African Ancestors & Human Movement Out of Africa

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson, you're going to learn how we realized humans evolved in Africa and how it is that people spread out of Africa and to the rest of the world.

Human Ancestry

Do you like hearing or reading about your ancestors? Maybe they were rich bankers or maybe they were bank robbers. Perhaps you, like seemingly everyone else, are related to Queen Elizabeth II?

Well, regardless of what your recent ancestry looks like, all of us share some common aspects of our entire ancestry. That is, who our earliest ancestors were and how we moved out of Africa.

Earliest Human Ancestors in Africa

It wasn't all that long ago that people believed that humans had evolved somewhere in Europe or Asia. Now, most scientists agree that the earliest evolutionary human ancestors, and modern humans themselves, actually evolved in Africa.

A lot of our understanding about the early origins and evolution of humans comes from the discoveries and work of Mary and Louis Leakey, a husband and wife team of paleoanthropologists who discovered important fossils and footprints in Africa that helped paint a picture of how humans developed in Africa.

For instance, teams led by the Leakeys uncovered and helped classify important fossils, including that of:

  • Proconsul africanus, which has served as a model for early human ancestors
  • Australopithecus boisei
  • Homo habilis, which roughly translates as the tool user or handy man.
  • Homo rudolfensis

These discoveries helped scientists paint a picture of human evolution, an evolution that eventually led to the development of Homo sapiens, which means wise man, and is the scientific name for our human species.

Donald Johanson, a paleoanthropologist, and Tom Gray, a graduate student, also discovered the famed Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia in 1974. This was a skeleton of a then unknown ape-like hominid. Now it is classified as Australopithecus afarensis.

Reconstruction depicting a female Australopithecus afarensis
Lucy A. afarensis reconstruction

What these discoveries showed the world was that not only have early evolutionary human ancestors been around for millions of years but that the majority of the evolution of our earliest ancestors, and modern humans in general, actually occurred in Africa.

Some traits of our early ancestors included:

  • The ability to more easily climb trees than modern humans.
  • Starting out with Homo habilis, consistently larger brains than that of the great apes.
  • As our early brains (and thus skulls) got bigger, smaller mouths and teeth developed when compared to, for example, the genus Australopithecus (which is itself an evolutionary ancestor of the genus Homo).
  • Relatively long arms compared to modern man existed in Homo habilis, an early ancestor of ours.
  • A modern human body size and proportions that started to first appear with Homo erectus.

Migration out of Africa

So, why did the earliest modern humans leave Africa if that was their home and the home of their early evolutionary ancestors for such a long time?

Scientists believe the migration of modern humans out of Africa occurred roughly 60,000-70,000 years ago, although some scientists believe this happened much earlier.

We're not sure why humans decided to leave, but it is believed that a major change in the Earth's climate was occurring at that time. Specifically, there was a sudden cooling going on that made life difficult for our human ancestors, so much so that few of them survived.

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