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.
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.
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