- Earliest finds
- Lucy – Australopithecus afarensis
- Homo erectus
- Homo heidelbergensis
- Homo neanderthalensis
- Homo sapiens
Let’s start by establishing a general context. We humans are said to have diverged from the apes between ten and five million years ago; currently the earliest fossil-finds date back to 7 million years ago. This earliest find was the Sahelanthropus tchadensis discovered in Chad, quite recently in 2002. In fact, globally to-date, the thirty oldest hominid fossil remains have been discovered in Africa leading to it being the assumed as ‘ground zero’ for we humans.
In 1974, working in Afar Ethiopia, a group of scientists were listening to the Beatles’ Lucy in the sky with diamonds when they discovered 40% of what they later named as an Australopithecus afarensis. Naturally they called her ‘Lucy’, she was later dated as 3.2 million BP (Before Present). Subsequent finds suggest that Australopithecus lived from 3.9 to 2.9 million years ago; no Australopithecus has ever been found in Europe. However afarensis was the ancestor of Homo. It had already moved towards bipedalism and was showing the first sign of shedding its body hair.
The next major step in the evolutionary process was Homo erectus, or upright man. Emerging in Africa around 1.9 million BP and then set off on migrations that colonised each of the land masses; the latest skeleton find was 143,000 years old. It was more human in appearance and fully bipedal, but had a brain three-quarters of the size of our current capacity.
DNA research of modern humans has traced back the Y-chromosome to discover that the male ‘Adam’ lived around 338,000 years ago, probably in north-west Africa. He is the notional male MRCA, or Most Recent Common Ancestor, and today’s human males all share his Y-chromosome.
The first hominids are said to have reached as far as Europe at some stage between two and one million years BP. It was also around this period when hominids first discovered fire and its many benefits.
These ‘Europeans’ included Homo heidelbergensis a large hominid that emerged between 1.3 million and 800,000 years BP and appears to have died out 200,000 years ago, but not before it had first evolved in to two major descendant species around 400,000 to 350,000 BP.
The European descendant species that emerged was Homo neanderthalensis while the African descendant was the more modern Homo sapiens. But these two were not evolving along two isolated paths, along the way they supplanted each other and/or inter-bred between themselves and other hominid species while migrating across the land masses.
Homo neanderthalensis, is named after Germany’s Neander valley where the first skeletons of this species were discovered in 1856. Neanderthals are assumed to have lived until 30,000 years ago. They were characterised by having prominent brows and a small chin and grew on average to 1.5 meters tall (4ft 11ins). It is sobering to think that this is perhaps just 1500 generations ago! Especially when you learn that the Neanderthals’ DNA is only a fraction of 1% different to ours, just 0.12%.
The first Homo sapiens, emerged around 200,000 years BP. DNA research has followed the mitochondria back to the female ‘Eve’ who lived in east Africa some 150,000 years ago, all humans alive today can trace their mitochondria back to her. Of course this means that Adam (at 338,000 years ago in NW Africa) and Eve (150,000 years ago in east Africa) never actually met!
DNA research then shows a series of developments between 90,000 and 60,000 years ago in Homo sapiens that led to them becoming more recognisably human from around 50,000 BP onwards.
It was these Homo sapiens that began to colonise Europe from 40,000 years ago. The Neanderthals they met had been supplanted and died out by 25,000 years ago.