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.

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

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

from 6 million to 4 million years ago. The footprints provided irrefutable evidence that australopiths regularly walked upright.7 million years ago. fibrous plants. and Chad. Lucy lived 3. in countries including Ethiopia. which thrived in eastern Africa between 3. Several robust . Lucy belongs to a species. afarensis site was discovered in northern Tanzania at Laetoli. and four species of the genusAustralopithecus. is poorly documented in the fossil record. and. and Aripithecus. gracile forms) had evolved. Scientists have found several hundred A. bipedalism or walking on two legs as the primary mode of locomotion. so-called robust australopiths (in contrast to the earlier. powerfully and for long periods. Orrorin. 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.9 million and 3 million years ago. most importantly. Probably the best-known australopith specimen is “Lucy. Another very exciting A. afarensis fossils in Hadar. The name australopithecine means “southern ape. afarensis. By about 2. Australopithicus afarensis. In addition to fossilized bones of A. but those fossils that have been discovered document the most primitive combinations of ape and human features. primarily tough. Tanzania.2 million years ago. Many more australopith fossils have been found in the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa. Kenya. The very early years of the transition from ape to human.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. with wide molars and premolars and a facial structure that indicate that these robust australopiths chewed their food. Among the genera that are included in early australopith species areSahelanthropus. researchers in 1978 discovered trails of bipedal human footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash over 3 million years ago.” in reference to South Africa where the first known fossils were found. Ethiopia.” the partial skeleton of a female discovered in 1974 in Hadar. a species of the genus Kenyanthropus.

3 million to 2. They probably lived from between 2.5 million years ago. They probably overlapped with earlier Homo species. includingNeanderthals and Homo sapiens. Species of earlyHomo. why. how. South Africa. Many scientists have therefore concluded that modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and began spreading to other parts of the world 90.8 million years ago. and the species may have survived for more than 1. and hands capable of making tools.000 years ago. middle. Scientists divide the evolution of the modern human genus into three rough periods: early. although whether. happened about 200. And it was not until about 40. and when this happened is still in dispute. and Israel. The middle Homo species. leading eventually to language. and late. Homo erectus was a very successful species of the middle period. among them Homo habilis. and the last robust australopiths died out about 1. including Homo erectus.000 years ago. with which they overlapped. evolved anatomically to be more similar to modern humans but their brains were relatively small (though bigger than australopiths). Homo sapiens Scientists have dated the oldest known fossils with skeletal features typical of modern humans from 195. Ethiopia. from the middle to late periods. though still small compared to modern humans).6 million years ago. as they developed perhaps between 2 million and 1.000 years ago that . was their significantly larger brains (about 30 percent larger. resembled australopiths in many distinct ways. The final transition.5 million years. more modern-looking feet.species have been identified. and much of Asia. The most significant difference between members of this genus and australopiths.4 million years ago. Early anatomically modern Homo sapiens fossils have come from sites in Sudan.000 years ago or a little earlier. fossils have been found throughout Africa.5 or 2. but they had smaller teeth and jaws. evolved large and complex brains. The Genus Homo The genus Homo first evolved at least 2. and developed culture as an increasingly important aspect of human life. Late Homo species. Europe.3 million and 1.

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

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

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

In this system. offspring themselves capable of reproducing. resulting in fertile offspring -. Bone size. . tools and any other evidence (such as footprints. Scientists classify each species with a unique. two-part scientific name. By studying fossilized bones. evidence of hearths. the remains were buried and preserved naturally. adapt to the environment. By studying this type of evidence. and markings left by muscles tell us how those predecessors moved around. 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. and become extinct. Usually. modern humans are classified as Homo sapiens. many people have come to reconcile their beliefs with the scientific evidence. over millions of years. and how the size of their brains changed over a long time. and wind erosion) or by digging in the ground. They are then found either on the surface (exposed by rain. of the universal and defining traits of our species. held tools.that is. or butchery marks on animal bones) left by earlier people. However. Nevertheless. shape. scientists learn about the physical appearance of earlier humans and how it changed. The process of evolution The process of evolution involves a series of natural changes that cause species (populations of different organisms) to arise. and the world came to be. rivers. the term species refers to a group whose adult members regularly interbreed.paleoanthropology is an exciting scientific field because it investigates the origin. including humans. other living things. Archeological evidence refers to the things earlier people made and the places where scientists find them. archeologists can understand how early humans made and used tools and lived in their environments. These remains include bones. All species or organisms have originated through the process of biological evolution. Early human fossils and archeological remains offer the most important clues about this ancient past. In animals that reproduce sexually.

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

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