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The Human Fossil Record & Human Evolution

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  • 0:08 Our Family Tree
  • 1:15 The Genus Australopithecus
  • 1:50 The Genus Homo
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Fossils can help tell the story of how we evolved. This lesson sheds light on our closest relatives from the past and what traits human beings have developed over time. You'll learn about those species that are extinct but who live on in our genes.

Our Family Tree

You may have noticed there is only one species of human being on earth: Homo sapiens. We don't breed with other animals, only with one another. But many other animals have more than one species within their grouping. For instance, 2 species of gorilla, 8 species of bear and more than 100,000 species of flies.

Humans used to live among other species of human. The species were somewhat different from one another, but at times, they may have bred to create offspring. This changed how we evolved.

New species appeared at various points in history as humans adapted to their environment. They developed different traits compared with the other apes. Ultimately, they laid an evolutionary path that helped to create who we are today, as Homo sapiens.

This lesson will cover a few key transitions in the story of the human family. We'll look at the conclusions drawn by scientists from fossils across different time periods and what they tell us about the humans who came before us. There are two groupings we'll focus on: the genus Australopithecus and the genus Homo.

The Genus Australopithecus

Way back, our primate ancestors lived in the trees. Our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, still puts in a good amount of effort up there. But over time (a long, long time, that is), our predecessors departed from this and became more adapted to walking upright on the ground.

The early humans who frequently walked upright are of the genus Australopithecus. They still spent time in trees but not as often as those who came before them. The Australopithecines lived in Africa, the original home of our human family.

The Genus Homo

Through adaptation, migration and interbreeding, other species developed over time. Our own group, genus Homo, developed larger brain sizes and different body features compared with the Australopithecines. This is probably due to the new challenges they faced on the ground and through movement into different regions of Africa and beyond.

There are a few more species in human history than we can cover in one lesson and some categorizations are even up for debate. In this lesson, we'll focus on Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Homo neanderthalensis. Homo erectus and Homo habilis coexisted in Africa a couple of million years ago, followed by Homo neanderthalensis who emerged more recently, relatively speaking.

Homo erectus was more adapted to living on the ground than even the Australopithecines. His legs were long, to help him walk longer distances, and his arms were shorter, since they were no longer swinging from trees. His brain was also bigger. To help you remember his species name, consider that Homo erectus walked erect, or upright, all of the time, and so he had adapted longer legs and shorter arms.

While you might think of these guys as a blip on the evolutionary radar because they're now extinct, they were around a while: more than one and a half million years. To put things in perspective, the species of Homo erectus lived on earth nine times longer than Homo sapiens have so far.

Homo habilis is another species that overlapped in timeframe as Homo erectus for a portion of the species' existence. These humans had smaller teeth and bigger brains than the Australopithecines. Remember Homo habilis by seeing this member of our family as an example of the habit, or trend, of smaller teeth and bigger brains that was part of the evolutionary process leading to humans.

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