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Early Humans: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The history of humans dates back millions of years into the past, back before humans could use language or tools or even make a fire. Learn about early humans in this lesson.

Our Ancestors

If you have grandparents, you probably noticed at your last family get-together that they've been around for a while. Imagine how old your grandparents' grandparents must have been: maybe they were born 100 years ago or even earlier. Now think back not just 100 years, not just 1,000 years, but over one million years. Your ancestors, the people of the past who are responsible for you being alive today, looked very different than we do today. In fact, some of our earliest ancestors may have looked a lot more like a chimpanzee than a person.

Skull of early human next to modern human
Early human skull

We know about early humans through their fossils, which are bones that have survived through thousands and even millions of years. We've found fossils of early humans just about everywhere, but most come from Africa, where humans first appeared. Some of our ancestors spread out from Africa to new lands, while others stayed close to home.

The First People

One of the best-known early humans is Australopithecus (pronounced oss-tray-lo-PITH-i-kus), who lived in eastern Africa between two and five million years ago -- much longer than modern humans have been around. We know more about them because we've uncovered a lot of their fossils - in fact, we've found fossils of around 300 individuals. They were smaller than us, standing less than five feet tall, and their brains were about a third as large as ours. They stood on two legs, but also had hands that were very useful for grabbing onto tree branches and climbing. One of the first complete Australopithecus fossils discovered was a woman who has been named 'Lucy.'

Skeleton of Lucy
Lucy skeleton

Neanderthals

The closest early humans to you and me were a group called Neanderthals (pronounced nee-AN-der-thals). In fact, they're so similar that scientists still aren't sure if we're the same species or not. Neanderthals lived in Europe and parts of Asia between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago. Neanderthals looked a lot like us, although they were shorter and had wider faces. Just like us, Neanderthals used tools, started fires, and buried their dead. They might also have had some type of spoken language, although there's no way to know for sure (without inventing a time machine).

Rock tool used by early humans
Rock tool

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