The Evolution of Humans: Characteristics & Evolutionary History

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:05 Characteristics of Primates
  • 0:50 Evolution of Primates
  • 1:42 Characteristics of Humans
  • 2:45 Evolution of Humans
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Weber

Danielle teaches high school science and has an master's degree in science education.

Just like other organisms, humans have changed over time. We will look at the evolution of humans as well as connections with our primate relatives, including Old World and New World primates.

Characteristics of Primates

We humans are a very distinct group of animals. However, there are many characteristics that we share with our primate relatives. Primates are mammals with:

  • Forward-looking eyes
  • Hands and feet capable of grasping
  • Large brains
  • Complex social behaviors

The forward-looking eyes, rather than having eyes spaced out to have improved peripheral vision, allow for increased depth perception. The complex social behavior varies greatly within primates, but a common feature among all primates is good prenatal care and care for the young. Another similarity is having fingernails rather than claws such as those that other mammals, like cats and bears, have. All primates also have fingerprints due to small ridges on their fingers.

Evolution of Primates

The earliest primates lived in trees. They used their hands and feet - both capable of grasping - to move between and among trees using the branches and vines. Some also had tails to help maintain balance. A living organism that most closely resembles these early primates is the lemur. These early primates separated into two groups with distinctively different patterns of evolution. The Old World primates reside in Africa and Asia, while the New World primates reside in South America.

Examples of hominoids
Hominoid Examples

The hominoids, a group of primates including gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, began to evolve from an Old World ancestor about 20-25 million years ago. Unlike other primates, such as lemurs and spider monkeys, these hominoids have long arms but short legs and do not have tails.

Characteristics of Humans

We started by looking at the characteristics of primates and a brief overview of their evolution, but let's now specifically look at the characteristics and then the evolution of humans. Humans are bipedal primates that are capable of language, symbolic thought, and both the creation and use of complex tools. 'Bipedal' means 'walking on two feet.' Most of our primate relatives are quadrupeds, meaning they walk on four feet. Humans stand upright and walk on just two feet.

One difference between humans and other primates is that humans have smaller jawbones.
Human Jaws

Humans also have proportionally larger brains than other primates. This increased brain size allows for complex language, symbolism, and creativity. While other primates are capable of using simple tools - such as using a twig to get ants out of an ant hole - humans are able to create and use complex tools, such as cars and computers. Other notable differences between humans and other primates are that humans have drastically smaller jaw bones and jaw muscles due to differences in dietary habits. Humans also have shorter digestive tracts than other primates because of the food that we eat.

Evolution of Humans

Scientists continue to learn more about the evolution of humans and our hominoid ancestors. Currently, more than twenty different species of extinct hominins closely related to humans have been identified. Hominins are hominoids that are related to humans. The oldest distinct hominin is around 6-7 million years old. We won't look at all of these human ancestors but will rather highlight a few distinctive species.

Let's first look at Australopithecus. This hominin lived about two to four million years ago, was bipedal, and had human-like hands and teeth but a small brain. Australopithecus increased the diversity of hominins. You may be familiar with an example of this human ancestor already. The infamous Lucy, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, is a prime example of Australopithecus.

More recent human ancestors belong to our same genus - Homo - indicating a closer genetic relationship. The first known member of our genus was Homo habilis. This ancestor lived 1.6-2.4 million years ago and was called 'handy-man' because of the evidence of advanced tool use.

There is some overlap as to when Homo habilis and Homo erectus lived.
Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis

Homo erectus

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register for a free trial

Are you a student or a teacher?
I am a teacher
What is your educational goal?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 10 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 79 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account
Click "next lesson" whenever you finish a lesson and quiz. Got It
You now have full access to our lessons and courses. Watch the lesson now or keep exploring. Got It
You're 25% of the way through this course! Keep going at this rate,and you'll be done before you know it.
The first step is always the hardest! Congrats on finishing your first lesson. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Way to go! If you watch at least 30 minutes of lessons each day you'll master your goals before you know it. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Congratulations on earning a badge for watching 10 videos but you've only scratched the surface. Keep it up! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You've just watched 20 videos and earned a badge for your accomplishment! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You've just earned a badge for watching 50 different lessons. Keep it up, you're making great progress! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You just watched your 100th video lesson. You have earned a badge for this achievement! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Congratulations! You just finished watching your 200th lesson and earned a badge! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Congratulations! You just finished watching your 300th lesson and earned a badge! Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You are a superstar! You have earned the prestigious 500 video lessons watched badge. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
Incredible. You have just entered the exclusive club and earned the 1000 videos watched badge. Go to Next Lesson Take Quiz
You have earned a badge for watching 20 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 50 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 100 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 250 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 500 minutes of lessons.
You have earned a badge for watching 1000 minutes of lessons.