Human Evolution

—By Karen Barss

The story of human evolution began in Africa about six million years ago and it describes the very long process that our ancestors went through to ultimately become modern humans. This process has been uncovered by studying fossils and understanding the underlying theory of evolution, and while new fossils are uncovered every decade revealing new chapters, scientists agree about the basic story.

What Is Evolution?
Evolution means the changes that occur in a population over time. In this definition, a “population” means a group of the samespecies that share a specific location and habitat. Evolutionary changes always occur on the genetic level. In other words, evolution is a process that results in changes that are passed on or inherited from generation to generation. It does not, for example, describe how people can change their muscle mass by lifting weights. When successful, these genetic changes or adaptations, which happen when genes mutate and/or combine in different ways during reproduction, help organisms survive, reproduce, and raise offspring. Some individuals inherit characteristics that make them more successful at surviving and having babies. These advantageous characteristics tend to appear more frequently in the population (because those individuals with less advantageous characteristics are more likely to die without reproducing), and over time these changes become common throughout that population, ultimately leading to new species.

5% of the genes in people and chimpanzees are identical.e. Only a Theory? Some people dismiss evolution as “just a theory. but any two species may be separated by millions or even billions of years of evolution. can manipulate very small objects. a scientific theory.The Tree of Life Biological evolution explains the way all living things evolved over billions of years from a single common ancestor. making us very. which says that all living things are made up of cells. We are therefore related to these other living primates. people have elaborate forms of communication and culture. but we did not descend from them. In everyday use. This concept is often illustrated by the so-called tree of life. Our Common Ancestor . and can speak. the word has an entirely different meaning. which says the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around. and heliocentric theory. the word theory often means a guess or a rough idea: “My theory is…” “I have a theory about that. but it does not mean that humans evolved from chimps. In science. very distant cousins. So ultimately. Modern humans differ from apes in many significant ways. and people habitually walk upright. a theory is an overarching explanation used to describe some aspect of the natural world that is supported by overwhelming evidence.” Evolution is in fact a theory. What it does indicate is that humans share a common ancestor with modern African apes (i.” But among scientists. all life is interconnected. Human brains are larger and more complex. This finding means chimps are the closest living biological relatives to humans. Every branch on the tree represents a species. some people have been stunned to learn that about 98. The fork separating one species from another represents the common ancestor that each pair of species shared. The Relationship between Apes and Humans Since scientists developed the ability to decode the genome and compare the genetic makeup of species. gorillas and chimpanzees).. Other scientific theories include cell theory.

in fact. one ultimately evolving into gorillas and chimps. Still others are most likely direct ancestors of modern humans or Homo sapiens.7 million years ago. Then two species broke off into separate lineages. . Most scientists believe early humans migrated out of Africa into Asia between 2 million and 1. While scientists agree on the concept of a common ancestor. given that the fossil record will never be 100% complete. Even so. While scientists still do not know the total number of hominid species that existed. The fossils of these early hominids. all come from that continent. this missing link would be the fossil of our common ancestor. The Fossil Record Fossils are the remains or impressions of living things hardened in rock. What follows are some highlights of the early human species that have been identified by scientists to date. the fossil record provides a fairly good outline of human evolutionary history. which is where much of human evolution occurred. In fact. although many of these species are close relatives but not actual ancestors of modern humans. What about the Missing Link? The idea of a missing link has persisted. In the popular imagination. when in fact the sequence of evolution is much more complicated. reflected in the fossil discoveries ofpaleoanthropologists. but it is not actually a scientific term. the word implies that evolution is a straight chain of events.Most scientists believe our common ancestor existed 5 to 8 million years ago. Also. the other evolving into early humans called hominids. the fossil record does not represent a straight line of ancestry at all. because new fossils are discovered every decade. The earliest humans were found in Africa. the story of human evolution becomes clearer all the time. All living organisms have not been preserved in the fossil record. entering Europe some time within the past 1 million years. many of these early hominids left no descendents and simply died out. which lived 2 to 6 million years ago. deciding which fossil represents that actual species is challenging if not impossible. In the millions of years that followed. at least a dozen different species of humanlike creatures have existed. most have not because very specific conditions must exist in order to create fossils.

