There’s a TV show called Who Do You Think You Are? that traces back the lineage and history of various celebrities or well known people, often uncovering some very interesting things the people never knew about their ancestry. It’s a fascinating show and always makes me wonder about my own family’s history and the history of people I know.
Then I started wondering about our greater, more extended family: Homo sapiens. Who are we and where did we come from? Who do we think we are? We know we are the species Homo sapiens (well, actually Homo sapiens sapiens) but do we know what that means and where our past really lies?
I didn’t really know more than just a few basics so I decided to look into it and found it to be a neat little lesson in human ancestry and our relative history. Although my instinct was to keep delving into all the details until I created a very rich narrative, I decided it was a bit too big of a project so instead I’ll keep this pretty simple and break the story into two parts: the creation of Homo sapiens (how we came to be a species) and then the story of Homo sapiens (where we have come as a species). A while back, I did a quick look at evolution in Humans, Chimps and Dinos Oh My that covers the basics but these next two articles will present a more complete story.
**There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the details of some of the lineages (such as if certain species evolved from others or existed along with) but as best as I can tell, this is the basic Homo sapiens evolutionary tale…
The Homo Sapiens Evolution Part 1: How We Came To Be Homo Sapiens
Somewhere around 13 million years ago, a species of primates existed and one group branched off, eventually becoming the current orangutan. That primate family cruised along until about 8 million years ago when a group branched off, eventually becoming the modern gorilla. A couple million years went by and about 6 million years ago a big divergence occurred. One group of these primates started evolving toward what would become the current bonobo and chimpanzee while the other group started evolving toward what we know now us, modern humans.
Quite a few different primate species existed, evolved and died off the next 2-3 million years until a group of species called the Australopiths were existing in Africa…
Australopithecus- Sometime around 3-4 million years ago a genetic family (genus) of human like apes, Australopithecus, meaning “southern ape”, was existing in eastern Africa and slowly migrating across the continent. The various Australopiths were small in stature, about 4 feet tall, and had brains about 1/3 the size of modern humans but were the first of the hominids (great apes) to have a gene that allowed for increased lengthening and ability of brain neurons, which many believe enabled the emergence of ever smartening apes/humans. Around 2.5 million years ago one of the several Australopith species started evolving into the first species that was more human than ape. This new genus became the Homo family, which means “man” or “human”.
Homo Habilis – The first species in the homo genus/family, appearing a little more than 2 million years ago, was Homo Habilis, which means “man able to handle” or “skilled man”. These more human like apes started to show what we know as human like qualities, although they are the least similar to us out of all the various homo species. Standing about 4 feet tall (or a touch more) with long arms and with a brain size about 1/2 of modern humans, homo habilis is thought to be the first species with the ability to make and use tools, particularly stone flakes, for use in scavenging and food acquisition. That helped them expand their diet and become the precursor to the next line of human like ancestors.
Homo Ergaster – Homo Ergaster, meaning “working man”, evolved a little less than 2 million years ago from the homo habilis species and started the journey toward modern humans. During the 500,000 years they existed their brain size grew considerably (from a little over half of modern humans to 3/4 or more) as did their stature (some reaching almost 6 feet). Tool use also grew more sophisticated, including axes, and the first evidence of controlling fire is seen. Additionally, homo ergaster appears to be the first hominid to have vocal capabilities that would later develop into language.
During that same time, another group of homo habilis branched off to become Homo Erectus, meaning “upright man.” Although some contend that homo ergaster and homo erectus are different versions of the same species, most consider homo erectus as a very distant cousin of modern humans, not the predecessor to. Homo erectus, lived over 1 million years before extinction about 150,000 years ago, making it the longest surviving homo species to date.
Homo Antecessor – A little more than 1 million years ago showed the emergence of Homo Antecessor, meaning “predecessor of man”, bearing the same brain size as homo ergaster and roughly the same size, although slightly shorter (5 1/2 feet tall) and possibly more robust. Not much is known about homo antecessor due to fossil scarcity but they are believed to be the evolutionary link between homo ergaster and homo heidelbergensis.
Homo Heidelbergensis – Sometime around 600,000 years ago came Homo Heidelbergensis, meaning “Heidelberg man” (as the first fossils were found near Heidelberg, Germany). This was a very evolved species, nearly equivalent to us in both height and brain size, that continued tool use and language development, living a few hundred thousand years before dying off about 250,000 years ago. During that time, Heidelbergensis basically split into three species that went in separate ways, two of those being Neanderthals and humans.
Homo Neanderthalensis, meaning “Neander man” (as the first evidence was found in the Neander valley or “tal”, near Düsseldorf), was one of the branches off homo Heidelbergensis. Heading into Europe and west Asia, Neanderthals existed from about 250,000 years ago until about 40,000 years ago. They had bigger brains than modern humans do and were a touch shorter but likely more muscular and robust. They are distant cousins to modern humans, not ancestors of.
Homo Sapiens – Homo Sapiens means “wise man” and has two subspecies, of which we are the only surviving line. Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago from homo Heidelbergensis and about 60-70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens, aka anatomically modern man, left Africa and headed into Eurasia. Homo sapiens at that time was very similar to current humans, although faced with very different environment and challenges. The term Cro-Magnon refers to these “early modern humans” that were very robust and big brained but isn’t considered a uniques species, just a descriptive term of early humans. The history of homo sapiens from there is quite fascinating and worthy of its own post (coming soon) since I wanted to keep this at the basic level.
Australopithecus –> Homo Habilis –> Homo Ergaster –> Homo Antecessor –> Heidelbergensis –> Homo Sapiens
We did not evolve from homo erectus (distant cousin) or Neanderthals (cousin) and certainly not from chimpanzees (distant, distant cousin).
Although we can never be sure of the details, that’s the history of how Homo sapiens came to be from the 30,000 foot level. We went through a lot to get to Homo sapiens and since then our story has become even more interesting and incredibly diverse, as we can see by looking around the globe at all the different peoples living today. How did we get spread throughout the globe, from pole to pole, sea level to mountain top and everywhere between? We’ll explore that soon in The Homo Sapiens Evolution Part 2 – Evolving Into Modern Man.
*Homo sapiens idaltu, meaning “elder wise man” lived in Africa about 160,000 years ago and disappeared pretty quickly, leaving only a few clues behind.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!