Our most direct ances­tors, those who belong to the Homo genus, first emerged about 2.3-million years ago, in Africa.

Mod­ern humans are grouped togeth­er with all ear­li­er species of the zoo­log­i­cal fam­i­ly hominidae as hominids. We are the most recent branch of a fam­i­ly tree that over mil­lions of years has includ­ed dozens of hominid species. But we – Homo sapi­ens – are the only hominids still liv­ing today. We have been around for only about 200,000 years.

Our fam­i­ly tree is rel­a­tive­ly young. Hominids appeared only about 7-mil­lion years ago. By com­par­i­son, the last dinosaurs died out 65-mil­lion years ago. The Earth was formed about 4.6-billion years ago and the uni­verse was born about 14-bil­lion years ago.

Chimpanzee 1589243 960 720

Humans and chim­panzees are close­ly related

Our clos­est relatives

Homo sapi­ens and all our hominid ances­tors belong to the zoo­log­i­cal super­fam­i­ly homi­noidea togeth­er with the apes (chim­panzees, goril­las, bono­bos, orang­utans and gib­bons). Since we are the only sur­viv­ing species in the Homo genus, the great apes are our clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tives. Humans and apes, togeth­er with mon­keys, lemurs, loris­es and tar­siers, belong to the zoo­log­i­cal order Primates.

The genus Homo includes not only Homo sapi­ens, but also many ear­li­er species of Homo that are now extinct, includ­ing Homo habilis, Homo ergaster (in Africa), Homo erec­tus (in Europe and Asia), Homo ante­ces­sor, Homo hei­del­ber­gen­sis and Homo nean­derthalen­sis (in Europe).

Although goril­las, chim­panzees and orang­utans share many anatom­i­cal and genet­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics with Homo sapi­ens, they are not mem­bers of the Homo genus. Chim­panzees are clas­si­fied in the genus Pan, goril­las in the genus Goril­la and orang­utans in the genus Pon­go.

British nat­u­ral­ist and evo­lu­tion­ist Charles Dar­win, who pub­lished his ground­break­ing book, On the Ori­gin of Species in 1859, not­ed that of all the liv­ing pri­mates, chim­panzees and goril­las are most anatom­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar to humans. On the basis of these obser­va­tions, Dar­win pre­dict­ed that ear­ly ances­tors of humankind would be found in Africa.

Decades after Darwin’s death in 1882, he was proven right by dis­cov­er­ies of fos­sil hominids at sites such as Taung in South Africa’s North West Province in 1924 and Sterk­fontein in the Cra­dle of Humankind in the 1930s and 1940s. Since then, dis­cov­er­ies of many thou­sands of fos­sils in Africa have been made, span­ning more than 6-mil­lion years. New hominid fos­sils con­tin­ue to be dis­cov­ered every year.

Dif­fer­ences between humans and apes

The major ways in which humans dif­fer from the great apes are:

  • our bipedal­ism (abil­i­ty to walk per­ma­nent­ly upright on two feet)
  • our hands with long, oppos­able thumbs (thumbs that are able to touch the tips of fin­gers on the same hand with their tips)
  • our use of com­plex lan­guage to communicate
  • our intel­li­gence
  • our abil­i­ty to design and make tools to a pattern
  • our com­plex culture

As a species, we have been suc­cess­ful because we are gen­er­al­ists – we are able to adapt to dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments. For exam­ple, we eat most things, and are able to thrive in a vari­ety of habi­tats, from coast­lines to moun­tain­tops, from trop­i­cal forests to arc­tic, freez­ing conditions.

The great apes such as goril­las and orang­utans (which means old man of the for­est”), how­ev­er, are threat­ened by changes in their habi­tats brought on by human devel­op­ment and expan­sion and by humans killing them for meat and oth­er reasons.

Return to the Exhi­bi­tion Guide.