Another very exciting A.Australopithecines An African apelike species evolved probably around 6 million years ago with two skeletal characteristics that set it apart from apes: small canine teeth (the teeth on either side of the four front teeth) compared to the long canines found in almost all other primates. researchers in 1978 discovered trails of bipedal human footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash over 3 million years ago. bipedalism or walking on two legs as the primary mode of locomotion. which thrived in eastern Africa between 3.9 million and 3 million years ago.” in reference to South Africa where the first known fossils were found. Australopithicus afarensis. a species of the genus Kenyanthropus. so-called robust australopiths (in contrast to the earlier.2 million years ago. and. Tanzania.7 million years ago. afarensis fossils in Hadar. Kenya. and four species of the genusAustralopithecus. in countries including Ethiopia. Scientists have found several hundred A. afarensis site was discovered in northern Tanzania at Laetoli. is poorly documented in the fossil record. from 6 million to 4 million years ago. with wide molars and premolars and a facial structure that indicate that these robust australopiths chewed their food. fibrous plants. In addition to fossilized bones of A. powerfully and for long periods. The very early years of the transition from ape to human. Orrorin. Lucy lived 3. but those fossils that have been discovered document the most primitive combinations of ape and human features. Several robust . Among the genera that are included in early australopith species areSahelanthropus. The footprints provided irrefutable evidence that australopiths regularly walked upright. By about 2. most importantly. primarily tough. afarensis. Ethiopia.” the partial skeleton of a female discovered in 1974 in Hadar. Lucy belongs to a species. Many more australopith fossils have been found in the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa. gracile forms) had evolved. and Chad. The name australopithecine means “southern ape. Probably the best-known australopith specimen is “Lucy. and Aripithecus. Fossils from different early australopith species that lived between 4 million and 2 million years ago show a variety of adaptations that mark this transition much more clearly.

as they developed perhaps between 2 million and 1. Scientists divide the evolution of the modern human genus into three rough periods: early.4 million years ago. leading eventually to language. The Genus Homo The genus Homo first evolved at least 2. Many scientists have therefore concluded that modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and began spreading to other parts of the world 90. fossils have been found throughout Africa.000 years ago. and developed culture as an increasingly important aspect of human life. was their significantly larger brains (about 30 percent larger.3 million to 2. why. though still small compared to modern humans). and late. but they had smaller teeth and jaws. The final transition. including Homo erectus.000 years ago or a little earlier. among them Homo habilis. South Africa. Homo erectus was a very successful species of the middle period. Europe.5 or 2. Early anatomically modern Homo sapiens fossils have come from sites in Sudan. Late Homo species. and the species may have survived for more than 1. Homo sapiens Scientists have dated the oldest known fossils with skeletal features typical of modern humans from 195.8 million years ago. happened about 200. And it was not until about 40.000 years ago that . resembled australopiths in many distinct ways. and hands capable of making tools. includingNeanderthals and Homo sapiens. and when this happened is still in dispute. and much of Asia.5 million years ago. The most significant difference between members of this genus and australopiths. from the middle to late periods. evolved large and complex brains.6 million years ago. with which they overlapped.3 million and 1. Species of earlyHomo. evolved anatomically to be more similar to modern humans but their brains were relatively small (though bigger than australopiths). middle. more modern-looking feet. They probably lived from between 2. Ethiopia. and Israel. although whether.5 million years. They probably overlapped with earlier Homo species.000 years ago. The middle Homo species. how. and the last robust australopiths died out about 1.species have been identified.

