Charles Darwin 62967 960 720

Charles Dar­win

Charles Dar­win (180982) is world-renowned for the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion. He argued the case for nat­ur­al selec­tion – that over time crea­tures which are able to adapt bio­log­i­cal­ly to changes in their envi­ron­ments (in oth­er words, evolve) sur­vive, while those that don’t adapt become extinct.

Dar­win also argued that all species of life on Earth are inter­re­lat­ed and have a com­mon ances­try, dat­ing back to the ear­li­est forms of life.

Evi­dence sup­port­ing this the­o­ry can be seen in hominid fos­sils from the Sterk­fontein Caves and oth­er sites in the Cra­dle of Humankind. These fos­sils show that our ear­ly hominid ances­tors had human-like teeth and could walk on two legs, but that they also had sev­er­al ape-like fea­tures, includ­ing small brains.

Many sci­en­tists believe that hominids diverged from the ape lin­eage between about 8 – mil­lion and 7 – mil­lion years ago.

It’s only in the past 50 years or so, that the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion has received wide-scale accep­tance. But the West­ern world had learnt of the exis­tence of human-like ani­mals, the great apes, in Asia and Africa, by the 18th century.

Carl Lin­naeus, a Swedish botanist who devised a sci­en­tif­ic sys­tem with which to clas­si­fy all liv­ing things in 1735, decid­ed that humans and apes were sim­i­lar enough to be clas­si­fied togeth­er in the zoo­log­i­cal order primates.

Forty years lat­er, James Bur­nett, Lord Mon­bod­do of Scot­land, who was an eccen­tric judge and philoso­pher, sug­gest­ed that humans were relat­ed to orang­utans, and that Africa was humanity’s ances­tral home. Bur­net is now cred­it­ed with being one of the first schol­ars to intro­duce the con­cept of evolution.

In 1859, Charles Dar­win pub­lished his the­o­ry of the evo­lu­tion of species and sug­gest­ed that humans had evolved from old­er, yet to be dis­cov­ered species.

The first fos­sil to be recog­nised as a human ances­tor was a Nean­derthal skull­cap, found in 1856 in Ger­many. In the same year a fos­sil of an ear­ly ape, Dry­op­ithe­cus, was dis­cov­ered in France. A more ancient type of human, Pithecan­thro­pus, lat­er reclas­si­fied as Homo erec­tus and now known pop­u­lar­ly as Java Man”, was found in Java, Indone­sia, in 1891.

In 1924 the skull of the most ape-like human ances­tor yet, the Taung Child, was found in what is now the North West Province of South Africa. It had an ape-sized brain, but human-like teeth.

Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Dart, the anatomist who recog­nised it as a hominid, claimed this fos­sil rep­re­sent­ed a link between apes and humans and named it Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus africanus (“south­ern ape of Africa”). In 1936 palaeon­tol­o­gist Dr Robert Broom found the first adult Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus at Sterkfontein.

It is gen­er­al­ly accept­ed that hominids evolved from an ape in a time known as the Miocene Epoch, more than 7-mil­lion years ago, as the old­est known hominid thus far is the 7-mil­lion-year-old Sahe­lan­thro­pus tchaden­sis from Chad. Oth­er ear­ly hominids are the 6-mil­lion-year-old Orror­in tuge­nen­sis from Kenya and the 5.8-million-year-old Ardip­ithe­cus ramidus kad­ab­ba from Ethiopia.

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