The Origins of Humankind

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  • 0:08 Development of Homo Sapiens
  • 0:41 Human Ancestors
  • 2:30 Homo Genus
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the fascinating and diverse species of hominids that belong to the evolutionary tree of humankind, as well as the important developments in its history.

Development of Homo Sapiens

'Where did we come from?' is one of the oldest questions mankind has ever asked. For centuries, early humans developed elaborate stories involving supernatural deities descending from earth to begin humanity or mankind, materializing from the sea, the ground, other creatures; you name it. Only recently - that is, in the last century or two - have we truly been able to discover scientifically how humanity arrived at its current form. In this lesson, we'll discuss those early origins and delve deeper into the characteristics that our species - Homo sapiens - developed to set us on our path to global domination.

Human Ancestors

When humankind's ancestors diverged from their primate cousins in the evolutionary tree is not known exactly. The most important speciation - that one that separated humankind's ancestors from the ancestors of today's chimpanzees - likely occurred between 7 million and 6 million years ago. The earliest specimens found to prove this speciation are from Sahelanthropus tchadensis, an ape-like ancestor who had the ability to walk upright on two legs, but only for limited periods of time. This ability likely gave Sahelanthropus a key advantage over his competitors; with the ability to walk upright at points, Sahelanthropus could see over the tall grasses of the African Savannah and detect the approach of predators.

This ability to walk on two legs - termed bipedalism - grew more and more present in later human ancestors. For example, the bones we have of Australopithecus amensis, which lived around 4.2 million to 3.9 million years ago, show that he probably walked upright more often than not. These early human ancestors likely lived in both the grasslands and the native forests of their ancestors. Though after Australopithecus, humanity's ancestors probably walked upright most of the time, they still maintained many of the abilities that allowed them to easily climb trees.

Later species of the Australopithecus genus were the first to begin using stone tools. This sophisticated manipulation of the environment is another characteristic that set humankind's ancestors apart from its ape cousins. It was likely around 2.6 million years ago, possibly by Australopithecus africanus, when humankind's ancestors first developed stone tools by chipping away softer stones with harder, often rounder stones. They formed these softer stones into cutting implements and other rudimentary tools.

Homo Genus

Soon after mankind's first forays into technology, the first species of our genus, Homo, appeared. Homo habilis was the earliest species of the Homo genus, appearing around 2.4 million years ago. He was originally nicknamed 'the handyman,' as it was thought when the first specimens were found that Homo habilis was the first toolmaker. Nonetheless, Homo habilis walked fully upright. The next major innovation in the development of humankind's ancestors was achieved by the longest living species of the genus, Homo erectus.

Homo erectus existed from about 1.9 million years ago until about 150,000 years ago. Throughout that period, the brain capacity of Homo erectus nearly doubled. Furthermore, Homo erectus was one of the first of humanity's ancestors to venture outside the bounds of Africa, spreading as far as East Asia and Indonesia. Perhaps most importantly, Homo erectus was likely the first human ancestor to harness the use of fire, probably around 800,000 years ago. Fire allowed the cooking of food, which radically changed the diet of mankind's ancestors, as well as offering warmth in colder climates and some protection from predators.

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