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Meet the ancestors

Breaking news: In February 2009, scientists discovered the earliest footprints made a by a human being in Kenya.

So where did we come from and how long have we been around?

This is a difficult question to answer, but what’s for sure is that you and me, we’re just another kind of ape. In fact, we are classified in the same family as the great apes: the Hominidae.

Does that mean apes are our distant relatives?

Well, no, not really. It would be easy to think that we might be related because we are similar in some ways: we have long arms, a tail-less body, walk upright and we also have very similar habits such as caring for our young and even bad moods!

If apes aren’t our ancestors, where did we come from?

That’s a good question, and it’s a question scientists have been trying to answer for over a hundred years. It all goes back to Darwin. Not long after he published his ideas on evolution in 1859 scientists started to look for evidence of human evolution: where we came from and how long we’ve been around.

When Darwin published his book many people thought he believed we evolved from the same apes that people can still see around today, chimps and gorillas in particular. This was not what Darwin was suggesting at all; instead he thought we shared a common ancestor at some point in the past because we have a lot in common. He also thought that the species we and the apes have in common had probably been extinct for many years.

Could it be the chimps?

That’s another good question. Today we know that humans and chimps share about 98.4 per cent of their DNA. That’s quite a lot of stuff right? This suggests that humans and chimps only recently parted company on the evolutionary tree!

Humans and chimps

When did humans and chimps part company?

To find this out we need to look for fossils that have come from a common ancestor.
The first fossil candidates were discovered in 1925 in Africa. The ape was called Australopithicus Africanus. Austalo means southern and pithicus means ape. So the long name really just means ‘southern ape’.

The fossil found was the skull of a child. It had a small brain in comparison to modern humans but was rounded which is similar to humans but different from chimps. The position of the hole connecting the skull to the spinal column suggested that this creature may have walked upright. Walking upright is a very human trait!

So, Australopithicus Africanus appears to be a creature that lived just before the evolutionary tree split into two branches: one for the great apes and one for us. This fossil is about 2.5 million years old, so humans are younger than this!

Homo is Latin for human!

The branch that was to become human beings was given the name homo. Homo is just Latin for human or man, so whenever you see a species described as homo something it simply means it was on the human side of this branch. We, humans, are Homo sapiens. Sapiens is latin for wise. So we are the wise men!

Homo habilis

Homo Habilis

The first fossils to be classified as homo, or human, were Homo habilis. The species Homo habilis lived between 2.4 and 1.4 million years ago and is known as ‘Handy man’ because tools were found with the fossils suggesting that this species used their hands to make things with tools. Handy man was still very similar to Australopithicus africanus. It had a bigger brain with a shape that is very similar to modern humans and may have been capable of simple speech. It was a lightly-built species and only about five feet tall.

Homo erectus

Homo Erectus

The next big find was a fossil that came to be known as Homo erectus. This was discovered on the Indonesian Island of Java and was the first human ancestor to definitely walk upright, or erect…hence the name. We know this because it had locking knees; these really help if want to go for a stroll! To see how important this is in the development of humans try walking or running while keeping your knees bent. You can’t do it for very long, and it is incredibly hard work.

Homo erectus lived from about 1.8 million years ago to only about 70,000 years ago. In fact, we are not descended from Homo erectus we are descended from another hominid that was around at the same time: Homo antecessor. This species lived about 1.2 million to 800,000 years ago. They looked quite modern: they were tall, up to 6 feet, and had brains only a little smaller than ours. They had a low forehead and a small chin.

Meet the ancestors: Homo rhodesiensis

Homo Rhodesiensis

The next really significant step toward the evolution of humans came with Homo rhodesiensis. The first fossils were discovered in Rhodesia (the old name for Zimbabwe). They lived from about 300,000 to 125,000 years ago. They are thought to be the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. That’s us! The first Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago. So happy birthday, we’re all about 200,000 years old!

Is my games teacher a Neanderthal?

Well….he just might be. There were other ape-like species living at the same time as homo sapiens. The most successful of these species was Homo neanderthalis, or Neanderthal man. This species is also thought to be descended from Homo rhodesiensis, our ancestors!

Neanderthal man was heavier built than modern man but had many of the same characteristics: they could make tools and had a voice box, so they could probably talk. They died out soon after the appearance of homo sapiens, that’s us again! Scientists think that modern man wiped out the Neanderthals as they may have been seen as competition for limited food supplies. It has also been speculated that the two branches may have been so similar that they could have interbreed. So the next time you are looking at your games teacher and thinking, ‘he looks like a bit of a Neanderthal’ you may just be right!

Gym Teacher Neanderthal

So who made the newly discovered, ‘Human footprints’, and what do they tell us?

Well, they weren’t made by modern humans at all; they were made by Homo erectus.
The reason footprints are so important is that foot and hand bones are very rare in the fossil record. This is because predators found them very tasty so they got eaten long before they could become fossilised.

Finding footprints allows us to see the size and shape of the foot, but more importantly we can see the length of stride and understand the way they walked. This tells us that Homo erectus had a very modern style of walking: he could move quickly and easily. This allowed him to become a good hunter so he had a more varied choice of food. So, Homo erectus, our ancestor, was the first Hominid to trek out of Africa!

Walking across the desert

The big questions:

When did humans first evolve?

Where did humans first evolve?

How closely are we related to other animals?

Were we the only highly intelligent primate?