (unknown if specimen is heidelbergensis or sapiens) 6. Homo sapiens
A reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis the progenitor of the Homo genus. The brain is around 35% that of modern humans - showing that bipedalism pre-dates the evolution of big brains.
A reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis the progenitor of the Homo genus. The brain is around 35% that of modern humans - showing that bipedalism pre-dates the evolution of big brains. | Source
Homo habilis had a brain capacity around 50% larger than Australopithecus. This increased brain volume allowed 'Handy Man' to develop stone tools.
Homo habilis had a brain capacity around 50% larger than Australopithecus. This increased brain volume allowed 'Handy Man' to develop stone tools. | Source
Homo erectus is the most 'human' looking of the species thus far, but still possesses a strong brow ridge and a brain capacity of only around 900 cubic centimetres
Homo erectus is the most 'human' looking of the species thus far, but still possesses a strong brow ridge and a brain capacity of only around 900 cubic centimetres | Source
Homo neanderthalensis actually possessed a larger brain at adulthood than Homo sapiens and were much stronger.
Homo neanderthalensis actually possessed a larger brain at adulthood than Homo sapiens and were much stronger. | Source
1. Gorilla 2. Australopithecine 3. Homo Erectus 4. Homo neanderthalensis 5. Steinheim Skull (unknown if specimen is heidelbergensis or sapiens) 6. Homo sapiens
1. Gorilla 2. Australopithecine 3. Homo Erectus 4. Homo neanderthalensis 5. Steinheim Skull (unknown if specimen is heidelbergensis or sapiens) 6. Homo sapiens | Source

When Did Humans Leave Africa? Homo erectus

Humanity is truly a global species - several times in our history we have made the voyage out of Africa. Despite having brains sophisticated enough to fashion tools (albeit not tools of a preconceived design) Homo habilis never left Africa; this was left to Homo ergaster/erectus (the species is called ergaster in Africa and erectus by the time it reaches Asia). It is suspected that the species larger size coupled with overcrowding or climate changes first triggered humanity's egress from the cradle of life. As the most human-like ancestor in the lineage (long legs, shorter arms), Homo erectus was also very well adapted to upright walking - a much more efficient mode of movement than those used by other primates.

When Did Homo sapiens First Appear?

Anatomically modern Homo sapiens first evolved around 200,000 years ago. By this time, cranial capacity had increased to around 1300 cm3, requiring anatomical changes to accommodate this such as a high and wide braincase. Mutations in the gene FOXP2 (possible arising as early as Homo heidelbergensis 600,000 years ago) had allowed for the development of speech - one of the key developments that allowed humanity to take over the world. By talking, knowledge could be shared far more efficiently, allowing for an increased rate of technological, cultural and spiritual advancement.

For much of our 200,000 year history we have shared the planet with a number of other species of humans. Homo neanderthalensis are perhaps the best known of these colleagues. Like Homo sapiens, Neanderthals had culture, controlled fire, designed and made sophisticated stone tools, wore clothes and created jewellery. They were also larger than modern humans and had a larger brain...so where did they go?

It is highly likely that the rise of modern humanity heralded the demise of the Neanderthal...a depressingly common theme in our history. Disease, competition for food, or outright warfare have all been cited as possible causes for Neanderthal extinction. Coupled with climate change and a reduced ability to adapt all put paid to the most well known of our human relatives.

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    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 4 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      Applicable date ranges are available in the table at the top of the article.

    • profile image

      Rhino 4 years ago

      More dates for people trying to make timelines, good info but mor dates

    • Horatio Plot profile image

      Horatio Plot 5 years ago from Bedfordshire, England.

      Interesting stuff TF, I enjoyed this. From my own studies you should know that there are still examples of other species of humuns still wandering around parts of southern England.

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      I loved researching this hub - I too didn't realise the sheer volume of 'Homo' species walking around the planet so short a time ago. It also focuses the mind to think on what actually makes us 'human' - it isn't just a big brain!

      Thanks to all for reading and your positive comments

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      A very good summary of human evolution. Have you heard of a book called 'Catching Fire' by Richard Wrangham. He basically presents a theory that it was fire and learning to cook that transformed the hominids into humans, a very interesting read. Voted up.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      The first time I read that there were several species of humans walking the earth, my mind was blown. It's such an interesting process to contemplate.

      I also only read recently about one of the major benefits of bipedalism being the ability to carry things- did you read about that study with chimps and nuts where they tried to re-create that behavioral development?

      Anyhow, love this Hub and this subject. Thanks for putting it together!

    • Cre8tor profile image

      Dan Robbins 5 years ago from Ohio

      Very interesting hub. I like the facts about walking upright and how obvious they are yet so taken for granted. Voted up.

    • TahoeDoc profile image

      TahoeDoc 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

      LOVE it. Simply, a great & informative hub. Thanks for writing such interesting stuff.