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Homo Sapiens: Meaning & Evolutionary History

Instructor: Dominic Corsini
This lesson covered the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. It traces our roots back to Africa and includes key terminology on fossils, species, and bipedalism.

A History of Us

What does it mean to be human? That's a tough question to answer, even for experienced scholars. Entire books -- even entire PhD programs -- have been devoted to answering that single question. Is being human a question rooted in biology? Or is it better addressed from a cultural or religious perspective? Different people may argue for different approaches, but for the purposes of this lesson we're going to focus on the biological angle.

When we talk about ourselves, we generally refer to ourselves as being 'human.' I can understand this, but cannot completely agree with it. That's because there have been several different types of 'human' alive on this planet. A more accurate way to reference ourselves is as Homo sapiens. Homo sapien is the scientific name we assign to modern humans.

H. sapiens occupy a unique place in the grand scheme of life. We are mammals. More specifically we are primates, similar to other primates such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Yet, despite the similarity, H. sapiens are unique. Have a look below.

Evolutionary Relationship of Primates
Cladogram

See us over on the right side? This picture shows the evolutionary relationship between different primates. Apes, like those mentioned above, are closely related to us. Monkeys (both old world and new world) are a little more distantly related than apes. Lemurs are still more distant. This photo should provide you with the larger perspective. The thing to remember for this lesson is that we're focusing on just the tiny line that contains humans. That segment can be expanded on to show our unique evolutionary history.

Where We Come From

Before getting a detailed look at our evolutionary line, you might ask -- how do we even know about extinct life forms? One of the answers to this question is fossils. Fossils are the preserved remains or impressions from long dead life forms. They often come from mineralized bone or impressions in mud that later turned to rock. Scientists have spent a considerable amount of time searching for the fossilized remains of prehistoric humans. And despite the long odds of something actually becoming a fossil, they've managed to find a few.

Several different ideas have been presented with respect to our evolutionary history. However, as more evidence was uncovered, a clearer picture started to emerge. Based on that evidence, the evolution of H. sapiens likely begins in Africa.

What do you picture when you think of Africa? Do you see a hot sun and open grasslands? That actually isn't the African landscape that existed when our species evolved. A species is a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. The Africa that existed at that time was more lush jungle than open grassland.

Lone Survivors

One of the earliest members of our lineage was a species known as Australopithecus afarensis. Yeah, it's a mouthful to pronounce. So let's simplify things and use her nickname: Lucy. Scientists were able to recover a reasonable amount of Lucy's skeleton. Her skeleton was just shy of 4 million years old, and it was shorter than modern man. It had longer arms and other ancient features, but was undoubtedly bipedal. Bipedal means she walked upright on two legs. This is a key feature in our lineage.

Hominid Evolution, with Lucy at the bottom.
Hominid lineage

Scientists continued to uncover prehistoric remains from other members of our lineage (also referred to as hominids). Slowly, they began to fill in the gaps until a better picture of our past emerged. Eventually we came to recognize several key species from our past. Lucy's species lived in Africa and, over time, gave rise to other hominid species. One of the key ones is called as Homo habilis. We have evidence of this species using stone tools. That's another major advancement in our evolutionary past.

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