In this lesson, we explore the fascinating and diverse species of hominids that belong to the evolutionary tree of humankind, as well as the important developments in its history.
Development of Homo Sapiens
‘Where did we come from?’ is one of the oldest questions mankind has ever asked. For centuries, early humans developed elaborate stories involving supernatural deities descending from earth to begin humanity or mankind, materializing from the sea, the ground, other creatures; you name it. Only recently – that is, in the last century or two – have we truly been able to discover scientifically how humanity arrived at its current form. In this lesson, we’ll discuss those early origins and delve deeper into the characteristics that our species – Homo sapiens – developed to set us on our path to global domination.
When humankind’s ancestors diverged from their primate cousins in the evolutionary tree is not known exactly. The most important speciation – that one that separated humankind’s ancestors from the ancestors of today’s chimpanzees – likely occurred between 7 million and 6 million years ago. The earliest specimens found to prove this speciation are from Sahelanthropus tchadensis, an ape-like ancestor who had the ability to walk upright on two legs, but only for limited periods of time.
This ability likely gave Sahelanthropus a key advantage over his competitors; with the ability to walk upright at points, Sahelanthropus could see over the tall grasses of the African Savannah and detect the approach of predators.This ability to walk on two legs – termed bipedalism – grew more and more present in later human ancestors. For example, the bones we have of Australopithecus amensis, which lived around 4.2 million to 3.9 million years ago, show that he probably walked upright more often than not.
These early human ancestors likely lived in both the grasslands and the native forests of their ancestors. Though after Australopithecus, humanity’s ancestors probably walked upright most of the time, they still maintained many of the abilities that allowed them to easily climb trees.Later species of the Australopithecus genus were the first to begin using stone tools. This sophisticated manipulation of the environment is another characteristic that set humankind’s ancestors apart from its ape cousins.
It was likely around 2.6 million years ago, possibly by Australopithecus africanus, when humankind’s ancestors first developed stone tools by chipping away softer stones with harder, often rounder stones. They formed these softer stones into cutting implements and other rudimentary tools.
Soon after mankind’s first forays into technology, the first species of our genus, Homo, appeared. Homo habilis was the earliest species of the Homo genus, appearing around 2.
4 million years ago. He was originally nicknamed ‘the handyman,’ as it was thought when the first specimens were found that Homo habilis was the first toolmaker. Nonetheless, Homo habilis walked fully upright. The next major innovation in the development of humankind’s ancestors was achieved by the longest living species of the genus, Homo erectus.Homo erectus existed from about 1.9 million years ago until about 150,000 years ago.
Throughout that period, the brain capacity of Homo erectus nearly doubled. Furthermore, Homo erectus was one of the first of humanity’s ancestors to venture outside the bounds of Africa, spreading as far as East Asia and Indonesia. Perhaps most importantly, Homo erectus was likely the first human ancestor to harness the use of fire, probably around 800,000 years ago.
Fire allowed the cooking of food, which radically changed the diet of mankind’s ancestors, as well as offering warmth in colder climates and some protection from predators.Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and by 100,000 years ago, the species began spreading to most parts of the world. Though it is now the only surviving species of Homo, it lived side-by-side with Homo neanderthalensis in Europe and central Asia, but that species died out around 40,000 years ago. For most of that time, Homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers who followed herds and animals and built rudimentary shelters. They also foraged for nuts, fruits, berries, and wild vegetables.Perhaps the most important development in mankind’s history was completed by Homo sapiens roughly 12-10,000 years ago: the development of agriculture. Between 10,000 and 8,000 B.
C., mankind first began to domesticate game animals and keep them in herds near humans. In addition, they began to collect the seeds of the best wild crops and plant them widely. This early agriculture allowed humankind, for the first time, to grow or cultivate more food than they could eat in a single day. In addition, humans now had a reason to stay put, and sedentary villages and communities developed. Before long, these communities grew larger as humans became more adept farmers, developing into city-states with sophisticated economies and political apparatuses. Furthermore, the free time humans were now afforded allowed them to develop culturally and create pottery, innovative technology, and religion and mythology.
In essence, the birth of agriculture in the relatively recent past instigated the birth of civilization as you and I know it.
The evolutionary tree that eventually led to Homo sapiens and human civilization is not a straight one. Indeed, there are many twists, turns, and dead ends where certain species simply died out. The examples of hominids above are only a few of what is a diverse and fascinating family of organisms that existed prior to the arrival of Homo sapiens.Most important are the landmarks of development mentioned in this lesson. Bipedalism, for example, allowed our first ancestors to descend from the trees to the grasslands with at least a modicum of safety.
The ability to make stone tools and an increasing brain size certainly helped human development as well. The harnessing of fire allowed humans to begin eating meat and other types of food rich in proteins. Most recently, and perhaps most importantly, the development of agriculture allowed humans to begin living sedentary lives and flourish into the society you and I live in today.
Once you are done with this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall the progression of early hominids towards bipedalism
- Describe humankind’s developments during the reign of homo erectus
- Discuss the importance of agriculture in the development of homo sapiens and civilization