5 billion years old. human evolution has been primarily cultural as opposed to biological. Over time. Since that time. Similarly. but an entirely different creature). As mentioned earlier. which could not possibly have been formed by numerous.Natural Selection While Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a relatively young archetype. In a nutshell. Darwin's Theory of Evolution . slight modifications. Natural selection is the naturalistic equivalent to domestic breeding. is only about 40.. although some scientists have discovered evidence that life may have begun nearly 4 billion years ago.. The oldest known fossils are about 3.The Premise Darwin's Theory of Evolution is the widely held notion that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor: the birds and the bananas. Breeders eliminate undesirable traits gradually over time.4 million years old. she can never take a great and sudden leap." [1] Thus. Putting Human Evolution in Perspective Humans have existed for only a tiny fraction of Earth’s history. but must advance by short and sure.Slowly But Surely. Natural selection is the preservation of a functional advantage that enables a species to compete better in the wild. "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed. The inferior (disadvantaged) members of the same species would gradually die out. as random genetic mutations occur within an organism's genetic code. complex creatures evolve from more simplistic ancestors naturally over time. Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a slow gradual process.all related. Its offspring would inherit that advantage and pass it on to their offspring. my theory would absolutely break down. successive. Darwin's Theory of Evolution . Scientists believe Earth itself is approximately 4. Darwin conceded that. natural selection eliminates inferior species gradually over time. That is." [2] Such a complex organ . And yet. the species to which we belong. Over the centuries. Darwin wrote.55 billion years old. leaving only the superior (advantaged) members of the species. beneficial mutations accumulate and the result is an entirely different organism (not just a variation of the original. scientists estimate that the earliest hominid species diverged from the ape lineage between 5 and 8 million years ago. though slow steps." These beneficial mutations are passed on to the next generation. Charles Darwin simply brought something new to the old philosophy -. Dinosaurs walked Earth between 230 and 65 million years ago. Homo sapiens sapiens. human breeders have produced dramatic changes in domestic animal populations by selecting individuals to breed. The oldest known humanlike fossil has been dated at 4. Homo sapiens sapiens. the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival -. "…Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations. not yet confirmed as a hominid. has been dated at about 6 million years old. the evolutionary worldview itself is as old as antiquity. the fishes and the flowers -.a process known as "natural selection. emerged. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaximander postulated the development of life from non-life and the evolutionary descent of man from animal. Darwin's general theory presumes the development of life from non-life and stresses a purely naturalistic (undirected) "descent with modification". Darwin's Theory of Evolution . although another species." Natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations.000 years old.a plausible mechanism called "natural selection.anatomically modern humans. Suppose a member of a species developed a functional advantage (it grew wings and learned to fly).

emerged mainly during the past 100. art.the ability to walk on two legs -evolved over 4 million years ago. a powerful spring. weighing less than 10 grams. bipedalism -. If any one of these parts is missing. and elaborate cultural diversity -." [5] And we don't need a microscope to observe irreducible complexity.such as a large and complex brain. seems. absurd in the highest degree. "To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances. a thin rod called "the hammer. Darwin confessed. biochemistry and genetics over the past fifty years. "Although the tiniest bacterial -12 cells are incredibly small. Many advanced traits -. and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration. and the capacity for language -developed more recently. though they were not recognized as such in Darwin's day. each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery. and a platform to mount the trap." a holding bar to secure the hammer in place. the ability to make and use tools. It is composed of five basic parts: a catch (to hold the bait). made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms. [4] Darwin's Theory of Evolution . Other important human characteristics -. The common mousetrap is an everyday non-biological example of irreducible complexity. such a system could not have evolved slowly. [3] Thus.would be known as an "irreducibly complex system". The mousetrap is irreducibly complex. far more complicated than any machinery built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world.including complex symbolic expression. Each individual part is integral. piece by piece. . Every individual part is integral.000 years. the mechanism will not work. all of which are necessary for the system to function. Molecular biologist Michael Denton wrote. Specified complexity pervades the microscopic biological world. Scientific evidence shows that the physical and behavioral traits shared by all people originated from apelike ancestors and evolved over a period of approximately six million years. the entire system will fail to function. We now know that there are in fact tens of thousands of irreducibly complex systems on the cellular level. for admitting different amounts of light. An irreducibly complex system is one composed of multiple parts.A Theory In Crisis Darwin's Theory of Evolution is a theory in crisis in light of the tremendous advances we've made in molecular biology. could have been formed by natural selection. One of the earliest defining human traits. Nevertheless. If even one part is missing. the ear and the heart are all examples of irreducible complexity. I freely confess. The eye." [6] Introduction to Human Evolution Human evolution Human evolution is the lengthy process of change by which people originated from apelike ancestors.

