Humans are the last sur­viv­ing species in the genus Homo.

Homo habilis

The ear­li­est species of the genus Homo named so far, Homo habilis (“Handy Man”), appeared about 2-mil­lion years ago in Africa. Homo habilis had small­er teeth and a larg­er brain than Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus (about 600 cc to 800 cc), and was prob­a­bly the first hominid to make stone tools, includ­ing peb­ble chop­pers and sharp flakes of stone.

These tools, referred to as the Oldowan indus­try, were used to cut, crush and grind food. The abil­i­ty to use tools to process food meant that Homo habilis was not as reliant on large teeth, pow­er­ful jaws and heavy cheek mus­cles as its pre­de­ces­sors. By con­trast, their faces were more slen­der, or gracile, and their teeth small­er than their con­tem­po­rary in South Africa, Paran­thro­pus robus­tus, for exam­ple, which most­ly ate tough vegetation.

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Humans are the last sur­viv­ing species in the genus Homo

It was prob­a­bly the devel­op­ment and use of tools that would save the Homo lin­eage from extinc­tion, as it was able to adapt to changes in the Earth’s cli­mate at the onset of the Pleis­tocene, which was marked by a cycle of ice ages begin­ning about 1.8-million years ago. All togeth­er, Homo habilis lived for more than half a mil­lion years.

The first Homo habilis fos­sil was dis­cov­ered at Oldu­vai Gorge in Tan­za­nia in the ear­ly 1960s. It con­sist­ed of two pari­etal (skull) bones and the low­er jaw of a child. Oth­er exam­ples of Homo habilis are the 1470 skull from East Lake Turkana in Kenya, and the OH 65 max­il­la (upper jaw) from Oldu­vai Gorge in Tanzania.

Homo ergaster

The suc­ces­sor to Homo habilis in the fos­sil record is Homo ergaster, some­times known as ear­ly Homo erec­tus from Africa, which lived between about 2-mil­lion and 1.4-million years ago and had a brain capac­i­ty of about 850 cc to 900 cc (about two-thirds of the size of mod­ern humans).

The first dis­cov­ery of Homo ergaster was made by Trans­vaal Muse­um palaeon­tol­o­gists Dr Robert Broom and John Robin­son at Swartkrans in the Cra­dle of Humankind in 1949, when they found a low­er jaw (mandible) SK 15 and a cra­ni­um SK 847, which was only recog­nised as Homo 20 years lat­er by Ron Clarke.

Palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists believe Homo ergaster was the first human ances­tor to have made Acheulean stone tools, such as hand-axes and cleavers, which were an improve­ment on the ear­li­er Oldowan technology. 

Tools, com­bined with the abil­i­ty to con­trol fire, allowed Homo ergaster to leave Africa for cold­er, north­ern cli­mates. The use of fire allowed for cook­ing, which expand­ed the range and qual­i­ty of foods avail­able to Homo ergaster. It also pro­vid­ed warmth, and a means to ward off predators.

Phys­i­cal characteristics

Homo ergaster was about as tall as mod­ern humans and always walked upright, but still had a few ape-like fea­tures, includ­ing a low fore­head with promi­nent brow ridges, a slight­ly thick­ened jaw and no dis­cernible chin.

The Turkana Boy”, found near Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1984, is the most com­plete Homo ergaster spec­i­men ever dis­cov­ered. The boy, who died at about the age of 12, walked upright, had arms and legs in pro­por­tion to those of a mod­ern human’s and was already 1.6 m (53”) tall.

Homo erec­tus

Homo erec­tus’ most promi­nent fea­tures were its low, angu­lar brain­case with mas­sive browridges, and large brain of up to 1250 cc, which comes close to mod­ern human brain sizes. Most palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists now believe that Homo erec­tus evolved in Asia about 1.6-million years ago, and used its rel­a­tive­ly advanced men­tal capa­bil­i­ties to spread into Europe and Africa.

In 1891, Eugene Dubois found a fos­silised 700,000-year-old Homo erec­tus skull­cap at Trinil on the Solo Riv­er, Java, Indone­sia, and named it Pithecan­thro­pus erec­tus. Lat­er dubbed Java Man”, this is the type spec­i­men for Homo erec­tus. Since then, dozens of Homo erec­tus fos­sils have been recov­ered from Java.

In the 1930s, about 40 Homo erec­tus fos­sils were exca­vat­ed at Zhouk­oudi­an, Chi­na. Orig­i­nal­ly clas­si­fied as Sinan­thro­pus pekinen­sis, and known more pop­u­lar­ly as Peking Man”, the fos­sils date from about 530,000 to 230,000 years ago, and are less robust than the Java specimens.