The field involves an understanding of the similarities and differences between humans and other species in their genes. and about what factors influenced the evolution and extinction of each species.share a common ancestor that lived between 8 and 6 million years ago. They entered Europe somewhat later. physiology. between 1. For instance. society. and limitations of all people. tendencies. .Homo sapiens. however. For many people. Many early human species -. people first came to Australia probably within the past 60. Physical and genetic similarities show that the modern human species.Humans are primates. or so-called “pygmy chimpanzees”) and gorillas -. Paleoanthropology Paleoanthropology is the scientific study of human evolution. the study of human culture. and biology. the apes.000 years and to the Americas within the past 30. Scientists do not all agree. Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1. The fossils of early humans who lived between 6 and 2 million years ago come entirely from Africa.chimpanzees (including bonobos. They seek to discover how evolution has shaped the potentials.certainly the majority of them – left no living descendants. has a very close relationship to another group of primate species. Scientists also debate over how to identify and classify particular species of early humans. Paleoanthropologists search for the roots of human physical traits and behavior. body form.000 years. Humans first evolved in Africa.000 years or so. Paleoanthropology is a subfield of anthropology. and much of human evolution occurred on that continent.5 million and 1 million years.8 million years ago. and behavior. about how these species are related or which ones simply died out. Most scientists currently recognize some 15 to 20 different species of early humans. Species of modern humans populated many parts of the world much later. Humans and the great apes (large apes) of Africa -. The beginnings of agriculture and the rise of the first civilizations occurred within the past 12.

rivers. held tools. In animals that reproduce sexually. archeologists can understand how early humans made and used tools and lived in their environments. and the world came to be. modern humans are classified as Homo sapiens. some people find the concept of human evolution troubling because it can seem not to fit with religious and other traditional beliefs about how people. All species or organisms have originated through the process of biological evolution. . adapt to the environment. and become extinct. Bone size. and wind erosion) or by digging in the ground. many people have come to reconcile their beliefs with the scientific evidence. Early human fossils and archeological remains offer the most important clues about this ancient past. and markings left by muscles tell us how those predecessors moved around. Usually. offspring themselves capable of reproducing. of the universal and defining traits of our species. tools and any other evidence (such as footprints. and how the size of their brains changed over a long time.paleoanthropology is an exciting scientific field because it investigates the origin. resulting in fertile offspring -. By studying fossilized bones. evidence of hearths. By studying this type of evidence. shape. However. including humans. other living things. Archeological evidence refers to the things earlier people made and the places where scientists find them. The process of evolution The process of evolution involves a series of natural changes that cause species (populations of different organisms) to arise. These remains include bones. the remains were buried and preserved naturally. the term species refers to a group whose adult members regularly interbreed. two-part scientific name. They are then found either on the surface (exposed by rain.that is. Scientists classify each species with a unique. scientists learn about the physical appearance of earlier humans and how it changed. In this system. over millions of years. Nevertheless. or butchery marks on animal bones) left by earlier people.

Genes affect how the body and behavior of an organism develop during its life. and where it can live. which may work well until the environment changes. such as what it eats. Over time. genetic change can alter a species' overall way of life. As a result.which is inherited from the parents. Human evolution took place as new genetic variations in early ancestor populations favored new abilities to adapt to environmental change and so altered the human way of life . Parents pass adaptive genetic changes to their offspring. Information contained in the DNA can change by a process known asmutation. the offspring inherit those genetic characteristics that enhance their chances of survival and ability to give birth.Evolution occurs when there is change in the genetic material -.the chemical molecule. DNA -. and this is why genetically inherited characteristics can influence the likelihood of an organism’s survival and reproduction. how it grows.can also change. how they influence the body or behavior of an organism -. it changes the inherited means of growth and development that typify a population (a group of individuals of the same species living in a particular habitat). and especially in the proportions of different genes in a population. Instead. The way particular genes are expressed – that is. Genes represent the segments of DNA that provide the chemical code for producing proteins. Evolution does not change any single individual. and ultimately these changes become common throughout a population.

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