Although most Homo erec­tus spec­i­mens have been dis­cov­ered in Asia, they have also been found in Africa. Homo erec­tus fos­sils found at Oldu­vai Gorge, Tan­za­nia, date to between 1-mil­lion and 800,000 years ago. Appar­ent ances­tors of Homo erec­tus have been found in Dman­isi, Geor­gia, dat­ing to 1.8-million years ago and hav­ing small brains like Homo habilis. One the­o­ry is that Homo habilis spread into Europe and Asia from about 2-mil­lion years ago, where it evolved into Homo erec­tus, which then spread fur­ther in the north­ern hemi­sphere, as well as back into Africa.

In 1994, a very thick brain­case of Homo erec­tus, frag­ment­ed by a bull­doz­er, was dis­cov­ered in Cepra­no, Italy. Dat­ing to between 900,000 and 740,000 years old, the cra­ni­um shows that Homo erec­tus spread into Europe far ear­li­er than palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gists had at first thought.

Our recent ancestors

Researchers con­tin­ue to inves­ti­gate the links between our­selves, Homo sapi­ens, and var­i­ous Homo species which lived with­in the past 1-mil­lion years.

Homo ante­ces­sor

Homo ante­ces­sor (Latin for pio­neer” or explor­er”), a species dis­cov­ered in Spain dat­ing to about 800,000 years ago, may bridge the gap between Homo erec­tus and Homo hei­del­ber­gen­sis, which lived in Europe between about 600,000 and 300,000 years ago. Homo ante­ces­sor may even be a direct ances­tor of Homo sapi­ens.

Homo sapi­ens idaltu

Homo sapi­ens idal­tu, a more recent ances­tor, was found in Her­to, in Ethiopia, and is dat­ed to about 160,000 years ago. Impor­tant finds of archa­ic (ear­ly) Homo sapi­ens sim­i­lar to Homo sapi­ens idal­tu have also been made at Omo, Ethiopia, dat­ing to about 195,000 years ago, and in South Africa, at Floris­bad in the Free State, dat­ing to about 250,000 years ago. Present fos­sil infor­ma­tion thus sug­gests that our species – Homo sapi­ens – first emerged in East or South­ern Africa.

Homo nale­di

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3D print of the skull of Homo naledi

Homo nale­di was dis­cov­ered in the Dinale­di cave sys­tem in the Cra­dle of Humankind in Sep­tem­ber 2013. The new species was revealed to the world at Maropeng on 10 Sep­tem­ber 2015. The species, which has not yet been dat­ed, was dis­cov­ered as part of the largest col­lec­tion of hominin fos­sils ever found in Africa. Homo nale­di, stood at around 1.5m tall, had a small brain and a prim­i­tive tor­so. Its feet how­ev­er, were remark­ably human-like, and it had pow­er­ful, unique hands.

More intrigu­ing­ly, a large col­lec­tion of Homo nale­di fos­sils of indi­vid­u­als of all ages were dis­cov­ered in remote cave cham­ber in a man­ner that sug­gest­ed that the bod­ies had been delib­er­ate­ly dis­posed of — a trait that has pre­vi­ous­ly been thought to be unique to humans. The dis­cov­ery was cov­ered exten­sive­ly in Nation­al Geo­graph­ic.

Homo hei­del­ber­gen­sis and Homo nean­derthalen­sis

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A repli­ca of a Nean­derthal skull, Le Fer­rasie, in the Maropeng exhibition

In Europe and west­ern Asia, Homo hei­del­ber­gen­sis, a tall, big-boned hominid (see the life-size mod­el of it else­where in the Maropeng exhibiton), gave rise to Homo nean­derthalen­sis, a robust, heavy-boned, mus­cu­lar species, which lived from about 200,000 to 20,000 years ago, becom­ing extinct fol­low­ing the appear­ance there of mod­ern humans.

Homo sapi­ens

From 200,000 to 150,000 years ago, Homo sapi­ens in Africa would have looked much the way we do today, but with more promi­nent browridges. By at least 70,000 years ago, and per­haps ear­li­er, this species was begin­ning to dis­play com­plex behav­iour­al attrib­ut­es which we asso­ciate with our­selves. Both anatom­i­cal and behav­iour­al moder­ni­ty had been achieved by the time Homo sapi­ens start­ed to spread out from Africa to the rest of the world between about 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, in a move­ment known as Out of Africa II”.

Why did Homo emerge?

The rea­sons for the emer­gence of Homo con­tin­ue to be debat­ed. Plau­si­bly, a taller, fin­er-fea­tured hominid would have tak­en advan­tage of an African envi­ron­ment that was chang­ing and open­ing up, with savan­nah replac­ing for­est. Homos longer legs and big­ger brain allowed the species to pur­sue new food sources fur­ther afield.

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